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Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World

Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World

by Judith D. Schwartz

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Water scarcity is on everyone's mind. Long taken for granted, water availability has entered the realm of economics, politics, and people's food and lifestyle choices. But as anxiety mounts - even as a swath of California farmland has been left fallow and extremist groups worldwide exploit the desperation of people losing livelihoods to desertification - many are


Water scarcity is on everyone's mind. Long taken for granted, water availability has entered the realm of economics, politics, and people's food and lifestyle choices. But as anxiety mounts - even as a swath of California farmland has been left fallow and extremist groups worldwide exploit the desperation of people losing livelihoods to desertification - many are finding new routes to water security with key implications for food access, economic resilience, and climate change.

Water does not perish, nor require millions of years to form as do fossil fuels. However, water is always on the move. In this timely, important book, Judith D. Schwartz presents a refreshing perspective on water that transcends zero-sum thinking. By allying with the water cycle, we can revive lush, productive landscapes. Like the river in rural Zimbabwe that, thanks to restorative grazing, now flows miles further than in living memory. Or the food forest of oranges, pomegranates, and native fruit-bearing plants in Tucson, grown through harvesting urban wastewater. Or the mini-oasis in West Texas nourished by dew.

Animated by stories from around the globe, Water In Plain Sight is an inspiring reminder that fixing the future of our drying planet involves understanding what makes natural systems thrive.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this earnest but uneven volume, environmental writer Schwartz (Cows Save the Planet) places water in a wide human and ecological context, focusing on “innovators from around the world who are finding new routes to water security.” She looks, for example, at the work of Allan Savory, who calls for a holistic approach to land stewardship and restoration. Schwartz describes how improperly managed water and soil lead to “poverty, crop failure, social breakdown, unrest, and repression,” and she travels to Zimbabwe “to see holistic planned grazing in action.” In California, Schwartz addresses the ongoing drought. She notes that large percentages of the state’s water supply go to agriculture and wonders whether it is smart to grow “thirsty crops like rice, cotton, and alfalfa in a mostly dry, often hot landscape.” When farmers in the Imperial Valley ship alfalfa to China to feed cows there, they are essentially “exporting water—which the region can ill afford to spare.” Other chapters cover the relationship between water and Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca Forest as well as the water crises in São Paulo, Brazil, and Kimberley, Australia. Some sections prove less engaging than others, but Schwartz does well to highlight this timely, important topic. Agent: Laura Gross, Laura Gross Literary. (July)
From the Publisher

"A call to expand our thinking to include plants and animals as part of the planet’s water cycle, and, further, to emphasize water in solutions to rebalance nature and to save us from ourselves." —Waterkeepers Magazine

"Schwartz says that improving practices on the land can reap huge water — and climate — benefits...offers a vision of water for a thirsty world through a better understanding of what makes natural systems thrive." —Society of Environmental Journalists

"Compelling...Schwartz takes the reader on a global tour of experts who have devoted their lives to alternative natural resource management techniques that focus on water...should be required reading." —Biohabitats.com

"In her heartening new book, Schwartz brings us the stories of ecologists all over the world who are employing simple, old-fashioned, low-tech methods to solve the critical problem of keeping our warming planet hydrated." —Women's Voices for Change

"Reading and then rereading Schwartz’s work has again given me inspiration to make some very real positive changes in our communities and lands. I can recommend it to all. Water in Plain Sight provides us with motivation and hope, in the form of a whole global toolbox of solutions to actively heal our planet with." —KT Shepherd Permaculture

"Inspiring...We are accustomed to thinking of water as nourishing life, but Schwartz is focused upon the converse phenomenon: the ways in which life promotes water." —Pacific Standard

"Schwartz makes a strong argument that solutions for water management must be localised, repairing small water cycles." —Sustainable Food Trust

"Inspiring." —Nature

"[Schwartz] examines how human activity has damaged global water and climate systems and provides an unusually hopeful vision of what we can do to restore them." —Shelf Awareness

"The work of Judith Schwartz...is so important....Schwartz is a powerful storyteller and accessible writer." —The Christian Century

"Throughout the ongoing drought, millions of Californians have lifted eyes skyward, yearning for rain. But Judith Schwartz believes we should spend just as much energy puzzling over the ground at our feet." —Matt Weiser, NewsDeeply

"Excellent...for once a book about water and climate change isn’t just gloom and doom: Water in Plain Sight leaves you with the notion how things can be fixed ‘by looking at how nature manages water and, by extension, regulates heat.'" —Soil Association

