Water Wars

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Overview

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Every day, we hear alarming news about droughts, pollution, population growth, and climate change—which threaten to make water, even more than oil, the cause of war within our lifetime. Diane Raines Ward reaches beyond the headlines to illuminate our most vexing problems and tells the stories of those working to solve them: hydrologists, politicians, engineers, and everyday people. Based on ten years of research spanning five continents, Water Wars ...

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Overview

Updated with new material

Every day, we hear alarming news about droughts, pollution, population growth, and climate change—which threaten to make water, even more than oil, the cause of war within our lifetime. Diane Raines Ward reaches beyond the headlines to illuminate our most vexing problems and tells the stories of those working to solve them: hydrologists, politicians, engineers, and everyday people. Based on ten years of research spanning five continents, Water Wars offers fresh insight into a subject to which our fate is inextricably bound.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Thorough and thoughtful." —Detroit Free-Press

"An engaging story...[with] plenty to inspire and alarm." —Business Week

"Riveting...I will never turn on the tap again without thinking about where the water comes from and where it goes." —Ken Burns, producer/director of the "Civil War", "Baseball", and "Jazz" documentaries

"Clear, jargon free...comprehensive." —The Baltimore Sun

"A wonderful book [with] splendid insight." —Environmental News

"Important [and] impressive." —Ottawa Citizen

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573229951
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/3/2003
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,032,915
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

Diane Raines Ward is a journalist whose work has appeared in Smithsonian, Newsweek, Connoisseur, and International Wildlife. She and her husband, Geoffrey C. Ward, co-wrote the book Tiger-Wallahs: Encounters with the Men Who Tried to Save the Greatest of the Great Cats. Together they run a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation efforts in India.

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Read an Excerpt

“This is a wonderful book, a wake-up call of startling clarity and insight, with a flood of facts and anecdotes that place the abstract into riveting human perspective. I will never turn on the tap again without thinking about where the water comes from and where it goes.”

—Ken Burns, producer and director of the Civil War, Baseball, and Jazz documentaries

“Critical decisions about water . . . will have to be made in the future. Water Wars can help us make those decisions wisely.”

BookPage

“Clear, jargon-free . . . Water Wars chronicles not only ambitious construction projects but also the ambitious personalities behind them.”

The Baltimore Sun

“Famed as a water planet, Earth has too much in some places, too little in others, and everywhere the crisis of matching water with people. Water Wars is a brisk and personable introduction to a once and future struggle that is not going away.”

—Stephen J. Pyne, author of How the Canyon Became Grand

Water Wars is a . . . wonderful book. I do not know Diane Raines Ward, but I suspect she is a solid journalist with a great thirst for knowledge both broad and deep. She spent ten years circling the globe to beautifully describe many of the world’s most fascinating water development problems and projects and the people who masterminded—and mismanaged—them. . . . Splendid insight . . . thoughtful . . . informative.”

Environmental News

“No matter what your stance is on various water management issues, Ward’s descriptions of the mechanicals of control are fascinating. . . .[Her book] offers provocative insights on old and new problems. . . . She’s also not afraid to travel, to learn and talk to the kind of people whose work shoes are rubber irrigator boots, all of which adds a refreshing spin. Water Wars is . . . both a good primer on water management and an enlightened, engaging analysis of its woes.”

Las Vegas Mercury

“Diane Ward describes the competition for this scarce resource vividly, and with remarkable balance. A book for everyone to read.”

—Robert O. Collins, professor of history emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Documents from the African Past and The Nile

“For years we worried over not having enough food to feed the hungry and enough oil to power civilization. Now, says Diane Ward, in this eye-opening investigative book, we’d better come to grips with an equally stark reality—that we are running out of fresh water. Water Wars presents a panoramic look at the next great crisis looming on the horizon, and what we need to do to address it. It should be read and widely discussed while there is still time to change course.”

—Jeremy Rifkin, author of The End of Work and The Hydrogen Economy

“An engaging story . . . Many of the twentieth century’s greatest victories are double-edged when it comes to water. Ward talks to countless people caught up in the contradictions . . . At once compelling and sad . . . [with] plenty to inspire and alarm.”

BusinessWeek

“A warning about the worldwide struggle to manage water resources in an era of growing demand and climactic instability . . . [Ward] pursues a far-reaching itinerary in order to evoke the global nature of the crisis. . . . An informed discourse about the vital historical relationship between humans and water, and an overview of a possible global dilemma.”

Kirkus Reviews

Preface

It’s been the hottest year on record here in America. And the driest since 1895. And not just here. Drought has recently devastated crops in Russia, Australia, and Mexico; Brazil, Argentina, and India; southern Europe, the Balkans, the Arabian Peninsula, and large parts of northern and southern Africa.

When I was researching Water Wars in Pakistan a decade ago, I was astonished to read at least one newspaper story about water conflicts in that country each day. Now, in a single day, Google churns out whole lists of alerts about worldwide water protests and water riots to my in-box. In central India, tribal people have been standing in neck-deep water for weeks to protest a dam that threatens to drown their homes, while thousands of middle-class city dwellers march through the streets of the south Indian city of Bangalore, protesting withdrawals by a neighboring state of precious water from the Cauvery River. There have been riots over water in Egypt, Peru, and South Africa. Australians rail against mine drilling that will pollute aquifers. Water shortages have brought angry, frustrated protestors onto the streets from the Dominican Republic to Chew Valley Lake in England to the Modesto Irrigation District in California.

That’s just the past two weeks. Much of next year’s unrest will concern the shortages and soaring food prices that this year’s drought losses ensure. We use more water than ever and its cost is spiking in tandem with demand. While we may not yet be in the grip of a truly global water crisis, its fingers are on our throats. Local crises are multiplying everywhere.

