By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: James Salzman
Narrated by: Lee Hahn
James Salzman makes a case for “Drinking Water” as the 21st century’s most underappreciated and coveted natural resource. Without food, you die in 3 weeks; without water, you die in 3 days. Unlike food productivity, clean water technology lags behind human population. The facts seem quite clear but solutions are elusive.
Salzman reflects on the ancient origin of bottled water. While coveted in the past for religious and medicinal benefit, bottled water is ubiquitous today. Contrary to many people’s understanding, public water systems are more stringently regulated for contamination than private water bottle distributors.
It is as unlikely to ingest known carcinogens from American public water as privately bottled water. Salzman notes that neither distribution system guarantees non-carcinogenic water because no water source is perfectly pure. But public water systems, particularly in the U. S., require frequent testing for quality and safety. Public water systems regularly test water for known carcinogens, while private bottling systems are largely self-regulated.
Salzman recounts a history of Perrier as a company that had to recall their product when it was initially suggested as a standard of measurement for the quality of an American city’s water system. Perrier, when tested, was found to have unacceptable levels of arsenic in its bottled water. Perrier corrected the problem but no one would have been the wiser without America’s mistake in suggesting and then testing Perrier as a standard for water quality.
Salzman explores terrorist threats to public water systems without being unduly hyperbolic. There is potential for introduction of germs or other carcinogenic substances but water systems are either aggregated in defined spaces or drawn from aquifers that guarantee significant dilution before delivery to consumers. These two conditions do not mean death cannot be a result of a terrorist act but mass murder from contamination is probabilistic, if not unlikely.
The more likely threat to a water system is pollution. Salzman argues that runoff from industrialization and new technologies like fracking are a bigger threat to water source contamination than radicals’ sabotage. However, even with intent or inadvertent contamination, Salzman suggests water treatment improvements can turn fouled water into drinking water. The key is early detection, and immediate water service interruption, at least, until a technological fix can be executed.
Water, like food, is necessary for life’s sustenance. Incidents involving American and Canadian natural water sources are given as examples of protectionist tendencies on the part of local populations. Salzman tells the story of a mountain town in America where a bottle manufacturer (Nestle) offers to buy river water from the town. The price offered is pennies on the dollar for every bottle manufactured, and jobs for a town hurt by decline in the lumber industry. The town rises up in arms at the low-ball offer and objects to an outsider’s virtual theft of the community’s natural resource. A similar story is told of the Canadian government’s objection to use of Lake Superior’ water for desperate communities in undeveloped countries. The private non-profit organization formed to suggest the plan is quashed by Canada’s objection to the use of Lake Superior’s water.
Salzman catalogs the labor-laden plight of undeveloped or rapidly industrializing nation-states in their search for “clean” water. Water pollution causes great hardship and death in third-world nations. In many of these countries, there are no water lines within communities. Every drop of water must be carried from its source to a family’s home for drinking, cooking, and bathing. In many cases the source of water is not only distant, but polluted. In a March 2010 “World Water Day” report, it is estimated that 2 million tons of sewage, industrial waste, and agricultural chemicals are discharged into the world’s water.
America is also threatened by what is happening in the undeveloped world. The threat is both the same and different. It is the same in that water is needed to live. It is different in that the convenience established in the United States for water distribution and water treatment are compromised. Without question, America is far ahead of most countries in water distribution, treatment, and quality control but the infrastructure, according to Salzman, is old, falling apart, and causing contamination because of waste infiltration near water resources (see Camp Lejeune, North Carolina) and public distribution system failures (see Flint, Michigan water crises). The EPA estimates “…$335 billion is required to replace aging water infrastructure over the next 20 years.”
Salzman shows that solutions for these water crises are elusive and politically complicated. Solutions range from desalinization of sea water to pushing icebergs to continental seaports. There is the idea of treating sewage to provide “clean” drinking water. There is the idea of mining water from asteroids or other planets. There is utilizing better conservation measures. There is the idea of privatizing water production to incentivize the business community to enter the water business. There is the idea of raising prices for water to incentivize the consumer to be less wasteful. There is technological improvement that removes carcinogens from accumulated rain water and contaminated aquifers. Every solution has its drawbacks; most of which revolve around cost and fair distribution of this essential ingredient of life; i.e. water for human survival.
Solutions to the world water crises can only be implemented through politics and political will. The question is–Are humans up to the task without resorting to their baser instincts; i.e. like war and a misunderstanding of Herbert Spenser’s interpretation of Darwin’s survival of the fittest?