"Water makes up much of our planet and our bodies and yet what keeps it available and safe is a mystery to most of us. This fascinating and readable book is a primer for how to save our health as we save our ecosystems." —Daphne Miller MD, author of Farmacology and The Jungle Effect

"What a great book! Judith Schwartz shows how better management of our land and water could change the climate." —Alice Outwater, author of Water: A Natural History

"Carbon, and energy cycles are out of whack; the good news is that solutions to these problems are within reach. Journalist Schwartz, who challenged much of the conventional thinking about global warming in Cows Save the Planet (2013)...[looks] more broadly at how nature manages water and thus regulates heat." —Kirkus Reviews

"Hope, like water, often lies hidden just out of sight. Water in Plain Sight helps us find both." —Jim Robbins, author of The Man Who Planted Trees

"People all over the world agonize about water—too much or not enough—and are directed to expensive, high-tech solutions. But in this important and exhilarating book, Judith Schwartz argues that the solutions lie in understanding and working with nature. Herein lies abundance and hope." —Kristin Ohlson, author of The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet

"Happily, this book maps out, in very entertaining fashion, compelling strategies for fixing our broken relationship with water and offers hope that we can find “new routes to water security.” —Tom Newmark, Chairman, Greenpeace Fund USA, Co-Founder and Chairman, The Carbon Underground

"Imagine having a wise and well-traveled friend eager to take you on a global tour of water triumphs and failures. Minus the airfare and jet lag, that is what Judith Schwartz has brought us with Water in Plain Sight." —Seth M. Siegel, author of New York Times bestseller Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World

"Judith Schwartz's work gives us not just hope but also a sense that we humans--serial destroyers that we are--can actually turn the climate crisis around." —Gretel Ehrlich, author of Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami

Library Journal
With a refreshing, optimistic tone, journalist Schwartz (Cows Save the Planet) looks into how diverse groups of people across the globe are working to align the land with the water cycle again in an era when water scarcity is already a reality for many societies, and threatens even more. Schwartz identifies how organizations such as the Permaculture Research Institute and Holistic Management International, small farmers, and creative innovators are reviving the health of the soil, encouraging the renewal of ecosystems, and, ultimately, generating more water in arid places. Discussing everything from collecting dew in the desert to reinventing agriculture, Schwartz introduces an array of individuals committed to restoring order to ecological systems around the world, using methods to make rainfall "more effective" and relying on other sources of water often ignored or not thought about before. Reviewing basic biological concepts including infiltration, transpiration, and condensation, Schwartz succeeds in revealing the important role water plays in biodiversity and the environment. VERDICT For readers interested in world water scarcity issues.—Venessa Hughes, Buffalo, NY
Kirkus Reviews
The bad news is that the world's water, carbon, and energy cycles are out of whack; the good news is that solutions to these problems are within reach.Journalist Schwartz, who challenged much of the conventional thinking about global warming in Cows Save the Planet (2013), goes beyond that brief on holistic livestock management to look more broadly at how nature manages water and thus regulates heat. The author has traveled the world—Africa, Australia, North and South America—and spent significant time with farmers, ranchers, engineers, and scientists to understand the dynamics of plants, soil, and water and to see how these are related to climate change. Readers who stick with her will become familiar with transpiration, infiltration, and condensation (yes, dew is a major player here) as she discusses water problems and solutions. Interwoven into her occasionally challenging essays on plant biology and soil chemistry are profiles of the hardworking men and women she met and observed dealing with water problems and finding solutions that could be copied or adapted elsewhere. Schwartz demonstrates how mistreatment of the land disrupts the water cycle and leads to floods and droughts. If there is one take-home message, it is that the amount of rain that falls is not as important as what happens to the rain, how fast it moves, and where it goes. The author argues that intensive agriculture, improper grazing, urbanization, engineered water infrastructures, and forest burning lead to desertification, the loss of moisture that makes the soil bare and lifeless. Happily, she includes success stories from Slovakia, India, Africa, and Mexico that show "tremendous hope—and suggest there are multiple ways to fill the water bucket." Some demanding passages require perseverance on the part of general readers, but the stories that surround them are important and rewarding.

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St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt

Water in Plain Sight

Hope for a Thirsty World

By Judith D. Schwartz

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Judith D. Schwartz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7900-3



Making Rainfall Effective

The scene which met my eyes the next morning is beyond my power to describe. Game, game everywhere, as far as the eye could see — all on the move, grazing. The game did not appear to be moving; the impression I received was that the earth was doing so, carrying the game with it — they were in such vast numbers ... hundreds of thousands of blesbok, springbok, wildebeest, and many others were all around us.