The past thirteen years have been among the warmest on record. Glaciers and sea ice are steadily shrinking: Scientists have found a sixty-mile swath of algae flourishing beneath Artic ice where the sea should be too cold for anything to grow; “It’s like finding the Amazon rain forest in the Mojave desert,” says one of the scientists who discovered it. There are more floods now, nastier storms, more erratic monsoons, unexpected cold flashes. Catastrophic heat waves and droughts, once rare, happen more often, last longer, are more severe than ever before, and will profoundly affect our water systems. There are hundreds of thousands of water refugees around the world.

Scientists fear that this is the “new normal.” Not long ago I was talking with the Associated Press reporter Art Max, who has covered conferences on climate change at Kyoto and Rio. He was complaining that the summer had been oppressively hot. I muttered something about its not being “usual.” “There isn’t any ‘usual’ anymore,” he said.

Ten years ago, I wrote Water Wars because I wanted to understand where we were with water in the world, what has worked and what has not, and whether or not we were in trouble. For this brief update I’ve wanted to understand what a decade has done to the answers I found then. There have been some steps forward, more than a little slippage, and some unexpected changes.

Jaw-dropping engineering projects are omnipresent. Remember that big dam-builder that environmentalists loved to hate, the World Bank? It’s now a bit-player, approving no more than four dams a year. Currently, the world’s biggest dam-builder is Sinohydro, a Chinese firm usually financed by the Exim Bank of China, now at work in Ghana, Gabon, Zambia, the Republic of Congo, and Nigeria, often in exchange for electricity and blocks of natural resources including oil. It is most ominously at work on the Nile River, constructing dams both in Ethiopia and the Sudan that threaten Egypt’s survival. Sinohydro, also building in Southeast Asia and Latin America, is involved in 195 hydro projects in 60 countries. Other Chinese builders are constructing 105 more.

Meanwhile, on the Chinese mainland, they are building the largest river diversion the world has ever seen, taking water, lots of it, out of southern rivers and running it more than two thousand miles north to cities along the Yellow River in three massive canal-and-tunnel systems. Because much of the water is polluted, 426 water treatment plants are being built on the 700-mile eastern route alone.

The report card for the projects I wrote about is mixed. The Dutch continue to maintain their water defenses; who could ever doubt they would? The mammoth GAP project in Turkey has nine functioning dams now, but construction has mercifully slowed on the thirteen dams remaining on the drawing boards. Drought- and flood-tormented farmers struggle more than ever along the canals in Pakistan. The riparians along Australia’s Murray Darling Basin still argue over every cubic foot, as do people along the Colorado and the Jordan, the Mekong and the Nile. Preservation of the Florida Everglades has made legislative progress but implementation has stalled badly for lack of funding.

Water harvesting has become a common practice in India, bringing relief to individuals, apartment complexes, and smaller communities. Some parts of the Aral Sea have been restored. So have half of the Shatt Al-Arab marshes that Saddam Hussein sought to destroy. River basins that cross state or national boundaries continue to do best when they cooperate with organizations of the affected riparians: The International Mekong River Commission has recently denied Laos the right to build a giant dam that would have done downstream damage to millions in Vietnam and Cambodia.

But let’s be clear. At the same time that we face rising demands on our water, we continue to treat it with reckless disregard, using up our fresh, cheap groundwater at a rate that outpaces the rate at which we multiply ourselves. The world’s population doubled during the last half of the twentieth century while global water use tripled and our water sources grew more and more foul.

As I tried to show in this book, while it’s always easier to create messes than to clean up after them, there are engineers, scientists, and environmentalists who know how to put things right. We know how to improve our overuse of water, clean up the delivery systems, reclaim wastewater, and save our rivers and oceans. And the ability of the earth to heal, if left alone, is downright soothing. But water decisions remain in the hands of politicians. If you don’t have the energy to tackle politicians yourself, you might consider helping someone who will—organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, Earth Justice, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, or Water.org. My personal preference is for those that litigate. Local organizations such as the Hudson River Watertrail Association are as ubiquitous as water protests all around the globe. “Water,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “is taught by thirst.”

In the late nineties I stood on a dusty plot of ground under the shadow of the Ranthambhore escarpment in northern India. It was rocky, barren ground, and for sale. “You should buy this land and build a house,” said my friend Dr. Goverdhan Singh Rathore, whose late father, Fateh Singh Rathore, makes an appearance in this book. I shook my head, wanting to get out of the dust, thorns, and scrub to have a bath and a drink of water.

Dr. Rathore bought that land and other devastated land around it. He began planting trees and digging ponds and small lakes to store monsoon rains. He put up solar panels for electricity and used wastewater to irrigate trees, catching every drop and treating it like the purest gold.

That once-barren plot is now lush, green, and teeming with new life—a dozen different kinds of native trees, axis deer, langur monkeys. Birds whirl overhead and crocodiles have taken up residence in the man-made ponds. I’ve heard tigers call nearby.

It is, in short, paradise. My husband and I go there every year, for rest and serenity, but also to take courage. It’s a green haven in a dry land, created because the Rathores, father and son, understood that, like all of us on this planet, we can only live here in grace if we take care of the land and water around us.

DIANE RAINES WARD, OCTOBER 2012

Introduction

SWEET WATER

You never miss the water till the well runs dry.

TRADITIONAL BLUES

When I was a little girl, my family used to get its drinking water with a cast-iron hand pump that sat on our front porch. It was too tall for me to work the handle hard enough to bring up water from our well, but I remember that whenever I drank a glass, it was cold and good. Because of that pump I made a simple assumption: people everywhere had wells under their houses that held all the water they would ever need.

