What's More Important Than Oil?
That's the question I first asked myself which led me to write "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" (Harper Collins January 2010). I had read Dan Yergin's wonderful history of oil, "The Prize", and began contemplating what other natural resource might be shaping our destiny as profoundly. The obvious answer arrived like a slap in the forehead, a Bill Clinton "It's the economy, stupid!" moment--WATER.
Water is visibly showing through as a root cause of nearly every headline issue transforming the world order and planetary environment: Freshwater scarcity is a key reason why 3.5 billion people are projected to live in countries that cannot feed themselves by 2025. Earth's freshwater ecosystems are critically depleted and being used unsustainably, reported the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, for today's 6.5 billion population much less for the 9 billion we'll be by 2050. Extreme droughts, floods, melting glaciers and other water cycle-related effects of global warming are why there'll likely be 150 million global climate refugees within a decade. Diplomats warn that 21st century conflicts will be fought over water as they were for oil in the 20th.
While many scholars highlighted the central importance of water in relation to their own main fields of study, no one had ever pulled it all together into a comprehensive narrative of water's role in world history. I thus set out to discover water's main history lessons, then apply them to help illuminate the stakes and challenges of our new era of scarcity.
The water-centric lens made it dramatically clear that in every era control and manipulation of water has been a central fulcrum of power and wealth and a precondition of prosperous civilization. Time and again water breakthroughs -- the irrigated Agricultural Revolution in ancient Mesopotamia, China's unifying Grand Canal, Rome's aqueducts, Europe's transoceanic Voyages of Discovery, the waterwheel and then steam engine-powered Industrial Revolution, the 19th century Sanitary Awakening, and American-pioneered giant dams for hydroelectricity, irrigation and flood control -- were associated with epic turning points of civilization and a recalibrating world order among great powers.
These and other skeletal remains of water history are readily visible to anyone who looks for them. I visited many in person, some through museum exhibitions, and others virtually through the marvel of the worldwide web and the multimedia postings of its myriad fellow travelers.
Easily my most memorable visit was in 2004 to the dusty, reddish hills of southeastern Kenya on the edge of Africa's Rift Valley where I helped lay two miles of pipes that connected waterless, literally dirt-poor villages to a borehole pump. My wife, a high school teacher, organized the trip for students, and my three teenage daughters joined what became a life perception-altering experience for all. When the water tap flowed for the first time, the villagers expressed unforgettable joy at their liberation from having to march two to four hours each day to fetch 200 pounds of clean freshwater in plastic 'jerry' cans -- hours sacrificed from education and productive work. We also worked alongside a small group toiling for weeks with hand tools and sisal sacks to dig and carry soil to reinforce an earthen dam -- precisely like those built since antiquity -- that trapped vital monsoon water for the dry season, all along knowing that the task could be completed in a single day with a bulldozer. I raised muddy creek water 20 feet to irrigate cropland by stepping up and down on a treadle pump -- much as Chinese rice farmers did using bamboo tubes centuries ago and Americans today do on their Stairmasters.
These experiences highlighted how unevenly layered water's role is, with co-existing ancient, medieval, and modern methods imparting enormous advantages for water Haves and crippling disadvantages for water Have-Nots. They drove home that, like the planet, we ourselves are 70% water, and that unique among oil, iron, and all substances, water is irreplaceable in its uses by mankind. And somehow they revealed water's special, ineffable bond to our essential humanity -- to each other and to Nature.
"When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water," Benjamin Franklin quipped long ago. With the impending freshwater scarcity crisis, world politics and human civilization is undergoing another turbulent sea change. Alarmingly societies are bifurcating into those with enough water and those without. Two in five people lack adequate sanitation, and over 1 billion don't have access to safe drinking water.
Scarcity of unpolluted, freshwater is menacing the future of China and India, which have only one-fifth and one-sixth as much water per person as America. Our energy, food, and climate change challenges are integrally tied to water.
Yet our water crisis is manageable using today's technologies. But it will require an heroic transformation in the political organization of existing water resources. The paradox of water is that, despite its scarcity, almost everywhere it remains the most misgoverned, economically undervalued, inefficiently allocated, and egregiously wasted critical natural resource. Nature won't permit us to continue using water at the profligate 20th century rate of two times population growth. Although no Al Gore of water has yet arisen to sound the political clarion, radically improved efficiency -- which the combination of free market forces and water ecosystem regulations have begun modestly to produce -- is the best solution. Amply endowed America has a golden opportunity to become a global water superpower and growth leader of the new order. Yet in our interconnected global society we ignore at our peril the desperate thirst around the planet. As a Turkish proverb warns: "When one man drinks while another can only watch, Doomsday follows."
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