Review: The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman (2011 book)

This is a book full of surprisingly interesting water trivia but with a serious purpose, describing how in many places ready access to fresh water is becoming increasingly difficult. Of course, you’d expect someone named Fishman to know something about water...

Actually, this Fishman is a former reporter for The News & Observer of Raleigh whose previous book was a best-seller about Wal-Mart. This book grew out of an article he did on bottled water — which, he points out, is subject to far less rigorous standards and testing than tap water. (Incidentally, it appears that just about the best water for drinking is tap water filtered through activated charcoal, for example in a Brita pitcher. This will take out even the stuff that gets through some municipal filtration, such as residues of some medication.)

Fishman not only provides extensive endnotes but takes pains to include in them not just his sources, including when possible easily checkable web links, but also the calculations he did to derive some of the numbers mentioned in the text. The only actual error I noticed was his description of water molecules, which are electrostatically polar, as “magnets.”

A lot of what he reports is close to depressing, as when an Australian city’s voters rejected a proposal to discharge highly purified sewer water into the same lake — which was slowly drying up — that the city used for its water supply. It’s obvious why the idea would initially sound awful, but in fact the treated wastewater would be a great deal purer than the water already being pumped out of the lake, which is flavored with all manner of wildlife excretions and dead animals. For that matter, many cities draw water out of rivers into which other cities upstream have dumped their wastewater, invariably after far less treatment than was planned here, But rumors and emotions run wild have a way of trumping actual facts, and the city in question wound up spending far more money to arrange to have water pumped in from elsewhere, and amusingly enough that water will itself likely contain treated sewer waste.

The fresh-water situation in the third world is particularly horrific. Millions upon millions of people spend as much as several hours a day fetching and carrying gallons of water — which weigh over 8 pounds each in U.S. units — from the nearest water source, often miles away. Even then, much of the water is contaminated, something that accounts for a huge portion of the difference in human life expectancy and infant mortality between countries. Those tasked with getting their families’ water — usually women and girls — often have little time for anything else, including schooling or paid work.

In India only one large city has full-time water service. Elsewhere it’s turned on neighborhood-by-neighborhood for a few hours at a time. Since the aging, leaky pipes are buried next to sewer pipes and the water mains aren’t under pressure most of the day, there tends to be cross-contamination with raw sewage. Decades ago India’s water service was much better than it is now, and it continues to deteriorate. And we’re talking about a country soon to become the most populous on Earth, one with booming economic growth and literally millions of scientists and engineers.

Southern California’s farmland is mostly desert irrigated from the same source that supplies Las Vegas, but at a far lower cost per gallon. But Las Vegas itself has made remarkable strides in improving efficiency and reducing its water use per capita, for the most part relatively painlessly for its inhabitants. There’s other good news as well. Many of the problems are solvable without spending vast amounts of money. Of course, people are often reluctant to spend anything at all, since we tend to think that water ought to be free.

Fishman suggests pricing water on a scale based on consumption, so that everyone can afford to get the water they really need, but heavy use and outright waste will cost more. This would encourage everyone to conserve and also make money available to repair and modernize the existing water infrastructure.

(Updated 2015 July 4 to fix some typos and clarify some wording. Note that the book and the review were written before the current water crisis in California, which further underscores Fishman's points about the need to do something about our water supply here in the U.S. and throughout the world.)

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