An embarrassing number of years passed before I thought much about where people got their water. On a hot day in North Yemen, climbing down a rocky path from the hilltop town of Kawkaban several miles to the plain below, I passed a dozen village women, headed straight up, carrying large, heavy pots of water on their heads. My Yemeni companion told me that the women made that trek every day throughout the year. “Allah go with you,” the women called generously. I was shocked at how hard they had to work for something that, for me, poured at the twist of a tap.

I’ve since learned that my assumptions about people and water were way off. Forty percent of the world’s population carry their water from wells, rivers, ponds, or puddles outside of their homes. More significantly, many do not have enough—1.4 billion, almost twenty percent of those living on the planet, don’t have access to an adequate supply of clean water. This isn’t because there isn’t enough water to meet all of our needs. Human beings only use a quarter of the world’s fresh water. But water is seldom found just where we want it to be or in desirable quantities. Most fresh water sits in glaciers or deep aquifers, or runs off into oceans, far from the demands of our sprawling civilization.

“If you end the oil supply, the motor stops,” I was told by Turkish Minister of State Kamran Inan, in Ankara in 1989. “But if you stop the water supply, life stops.” How well we use our accessible water is becoming more and more important to how we live on this planet. Managing water is at the very heart of life in dry places—from Los Angeles to Lagos, from Damascus to Australia’s Murray Darling River Basin—where the margin between survival and disaster is narrow, and even small changes have an impact far more drastic than those in wetter, more secure territory. I have seen the words GIVE US WATER splashed in bright red paint over a village wall in the Khyber Pass; GOD BRING US WATER scrawled across houses in southeastern Turkey; and PRAY FOR RAIN painted on a truck in Texas, where a four-year drought has made the ground so dry that sparks from car mufflers start fires and water tankers are part of everyday life. Across the world, twenty-three thousand square miles, a chunk of land roughly the size of the state of West Virginia, turns to desert every year.

At the same time, an overload of water endangers other people and places. Venice is sinking as the sea rises, and Holland’s delta is threatened as it never has been before. More than ten thousand people drowned in violent flooding in the Indian state of Orissa in late 1999. In Mozambique, after severe rains in the spring of 2000, catastrophic floods killed thousands and displaced half a million. Most of the world’s people live in coastal areas or on floodplains, where they are increasingly at risk from floods, among the most frequent and most destructive of all natural disasters.

As humanity grows thirstier in the earth’s driest places, or is threatened by flooding rivers and encroaching seas in wetter ones, the steady rise in population puts stress on the land and the water. It took all of history up to 1830 to put a billion people on the planet but only one hundred years to add the second billion. The third arrived in just forty-four years and the most recent billion came in a scant twelve years. Women are having fewer babies in many places and there is real hope that the population will stabilize in this century, but there are now six billion of us and we add the equivalent of a New York City to the planet each month. Ninety million people a year. Think of a million lives lost in a famine or war—those numbers are replaced in four days.

As our numbers swell, we use more and more water, dramatically increasing withdrawals from rivers and aquifers. Since the middle of the last century, while the population doubled, water use has tripled. At the same time, we have dirtied that water with human, industrial, and agricultural wastes. We now face the need to feed unheard-of numbers of people on the earth while at the same time accommodating the toll exacted by growing so much food—increases in fertilizers, pesticides, salination, deforestation, erosion, and overgrazing. More than half the world’s major rivers are either polluted or going dry. Half the planet’s wetlands were lost in the twentieth century, and freshwater systems all over the world are losing their ability to support human, animal, and plant life.

Each year my husband and I visit the Ranthambhore Project Tiger Preserve in the state of Rajasthan in India. The dividing line between public and private land there is dramatic—green landscape begins sharply at the forest line while the land outside the park has been cut clean. The trees have not been felled by monstrous, greedy people but by women searching for wood to cook their family’s supper. In rural India, where wood is still the common household fuel, 837,000 acres of forest are eaten away each year. That treeless landscape haunts me. It represents people without choices. More than a billion people live in India, and it’s become increasingly difficult for them to stay alive without devouring their land and water. As hundreds of millions of people move into India’s middle class, they—like their counterparts in the developed world—will consume still more food, more heat, more energy, and more water, if they can get it.

In the tree-lined streets of New Delhi, I went to the Centre for Policy Research to talk with a man who has written a great deal about water, B. G. Verghese. India’s thirsty millions weigh heavily on his mind. “Today the population is almost three times the size it was at the time of Independence,” he tells me. “It’s taken us three thousand years to get to a billion, but it’s not going to take very long to add another billion. The consequences of this growth are already beginning to be with us.

“When the population was small, requirements were limited,” he says. “It could be dealt with. You managed or you moved. Those options are no longer available. The overwhelming growth of our cities calls for the provision of water for life and for quality of life.”

My husband, who lived in New Delhi shortly after India achieved independence, in 1947, tells me that there used to be low jungle around the pleasant neighborhood where Verghese’s office is now. Jackals called at night; there were gray partridges in the bushes, and an occasional wild boar wandered across a front lawn. It takes hours of driving to find anything like jungle now. The growth of the city, like that of India itself, has spiraled out of control. Once leisurely and elegant, New Delhi, while still beguiling in many ways, has become an overstuffed metropolis, straining at every corner. New Delhi friends talk constantly of pollution, traffic, and illness. There are two Delhis, however, New and Old, and the old city is worse, choked with people and vehicles and plagued by persistent outbreaks of typhoid, dengue, and malaria.