— George Mossop, southern Africa, 1860s

Water has reappeared in a remote corner of rural Zimbabwe, some ten minutes of scarcely drivable dirt road off the Victoria Falls–Bulawayo road and into the bush.

This new water has replenished the Dimbangombe River, which now extends a full kilometer farther upstream than anyone, including the chiefs and elders of the five local tribes, can remember. Even now, in September, the parched heart of the dry season with the hope of rain still a good two months away, there's a steady flow where the Dimbangombe now meets the slightly larger Tsitsingombe River. This revived juncture is marked by a large winterthorn tree, a tree treasured in these parts because, unlike most trees, it holds on to its green leaves through the dry months, only to drop them once it rains.

Upriver from this spot a small, marshy meadow — vlei in the Afrikaans language — has a clear film of water coursing over the mud. Allan Savory, who founded the organization that presides over this land, the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, says this is thanks to the new water. At nearly eighty, Savory is trim and spindle-legged in timeless bush garb: khaki shorts; a loose, buttoned cotton shirt; a felt hat with a shady brim. If it's in the heat of the day — from about noon to three, a stretch I come to think of as "the stupid hours" since the heat leaves me barely able to think — he'll be wearing shoes, perhaps a thin-soled kudu-skin pair with holes at the toe, or a tawny-shaded pair of Crocs; otherwise, not. He prefers to go barefoot. This way every step he takes is telling him something about the state of the land: the temperature of the soil, its cover, whether or not it's compacted.

"This is the giraffes' favorite area," he says. It's quiet with no animals in sight, but I imagine a herd of giraffes ambling by this very spot: their long, lanky necks pitched at an angle; shoulder muscles rippling as, suddenly and in a single unit, they break into a run.

Savory scans the vista with the intentness of someone attuned to the slightest variation in plant type or the recent presence of antelope, no matter how fleet-footed. "Ten years ago we would not have seen water here into September," he tells me and my husband, Tony Eprile.

We get back in the 4 × 4 and ramble along the dusty road to a clearing. We walk to where the river is running clean and silvery over the rocks. A red dragonfly skims by. "This part of the river goes dry after the rainy season, around April, then in July, after the coldest time of year, it starts to flow again," Savory says. "A few years back, after July the water began returning more strongly and staying longer into the eight-month-long dry season. This year, for the first time, it didn't go dry at all."

This area is home to numerous water-loving species, he says, including African fish eagle, catfish, turtles and otters, "though we haven't seen them in a while. We do have a croc in here, but he may not be here now. It's an eleven-foot croc with a slightly damaged jaw. One year he spent the dry season in an abandoned porcupine den."

Savory points out the track of a warthog, with its distinct two toes, in the dirt along the bank. Above us, weaverbird nests dangle from the trees. The air is still but for the chattering of birds and the soft rustle of grasses as we brush against them. A wave of well-being sweeps over me: this is the sound of Africa, a layering of quiet and song that fills up the space in a way that somehow makes the sky feel that much more immense. Tony spent his childhood in South Africa, so my nostalgia for this environment comesnaturally — that is, by marriage. The first time he brought me to South Africa's famed Kruger National Park, he insisted we get up early so we could sit in the stillness and simply listen to the sounds.

A bird darts past too quickly for me to note its shape and color. "That's a striped kingfisher," Savory says. "I caught one in the car on the way to fetch you."

We move quietly and in single file a few yards away from the river in search of more signs of new water: Savory, then me, then Tony with his camera, striding into the grasses as if we're on a kind of water safari. We pause, and where we stand the ground is moist and all the plants are green. These are sedges, which favor moisture; they look like grass but grow in bunches, sprays of slender leaves spreading outward from the base. Savory shows us that reeds, whose existence virtually defines wetlands, are now established as well. "I never dreamt of having water here," he says. "We have Egyptian geese all year. Look, you can see water lilies — this is two months until the rain begins and there's still water. If this had been a wet year we could have explained it. But we've had seven years of average or below-average rainfall."

Finally Savory takes us to the elephant pool, where the new water has made the biggest change in the landscape. It doesn't look like much. In fact, the spot looks trashed — like, well, a gang of wild elephants had been through and ransacked the place. And that, says Savory, is the point. For the elephants don't need that particular watering hole anymore.

This had long been the site of the river's permanent pool, where elephants could water any time of year. You see, elephants like to wallow. They bathe to cool down and wet themselves in preparation for lolling around in the mud. A good coating of mud protects their skin from the harshsun — elephants, with their delicate skin and sparse hair are susceptible to sunburn — as well as from parasites and biting insects. For elephants, baths are also an important social activity and a time in which to play and squirt each other with their trunks.

