Book Review: THE BIG THIRST

If you have any doubts that the world is facing a dire – and worsening – water crisis, Charles Fishman will eliminate them.  Fishman, writer for Fast Company and author of The Wal-Mart Effect, turns his attention to the state of global water in The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.

Fishman covers much ground, starting all the way back with an explanation of how water even came to exist on the planet (answer:  it came from space) and its characteristics that make it, unquestionably, the most important substance on earth.

But the real story Fishman tells is that of the human relationship to water.  For most people who have ever lived on the planet, the relationship has been a dominant and often challenging one.  Water has almost always come at a high cost, whether measured in hours per day to collect it, risk of illness or percentage of income.

This poses a dramatic contrast to the current North American situation where the vast majority of the population has experienced a lifetime of a virtually uninterrupted, unlimited, supply of seemingly free water service.  In Fishman’s words “our very success with water has allowed us to become water illiterate.” 

This water illiteracy has become so prevalent that a large majority of people in the US and Canada have no idea of where their water comes from and the steps taken to make it safe. This situation, which Fishman dubs “a golden age of water” is already coming to an end.

In its description of the history, challenges and future of water, The Big Thirst is compelling, engaging, meticulously documented and ultimately persuasive.

While reading the book, I felt a growing concern that the environmental consequences of water scarcity were going to remain unmentioned only to  be surprised (and impressed) by the endorsement of a three tiered water priority system that would place environment first, critical human needs second and other commercial uses third.

Where the book begins to falter is in the discussion of solutions.  Rigorous investigation and analysis turns flabby and glancing.   The obvious observation that “need to value water more” leads directly, and without consideration or nuance, into a simplistic prescription to just pay more for water.   Moreover, pricing water through thoughtful policy decisions and setting up a system of tradable water rights are conflated.

The challenges of water pricing and water markets could fill a book (and has – see Carl J. Bauer’s Against the Current).    Suffice it to say that there’s still a heated debate whether markets could ever adequately function as a water allocation mechanism at all, and past experience proves that poorly designed market policies will make the situation worse.

The failure of The Big Thirst to even acknowledge, let alone engage, the challenges of the solutions he advocates is the book’s biggest failing.   Tellingly, two of the experiences Fishman lauds have become ensnared in controversy since the publication of the book.   Las Vegas’ water rights purchases have been rocked by arrests in a $1.3 million dollar bribery scheme.   Australia’s water trading market was halted in one of the main basins to protect growers.

It’s difficult for me to decide where to come down on The Big Thirst.   The majority of the book is compelling and could have led to a much needed conversation.   But, instead, it ends providing all the answers, jumping over any debate in the process.

(Randy Christensen received no consideration for this review and purchased the book himself).

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One Response to “Book Review: THE BIG THIRST”

  1. barbara hendriks June 13, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

    Thanks Randy for doing the Barrie Waterfest weekend – unfortunately counldn’t be in town for it. more details, sources? merci encore B

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