A friend who lives in Old Delhi, Shadiram Sharma, says that while this city once was heaven, it is now most surely hell. Each day, two hundred million liters of raw, untreated sewage pour into the Yamuna River as it moves through the city. This situation is repeated around the country. “Fifty percent of India’s morbidity is because of water,” Verghese tells me. “If we don’t have more water, cholera, gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhea, dysentery, malaria, skin diseases, eye diseases, and the epidemics we already have will all become more severe. There will be social and political incidents.”

One of modern India’s gravest concerns is its mounting need for electricity. The Indian subcontinent, struggling with growth and development, is one of the largest users of power in the world, and power shortages, brownouts, and voltage fluctuations are an everyday matter. In parts of Delhi, Old and New, the air is thick with smoke and noise from gas generators used to light houses when the city supply fails. But Verghese believes that however serious India’s energy crisis is, the most frightening issue the country faces is its water shortage. “There are alternatives to energy,” he says. “But there are no alternatives for water apart from recycling and desalination. And desalination is not an easy option in continental-size countries. Well, I’ve got water, so maybe my supply is all right, but what about the guy who has no water, what happens to him? Who’s to be responsible? Will he say, ‘Well, it’s OK, my good friend Verghese has water. I shall sacrifice myself for him?’ I don’t see him saying that. Why should he?”

Verghese sees a further trap lying in his countrymen’s faith in the waters that have sustained them so long. “The name Ganges evokes sustained civilization,” he warns. “And if the celestial hosts could live off the Ganges water, why not we mortals?” Verghese insists that such faith fails to take into account the conditions necessary for survival, much less what is needed for a good quality of life or what is required to maintain the natural systems of the world. “When you are terribly poor, the environment comes down the line,” he says. “Survival comes first.” In 1985, 750 Indian villages were without any water source whatsoever. Eleven years later, 65,000 villages found themselves in the same predicament. Sitting in the midst of eleven million people, B. G. Verghese knows that without storage, without control, ever greater numbers of people are going to be in crisis. “I don’t think we can easily dispose of these matters,” he sighs. “Rains are seasonal. They are not evenly distributed over time or landscape. We have to plan for it. It can no longer just happen.”

No one would contest Verghese’s concerns about the heartbreakingly poor people living just across the Yamuna River. He lives in a pleasant neighborhood of a city already facing terrible water stress. I live in the pleasant neighborhood of a city farther from those stresses, but I know that B. G. Verghese is ultimately speaking for all of us: “The growing pressure of this population is the core of the problem,” he says, “and anyone who doesn’t look at this is being very, very shortsighted. The next century is going to see a water crisis, and that crisis will be much more difficult to cope with and much more complex than the energy crisis has ever been.”

American environmentalist Joe Podgor agrees. “There is a fundamental ecological principle, a law of nature, called ‘carrying capacity,’” he explains. “A biological system can only provide so much food for the protein-eaters, so much biomass for the grazers in the form of plant life, and only so much water to go around. It’s the law of diminishing returns. You cannot invite an unlimited number of people to a dinner table at which there are twelve place settings and one pot of soup. There is a limit to growth. That’s the carrying capacity.”

We live within a system of finite resources. There isn’t much we can do to alter the actual quantity of water on the earth. In a finite liquid cycle, the sun’s energy sucks up water from the earth and sends it back again as rain, sleet, or snow. But although this supply of water is largely fixed in amount, a great deal can be done to alter its location and quality. Our access to fresh, clean water has been radically transformed by interventions—dams, storages, diversions, overuse, and pollution. The effects of water use and misuse are, with increasing frequency, felt far from their source. Those who believe the water problems of other areas won’t affect them ought to consider that water-short California produces about half of the United States’ fruits and vegetables and much of its dairy products. We should understand that draining the Everglades has meant less rainfall for Miami, and that industrial effluent poured into the Rhine in Germany must be cleaned up in the Netherlands.

At the beginning of this new century, a third of all countries suffer water stress. Overpumping of aquifers has dropped water to critical levels from Athens to Osaka. In Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, and Mexico City, groundwater has been so depleted that the ground underneath the cities is collapsing. In the American West, towns purchase land solely to gain rights to the water under it, and Los Angeles periodically hires “Drought Busters” to apprehend “perps” washing sidewalks or watering lawns. Taiz, a lovely city deep in the mountains of Yemen, receives piped water once every three weeks. Not long ago, eight people there died in a feud over a water well.

As the supply of water fails, its costs rise. In Onitsha, Nigeria, poorer householders spend almost twenty percent of their income on water. In Sydney, Australia, water theft, which can be reported on a twenty-four-hour hotline, carries a fine of $20,000. In Bombay, local mafias chain up the water taps and charge residents by the bucket.

B. G. Verghese’s predictions about water stress leading to violent outbursts have already become a reality on his own subcontinent. In 1991, in Karnataka, eighteen people were killed and another thirty thousand displaced in riots protesting the government’s releases of Cauvery River water. That same year, five thousand Bangladeshis rioted in Dhaka, smashing cars and stoning police to protest water shortages that they blamed on India’s theft of water from the Ganges River. Recently in Tamil Nadu, armed robbers commandeered a train, holding passengers and security guards at bay, in order to steal the water out of the toilet tanks using buckets and cans.

Unrest is not limited to the Indian subcontinent. In some troubled spots, the means of controlling water—the works themselves—have been targeted by rioters or competing armies. In August 1998, in the Congo, rebel soldiers seized the Inga Dam, cutting off electricity and water to Kinshasa. Later that same year, rebels in Lesotho took over the Katse Dam Project, which was being built to supply water to South Africa. In response, South African troops invaded Lesotho and recovered the dam, killing seventeen. In 1998, and again in 2000, Fijian tribal landowners carrying spears, axes, and clubs, fought off armed forces deep in the rugged center of the island Viti Levu to commandeer the country’s only large dam and hydroelectric power plant, Monasavu.