On the plus side for us humans, the lack of water everywhere else meant that you always knew where to find elephants (there are several wild herds in and around the Africa Centre's land). Savory used to bring guests to the nearby observation hide for game viewing. Often, he recalls, "I couldn't get guests out of the hide and safely cover the short walk to the car because of the damned elephants. As it got darker, one herd after another kept coming to get water." Savory and his friends would have no choice but to wait, assuming their place in the pachyderm caravan until the animals, sometimes hundreds of them, had their drink. Then the people could return to camp.

Now that the wild elephants in the area have several watering spots to choose from, they no longer have to walk several kilometers from all directions to the sole reliable pool. The pathways — centuries-old trails carved out by generations of elephants over time — are grown over with sedges and brush; without elephants digging and trampling and mucking about, the site of the pool has silted up.

The hide, a stone structure that was once prime real estate for sighting and photographing game, is deserted, its sides crumbling. Savory tells a story about the hide in its heyday. One time a guide left a group of visitors alone for several moments so they could enjoy looking at animals at their leisure. "The guide returned and there were three lions sitting on top of the hide," he says, chuckling over the memory. "The people were inside, terrified."

* * *

When I refer to "new water" at Dimbangombe, I don't mean that water has suddenly materialized out of nowhere (the amount of water on the planet remains fairly constant), or been "taken" from somewhere else. Nor do I mean reclaimed water in the sense of treated wastewater (as in, say, the "toilet to tap" NEWater program in Singapore). Rather, this water is "new" in that it hadn't previously been available.

It's not that the Dimbangombe Ranch at the Africa Centre hadn't been receiving any rain. Though, admittedly, the previous rainy seasons had been lackluster, it was still near the average of 650 millimeters (a little over 25 inches), which is typical for dryland savanna landscapes. For the longest time, the land was languishing, kiln-dry and withered despite the rain, but now the ranch and the animals that dwell there are flourishing.

Through the pages of this book we'll travel around the world: to California, Mexico, Brazil, West Texas, Australia and back to Africa. At each stop we'll find new water — water held in the soil, cycled through plants, captured as dew — and gain new insights on how water flows across the land, insights that can help us replenish water sources and make the best use of what we have.

For the moment we're in Zimbabwe, a landlocked state with a wealth of big game and a deeply troubled past, where Allan Savory and his colleagues at the Africa Centre have launched and guided a mini-miracle in land and waterrestoration — one that offers critical lessons on how to address water problems, whether stemming from too much or too little, around the globe.

* * *

Once touted as the "breadbasket of Africa," Zimbabwe has in the last decade or so been plagued by food insecurity. Much of the population depends on international food aid; due to chronic malnutrition, one in three children has stunted growth. The country's economy is so dire and improvisational that there is no national currency, the Zimbabwe dollar having inflated itself beyond relevance. Rather than carrying around Z$100 trillion banknotes, as was the case in 2009, people dig into their pockets for U.S. dollars, British pounds or South African rands. The price charged may or may not make any sense, and vendors invariably try to barter their stock in lieu of change, which they likely do not have.

There are a number of reasons for this predicament, among them Robert Mugabe's failed regime and the government-enforced land reforms. As an explanation for rampant and recurring food shortages, however, the Zimbabwe government and the global aid community generally look to drought. Indeed, the landscape across much of the country looks parched, and crops regularly wilt from moisture stress so that a season's yield may be simply written off. "Even the goats are suffering," a seventy-six-year-old subsistence farmer named Simon Sibaya told Bloomberg News in late 2013. "This is a dry place always, but last season what few crops we had failed."

If drought is defined as a lack of precipitation, the rain records cast doubt on this as the culprit for Zimbabwe's ills. For the country's crops have also been decimated by floods. When the rainy season hits, it can hit hard. As I write, three months after visiting a Zimbabwe so dry and dusty it reddened the eyes, I've been reading reports of flooded bridges, homes washed away, an air force rescue of people who were stranded for two days. Not to mention the wholesale destruction of crops, the extent of which augurs plenty of hunger ahead. "Brace for More Floods," Harare-based NewsDay warned in January 2015.

Perhaps the trouble is not quite as simple as a scarcity of water descending from the sky, though that is generally the story that gets told. In any event, Matabeleland North, the Africa Centre's home province and the nation's poorest, has been beset by the same deluges and dry spells as the rest of the country. And yet, the 8,000-acre Dimbangombe Ranch has newly formed watering holes that are luring wild elephants and other game from nearby areas. Instead of losing crops, the rural communities that work with the center are seeing improved growing seasons and getting off food aid. In Sianyanga Village, a young mother named Busie Nyachari says that whereas in the past they would rush to be in line to receive assistance, now "we are able to feed our families, and neighboring communities come to us for food."

