I am reading Steve Solomon's "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" (HarperCollins 2010) from a perhaps wholly unique vantage point. I live in Kathmandu, Nepal, and I bet I am the only guy in all of Nepal--population 30 million--reading Solomon's "Water." Which is a shame. It is the dry season here, and that means that the rivers are low and we have not had any rain in more than three months. This means the well in my backyard is dry--which means I have to buy a tank load of water from a water truck about every ten days. This costs 1700 Nepali rupees--or about $25. Few of Kathmandu's four million residents can afford this.
And of course, because the Himalayan glaciers have been melting in recent decades, the river flows through Nepal's hydropower stations have been generating less electricity. And yet, energy demand is growing--so we have what the Nepal Electricity Authority calls "load-shedding" through most of the year. Only during the summer monsoon season do we have enough power to service the needs of Kathmandu consumers. At the moment, we have no electricity at all for 11 hours each day. So I have a large generator in the backyard that consumes diesel at the rate of $4 an hour to power our appliances. Most Nepalis, of course, cannot afford the diesel--on top of which there are sometimes shortages even of diesel. And so we have a stack of "inverter batteries" that charge themselves off the electrical grid when there is power and drain in about four hours when the electricity is off. All of this is because of a growing shortage of water.
As you can imagine, I am interested in water. Solomon's book puts all of this in deep historical perspective. Civilizations everywhere over time have risen and fallen based on their access to water. And his book makes it clear that water is a global issue. I am struck by how compelling a case Solomon makes that water is the "new oil." I have just finished writing a new book, a memoir of my childhood in the Middle East. ("Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs & Israelis, 1956-1978" will be released on April 27, 2010.) Solomon reminds me that both the 1956 Suez War and the June 1967 War were fought in some measure over water issues. His chapter on the "Water-Famished Middle East" is a sober reminder that this troubled region desperately needs to end its endless obsession with war and turn its attention to averting an ecological catastrophe. Water is more important than petty feuding nationalisms and achieving water security is a more life-threatening issue to us all than the war on terrorism. At least that's what I think when I read Solomon's "Water."