IT’S NOT ONLY in faraway, developing countries where water shortages have sparked trouble. During the long drought in Spain in the 1990s, the dry town of Denia began planning a pipeline to a nearby river. Neighboring villages refused to allow Denia to cross their boundaries, and pipes for a water treatment plant were immediately destroyed by saboteurs. In Wales, several years ago, rural residents blew up two water-supply dams to protest the diversion of their water to the English city of Liverpool. It astonished me to learn that near my own—wet, I thought—hometown in western New York state, frustrated farmers with dry wells broke into public pipelines to get water for their crops.

In Callicoon, New York, a few years ago, residents organized a broad political assault on a neighbor who wished to sell the water that bubbles up out of the shared aquifer underneath their land to the Great Bear Bottled Water Company. Neighbors accused the man of drying up the watershed, driving out the black bears and raccoons, and wiping out their trout streams. In response, Paul Levy, a nearby landowner, posed a serious question: “Can anyone truly be given permission to sell ground or surface water simply because it flows through that person’s property?”1 This simple statement, made by one small landowner, is as relevant to nations as it is to neighbors. Who owns water?

There is not one internationally accepted solution to the problem of sharing water. There are, therefore, problems to be solved: how do we ensure that water is distributed fairly across watersheds; or decide whether water is a commodity or life’s blood; or know whether or not wars over water are inevitable. As people and nations try to sort out their competing claims, the results can be deadly. A friend has given me a photograph, taken in 1903, of the corpses of Daniel, Alpheus, and Burch Berry, lying in front of a barn on a dry Kansas farm, three farmers shot dead over water rights by their neighbors, the cattle-ranching Deweys. I’ve thought of the dead Berrys often while writing this book. That century-old shoot-out symbolizes for me every kind of water battle, from farmers fighting over a lone well to nations contesting rivers across continents.

The question of ownership and rights has provoked countless disputes, from Slovakia and Hungary battling over the Danube to Namibia and Botswana challenging one another’s rights to the Okavango. In the Canadian Magellan Islands, two communities furiously contest one fragile freshwater aquifer. In the United States, Georgia has threatened to call out the National Guard during a feud with Florida and Alabama over the Chattahoochee. Emboldened by its victory over Colorado in a $12 million lawsuit over the Arkansas River, Kansas then sued Nebraska to regain 10 billion gallons a year out of the Republican River.

Few sources of water are so insignificant that they cannot be a source of conflict. The federal government was recently called into a dispute between Yellowstone National Park and landowners who were tapping geothermal waters near it. The Park Service said these withdrawals interfered with Old Faithful Geyser. Even the clouds are up for grabs. Making rain in one spot can rob farmers downwind, opening up a whole new world of lawsuits. When eastern Montana farmers complained that North Dakota had been stealing their rain, the Montana Board of Natural Resources refused to give North Dakota a cloud-seeding permit. That judgment was later overturned, but the settlement stipulated that North Dakota had to pay for a study to prove that it wasn’t poaching Montana’s clouds. In another case, Idaho provoked Wyoming officials when it decided to seed clouds over the Grand Tetons in order to improve snow pack on the mountain ranges’ west side. Wyoming wouldn’t allow it because, the state insisted, seeding would create excessive runoff on the east side of the mountain slopes and overload local dams.

As we face the alarming fact that the physical supply of water has limits, we dig our wells deeper, remove salt from ocean water at huge expense, and use and reuse water over and over. We compete for control of shrinking rivers and move large amounts of water longer and longer distances around the world in stranger and stranger conveyances. Scenarios that may have seemed ridiculous only a few years ago—such as towing icebergs from the Arctic Circle south, to supply water-short cities—now seem plausible. Las Vegasites now shop for water across the Rockies in Wyoming, and representatives of sheikhs in Abu Dhabi have offered to build dams many miles and countries away in the mountains of Pakistan in order to shuttle that mountain water south. In Chile, clouds themselves are being harvested. At El Tofo, University of Chile researchers catch coastal fogs in great walls of polypropylene mesh nets, which trap moisture and collect enough clean fresh water to supply entire mountain villages. It takes ten million fog droplets to form a single drop of water, and yet a 40-by-13-foot fog trap can produce 45 gallons of water a day. Fifty such traps cull six gallons daily for each of the town’s four hundred citizens.

The most ambitious water schemes seem to blur reality with science fiction. A Norwegian company has developed an enormous, collapsible, plastic-coated fabric container called a “Medusa Bag,” which can carry 30,000 to 80,000 cubic meters of fresh water from the fjords to needy places like Gibraltar or Israel. Canada’s Global Water Corporation signed an agreement to ship 5 billion gallons a year from Sitka’s Blue Lake all the way to China using such Medusa Bags—until, that is, the Canadian government slapped a ban on bulk exports of water.

Our credulity is strained by increasingly fantastic proposals. In central Africa, engineers have proposed creating a vast lake to bring rainfall to the Sahel. One researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wants to store winter snow and water in giant mountains of ice by blowing water through snow-making machines and insulating the resulting artificial icebergs under vast Mylar sheets until the water is needed. But even real-life projects, such as China’s three-canal scheme to pump water from the Yangtze River almost a thousand miles north to Shanghai, are hard to comprehend. Each breathtakingly ambitious idea follows hard on the heels of the one before.

WE HAVE ALWAYS thought big about water. With giant dams and canals, men move rivers, stop oceans, create massive lakes, make deserts green, and restructure entire regions. Some of our feats of water engineering are great successes—such as the polders and dikes of the Netherlands or thousands of years of irrigation along the Nile. They save lives, reclaim land, and enrich whole populations. Some have been disasters, muddying waters that once ran clear, their benefits never outweighing their cost in destruction.

