books environment science

Water: Life in every drop, by Julian Caldecott

‘Water: Life in every drop’ is something of a hymn to the wonders of water – what it is, how it moves, the way that we experience it. It’s also a grand tour of the role of water in our world. Chapters are themed around a water source, from oceans to swamps, rivers to lakes. In each chapter Caldecott explores the various uses and dependencies on the water source, and then the threats to it.

A number of recurring themes emerge. First, we take water for granted, which is a little dangerous considering all known forms of water depend on it. Secondly, water moves, so what happens in one part of the biosphere very quickly affects other parts. Thirdly, water is going to be increasingly important over the coming years.

A rising population, climate change, and pollution combine to make a very serious water problem. Already one billion people lack safe water to drink, and pressure on existing fresh water sources is increasing with rising consumption. Where certain areas depend on aquifers, we have a similar problem to fossil fuels – ‘fossil water’ – a non-renewable source that will eventually run dry. These and a host of other problems are explored through examples, including the Aral Sea, or Lake Naivasha, I was pleased to see.

In response, Caldecott argues for global water treaties, and better management of water sources. The world urgently needs better agreements on the oceans, which are suffering the ‘tragedy of the commons’. The book covers environmental aspects, but social needs too, and particularly highlights the needs of the poor. When scarcity hits, industry or agriculture may be prioritised over domestic use, and the author argues for fair access to water.

I don’t know much about the water crisis. It is easily overlooked, one of many crises we face in climate change, HIV/AIDS, poverty and inequality, and peak oil. ‘Life in every drop’ has put it back on my radar.


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