Which raises the question: Is the condition we call "drought" something other than the absence of rain? And can the advent of new water at Dimbangombe teach us how to ensure that there's sufficient water to support people, the land and wildlife in regions prone to dry periods? In other words, do people in water-challenged areas have options more promising than praying for rain or piling up sandbags?

* * *

Savory wants us to have a good view of the place where the two rivers meet, so we hop back into the 4 x 4 bush vehicle and rattle our way along the improvised road. It's late morning and the air has warmed yet another notch. Still, there's a hint of breeze strumming through the grasses. Savory glances around without speaking, and I catch myself wondering if he's expecting me to read the landscape as he does. Beyond the basic visual units of river, grass and tree, I don't know what I should be looking for.

I'm humbled by the awareness that the signs and signals of this terrain — of any terrain, in fact, were I to be totally honest — constitute a language I don't speak. Savory, by contrast, is an accomplished, even legendary tracker, savvy to the subtle details that suggest an animal's recent presence or a change in conditions. He honed this ability as a wildlife ranger in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in the 1950s, when his responsibilities included hunting rogue elephants and man-eating lions. He later drew on this knowledge during the long civil war that yielded Zimbabwe's independence. As a military officer he developed tactics suited to bush guerrilla warfare and established the Tracker Combat Unit that became the elite "Selous Scout" regiment. Since then his teachings on military tracking have been used widely, including for the U.S. Special Forces.

More than a skill or even a set of skills, tracking is a way of knowing, a kind of metaperception that involves all the senses and is grounded in a particular place and time. It is the ultimate "now" continually referring back in time to "then": you're fully attuned to what's happening around you even as you're deciphering cues about what occurred beforehand. You're thinking about today's weather and yesterday's weather and if the murky hoofprints indicate that there'd been a strong wind. And what all of this might mean to predator or prey and how it might inform that animal's behavior. For example, whether the lion, bushbuck or kudu is likely seeking water or looking for shelter. Standing there with Savory on a grassy bank within sight of that familiar beacon, the winterthorn tree, his keenness to his surroundings is palpable.

Tony indicates a black, smallish, red-eyed bird and wonders aloud if it's a fork-tailed drongo. Savory nods. As a child, Tony devoted much time to poring over nature books. He hasn't lost his discerning eye. Now Savory walks slowly toward the water, still barefoot, wooden walking stick in hand. He waves the stick to draw our attention to the bank's left side. "That land belongs to the national park service," he says. He grips the stick with two hands and holds it horizontally, at chest level. "During the rainy season, the flooding from the parkland reached three meters high. Our vehicle would have been underwater." He moves toward some trees that line the bank and points to where driftwood and other debris had caught on the limbs. This tells us just how high the water was flowing during the flood.

"Right here we have two catchments, the parkland and the Africa Centre," he says. "The water coming off the Africa Centre's land only came up to here." He lowers the stick to just above his knees. We then follow him to where we can see the twigs and whatnot left stranded along the tree line by the streaming current. "This one is up a meter. The other comes up three meters." The Africa Centre's land absorbed most of the water, so that flooding was kept to a minimum. On the parkland hardly any water soaked into the soil. Instead it streamed away, destabilizing the bank and causing erosion. As a result, the fast-running water carried off valuable topsoil along with the flotsam. Savory gestures toward the embankment on the Africa Centre side, noting the higher grass with deeper roots, and how the slope has remained intact.

"This junction of rivers — here's the whole story," he says. He invites us to consider the flooding and other problems that confront properties like the parkland, which, he says, is far from the most degraded land in the area.

The flip side of the floods — the damage caused by coursingwater — is that with the water simply sluicing off the parkland, the soil there remains dry. It's a cruel irony: during the dry season everyone's waiting for rain, and when it finally arrives the greater part of it rushes away. By contrast, the center's Dimbangombe Ranch holds on to more of the rain. This is why the grasses grow high and lush, and why the wild elephants that roam the area have more choice as to where to wallow and play.


Excerpted from Water in Plain Sight by Judith D. Schwartz. Copyright © 2016 Judith D. Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Judith D. Schwartz is a journalist whose recent work looks at soil as a hub for multiple environmental, economic, and social challenges and solutions. She writes on this theme for numerous publications and speaks in venues around the world. Her 2013 book Cows Save the Planet was awarded a Nautilus Book Award Silver Prize for Sustainability and is among Booklist's Top 10 Books On Sustainability. A graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and Brown University, she lives in Vermont.

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