Few things arouse as much awe as great bodies of water—rivers, lakes, oceans, and seas. Consequently our imagination is captured by the great engineering projects that seem to challenge nature itself. Massive, visually prepossessing, these monumental waterworks make us seem bigger than we really are, powerful beyond our puny individual abilities, more permanent on the face of the earth. They make us believe that we can control a force of nature.

History, however, is filled with stories of catastrophic mistakes that suggest such wholehearted trust in engineering solutions is misplaced. Political boondoggles, bursting dams, and errors in design, construction, and placement have claimed thousands of lives and brought about the suicides of engineers. The Vaiont Dam in the Italian Alps is one of the world’s highest, a thin slice of arched concrete. When a violent landslide hit the back of the dam in 1963, the structure held, but millions of tons of water shot over the top, killing three thousand people in six minutes. The eight engineers who designed the dam were put on trial for manslaughter. Perhaps the most ghastly waterworks disaster in recent history occurred in 1975, when 230,000 people died after China’s Banquiao and Shimantan dams gave way under heavy rains.

No nation on earth has had as disastrous a confrontation with water as the former Soviet Union. Because most of their water resources are in remote Siberia, Russians have been involved in a monumentally aggressive series of water schemes for forty years, building the world’s biggest dams and longest canals but often failing to make them work as intended. In 1980, Russian engineers built a 1,800-foot canal to limit water flow from the Caspian Sea into the inland sea of Kara-Bogaz-Gol. It worked too well. In just three years, all 7,000 square miles of the Kara-Bogaz-Gol had dried up. Engineers then began work on a restorative aqueduct.

The most appalling loss anywhere on earth is the near obliteration of the Aral Sea over three decades. Once the world’s fourth largest inland sea, it has lost two-thirds of its volume—15,000 square miles—mostly because of withdrawals of water from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers for cotton irrigation in central Asia. If this process continues unchecked, the Aral Sea will soon be just a brittle memory. Even now, ships lie stranded in the sand and some former port towns are as far as 90 miles from the receding shoreline. The once thriving fishery is gone. Worst of all is the toxic nightmare that has devastated the lives of the million and a half people who live nearby. What water remains in the rivers that flow into the sea is filled with such a heavy load of pesticides, fertilizers, and salt that nearly all of the water—under or above ground—is contaminated. Lethal winds blowing over the exposed seabed carry salt and chemicals across the land, poisoning both the ground and the people. Little grows in the region, and the people suffer a plague of illnesses: kidney and thyroid disease, cancers, viral hepatitis, tuberculosis, and probably the highest rate of anemia in the world. Life expectancy is shorter by twenty years than it is in other parts of the former Soviet Union.

The stories of the best and worst of the big projects are often monuments to human folly, but they are also testament to ingenuity and persistence. Whether it has worked to our benefit or our detriment, storing and moving water or pouring it on plants seems to be as natural to man as staying in one place—we’ve been doing it for over seven thousand years. The pitfalls of hydraulic projects and development schemes are numerous, but we’ve been building dams, reservoirs, tunnels, and irrigation canals long enough to understand a great deal about how they work. While it became clear in the twentieth century that structural solutions may not be the magnificent remedy we once hoped for, engineering technology can be a weighty tool, if environmental and human dimensions are taken into consideration. To balance the needs of a sprawling civilization with a vulnerable water supply, we ought to carefully examine every potential solution.

It’s important to take steps to ensure that our water is here for our children and our children’s children, who, no matter how the birth rate has dropped, will live in a far more crowded world. First, we must grasp the fundamental importance of our water. “Science can affect the way that we approach a situation,” political water consultant Joyce Starr said to me not long ago in Washington. “But I think science comes later, after people have understood what their water means to them . . . what a precious thing it is and that it’s a dying resource. Yes, there is enough water. But the agencies that are trying to help are all overtaxed. As a world community we are actually standing by while thousands of children die every day from water scarcity or waterborne diseases.”

Starr is right. Six thousand children die daily from water-related maladies. “Imagine the deaths occurring as we speak because we’re not able to provide sufficiently for the people on this planet,” says Starr. “The tragedy is in the eyes of the mothers and fathers, and in families broken by deaths and anger and hurt—this pain isn’t carrying far enough into the halls of power.

“There is a tremendous gap between understanding and action,” says Starr. “It’s not only the men and women who lead nations but the interests behind them. Even if officials understand that people in their country will die, they may be powerless to change the realities of the powerful forces in their country. It takes a lot of energy and it’s brutal. I think you have to throw yourselves up against the system. We have to be Don Quixote. We have to, because the alternative is . . .” She shrugs. The alternative is unthinkable.

WHEN MY HUSBAND and I visited India in the early 1980s, I watched our friend Fateh Singh Rathore, then the Field Director of Sariska Project Tiger Preserve, confidently direct work crews changing the course of a river. On his orders, teams of men set about the arduous task of forcing the river into a new bed just under the Aravalli Hills. At first his efforts baffled me. Fateh Singh, a member of a warrior clan from a village where there is no perennial river, is a man of the desert. A man who had traveled on camelback through sand dunes to his wedding was altering a river’s flow.

Since I first watched Fateh Singh at work, I’ve come to understand that people who live in places with little water are often especially canny about its ways. They need to be. For several years, we regularly returned to Rajasthan and observed the aftereffects of his work. The redirected river and newly dug waterholes, crafted to feed yet other waterholes via underground pipes, carried water more evenly throughout the preserve. Trees and vegetation flourished in a landscape once entirely arid scrub. Breeding patterns of wildlife changed, and populations of spotted deer, sambar, nilghai (blue bull), and the leopards that fed upon them increased. Moving water wisely changed the life of the Sariska Preserve.

While visiting Southeast Anatolia a decade ago, I watched earthmovers tear up the ground for Turkey’s gargantuan, twenty-two-dam GAP project on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and became both fascinated and alarmed by the immense consequences of water control. It was evident that while those dams will bring Turkey’s arid plains to life, they will also certainly deprive Syria and Iraq of fundamental water supplies. Since watching earthmovers plow through the Anatolian hills, I’ve talked to scores of engineers, politicians, farmers, builders, hydrologists, and conservationists to discover what they have to say about managing our water. I discovered that the questions and answers to our water problems are found around the world, some of them in unexpected places.

“The challenge is to get water where it needs to be and to stop wasting it,” Joyce Starr said quietly. “As we speak, another lake is disappearing. Until you get a strong hold, philosophically, intellectually, practically, on the economics of survival, you can put Band-Aids on it but you can’t resolve it.”

As communities run out of water, new dams and canals will be built. When people riot in the streets over water, no cost will be too high, and concerns over consequences will go unheeded. “When you hear a number of people saying that something must be done, something must be done at once,” said the imperial dam-builder Sir William Willcocks at the turn of the twentieth century, “you may be quite sure that something foolish will be done.”

We can no longer afford foolishness. We are using our supplies of clean fresh water at a rate outpacing population growth. How well we manage the water we have is becoming a matter of life and death more quickly than we are prepared for. As pressure increases, the decisions we make need to be good ones. It’s important to understand what works, and what does not and why.

Chapter 1

HOLD BACK THE SEA

Climate Shock and Rising Waters

Your foe Oceanus does not rest or sleep either by day or by night, but comes suddenly, like a roaring lion, seeking to devour the whole land. To have kept your country, then, is a great victory.

ANDRIES VIERLINGH, TRACTAET VAN DYCKAGIE, C. 1575

This is a strange country, an inverse country,” waterman Pieter Huisman tells me. “In fact, there is no country!” Watery, boggy Holland, which looks deceptively like land and is home to some of the most pragmatic people on earth, is awash in contradictions. With four hundred inhabitants per square kilometer, the Netherlands is the most intensely populated place in Europe. Yet, if the Dutch were to stop pumping and unman their dikes, half of Holland would disappear. And that half is where three-quarters of the population of the Netherlands live.

Huisman, the head of the Flood Control Division of the Rijkswaterstaat is a pleasant-looking Dutchman, sandy-haired and earnest. In his suit and tie, he resembles a Shell Oil executive more than the sort of big-booted fellow you might expect to be identified as a “waterman.” Unhampered by his business attire, he and I tromp around a sprawling area of ditches, canals, and polders not far from Den Haag, where he speaks of twelve different levels of water within five hundred feet. Disbelieving, I make him show me all twelve. The water moves steadily; it is pumped up, stored, discharged by gravity, pumped down, flushed, drained, and pumped up again. The complexity of maintaining the layers is staggering. “Every water level has its meaning,” says Huisman. “Because the dikes and embankments are built in peat and clay, you have to control water level in order to maintain banks. If you have a drop in level, they crumble. Water will overtop inner embankments. You will soon have wet feet.”

Huisman lives in Zoetermeer, a new town built on reclaimed land. When foreign guests arrive, he explains to them that the ground-floor living room in which they are sitting is below sea level. “This means that if the water comes they will also drown on the first floor.” On the second floor, above sea level, he announces cheerfully, he keeps a canoe.

Huisman and I drive across the bottom of a lake reclaimed in 1642. We are thirteen feet below sea level, navigating roads on which houses cling dramatically to earthen banks lapped by waves. The Dutch are so confident in the men who control the water that they have built their houses on piles and bundled them close to canals—when the wind blows, water brushes their doors. In the very bosom of water, they have adorned their little dry houses with shutters, trees, rock gardens, and mailboxes, all signs of permanency—or maybe just hubris. Huisman tells me about an abandoned Roman castle. It lies under water four miles from shore, on land that the sea reclaimed from the Dutch.

Huisman, whose father was also a waterman, lived with his family near Dordrecht in the Dutch Delta, an area renowned for its capable engineers. He was twelve years old in 1953, when southeastern Holland suffered a serious flood. “I can remember every thing we did that day,” he told me. “At half past eight in the morning, we received information that the dike was broken, and my father, who worked at the dike, said to us, ‘Remove all our things from the ground floor and take them to the first floor.’ We had a new stove. He said, ‘Put it as high as possible.’ We put it on a table. This was important—a stove was expensive in the fifties. People in the street thought we were crazy. They said, ‘The dike is breached far away. How will the water come here?’ Twelve hours after the dike breach, the water came and we were evacuated. We had water in our house but we saved the stove.

“My family had lived for centuries in that area and was aware of the danger,” he continues. “But people who have not seen it don’t know what can happen.” Huisman, profoundly affected by the floods, worries about a generation that has forgotten the peril. “My cousins in the next generation say to me, ‘Floods don’t occur anymore.’ Because of our dikes and protection works, people don’t realize that they are living in a vulnerable situation.”

When the Rijkswaterstaat recently began reinforcing dikes along the coast, the Netherlands increased its protection standards to “Delta Safe,” which means a dike is able to withstand a storm of a magnitude that might occur only once in ten thousand years. Protection has become so good that no one under the age of forty has seen the sea wash over the land. Delta Safe has protected Holland’s most densely populated and industrialized areas, which have subsequently become even more heavily populated and industrialized. “It is a paradox,” Huisman says. “By strengthening the dikes you give greater protection, and so people settled in the protected areas. Increase safety and you increase the damage when a disaster comes. Now a disaster would be very great!”

In January of 1995, Holland’s new generation got a taste of the old danger. Unusually warm weather melted large quantities of snow from the Alps and sent water rushing into the Netherlands, this time through the back door. The rivers that drain the Alps, the Rhine and the Waal, swelled to twice their normal size and rose high against the Dutch river dikes. When rushing waters push against a dike for long periods, the clay and sand walls become waterlogged. If the river recedes more quickly than the water held in the walls, pressure on soggy, weakened clay can topple the dikes. Holland was as ready as it could be. Military planes with infrared cameras flew low to identify trouble spots. Dutch soldiers worked alongside civilian volunteers to reinforce embankments with sand and plastic sheets. But two hundred thousand people were evacuated, along with a million and a half chickens, fifty thousand sheep, four hundred thousand pigs, and half a million cows and their milking machines. The Dutch barge fleet, the largest in Europe, was brought to a dead stop. Businesses lost about $84 million a day. Thirty people drowned, the hardest possible reminder of Holland’s perpetual frailty. “We are still a vulnerable country,” says Pieter Huisman. “That is the key to understanding the Netherlands. Raising the dikes—it will never finish. You can only stop by leaving this country.”

NOW AN altogether new peril threatens whatever time the Dutch have left in their water-bound land. The sea is rising. Nobody in the Netherlands scoffs at the idea of global warming; it would be madness to ignore it here in the lowlands.

I first heard about the changing glaciers from a friend in New Zealand. She told me in 1990 that a tribal chieftain in southern New Zealand warned her that the glaciers in his region were spreading. I couldn’t make out what that meant at the time, but today it’s no longer a mystery. Glaciers are losing height—melting—as the planet warms. It’s a global occurrence. Glaciers in the Swiss Alps, which have lost half their size since 1900, are now losing between twenty-four and twenty-eight inches yearly. The Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska lost over half a mile in length in the final years of the twentieth century. The ice cover that reaches across the top of the globe is forty percent thinner than it was several decades ago. Around the edges of Antarctica, where the temperature of the air is rising faster than anywhere else on earth, ice shelves are dissolving dramatically. The Prince Gustav Ice Shelf, and the Wordie Shelf are almost gone and the Larsen Ice Shelf has collapsed.

Ice caps and sea ice are melting into the oceans because the world is getting hotter. The last decade of the twentieth century was the warmest on record. Since 1987, the planet has been warming at a heightened rate of 2° Celsius per century. In the past fifty years in the United States alone, the number of extreme heat stress days has increased by two days every decade. The “frost free” season in the United States is eleven days longer than it was in 1950. Spring comes a week earlier. The incidence of heavy rain or downpours has increased by twenty percent. There are areas of the Atlantic Ocean that have warmed by a full degree since 1980.2 That’s fifty times faster than the warming that ended the last major ice age, the greatest sustained natural climate change in a hundred thousand years.

This is happening just as scientists predicted. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an independent UN-sponsored scientific body of 119 members from 32 countries, has stated in a series of reports released in 1995, 1997, and 2001, that in the next hundred years the planet will have warmed between 3° and 6° Celsius and that man has much to do with this change.

More frequent heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, changes in wind and rain patterns, and stronger El Niños will accompany warming.3 Water supply will be profoundly altered. In a warming world, water will be sucked out of the soil at elevated evaporation rates. Less moisture in the soil will affect groundwater, rivers, crop yields, and even foundations of buildings. It will rain more in some places and less in others, so that rainfall won’t correspond to reservoirs or irrigation systems in place, and precious water may dry up in established agricultural areas, such as southern California or southwest Australia. There will be dustbowls and new oases but we do not yet know where. Sea levels, already on the rise because of the thermal expansion of sea water and the addition to oceans of great amounts of evaporated water in the form of rain, may climb at a far faster rate than expected, a full meter or perhaps more.

Scientists at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder have discovered that as the atmosphere warms, trapping heat closer to the ground, the upper atmosphere receives less heat and is cooling fast, which could be global warming’s most ominous component. These scientists fear that global warming in our complex system may trigger a flip in the other direction and usher in a new ice age. Since every part of our planet is interconnected—ice caps, landmass, heat from the sun, and ocean currents—scientists warn that warming could set off catastrophic cooling by melting ice in Greenland, say, or by making more high-latitude rainfall, which would dump more fresh water into the oceans. Readings of ice cores have shown that climate change happens abruptly, and therefore, scientists fear that an atmospheric inversion could happen in a hurry. “In human history,” said the German magazine Der Spiegel, “far smaller temperature shifts have doomed kingdoms, set off wars, forced peoples into exile, and created new religions.”

While virtually no one doubts the earth is warming, there are a few scientists who disagree on the extent of the causes and effects of such warming. The press tends to report global warming badly or infrequently, giving space to disagreements without making conclusions. It takes time to plow through the arguments. I’ve been keeping a file for twelve years, and while there have been many good articles on the subject, almost none of the magazines in which those articles appear are for sale in my small hometown. So, while many fear warming, they haven’t caught up with what it means: It is altering the most basic systems on earth. “In a matter of decades, unless we change huge parts of our economies, we will live on a very different planet from the one we currently inhabit,” says the environmental writer Bill McKibben. “There’s the biggest story of our lifetimes by a wide margin, and yet polls show it finishes with the also-rans on any list of issues that people care deeply about.”

“The greenhouse effect will not only influence the average temperature on earth and the sea level,” reads Rising Waters, Impacts of the Greenhouse Effect for the Netherlands, a recent study published by the Dutch government, “but also wind, storms, rainfall, evaporation, and river discharge will change in a way we cannot predict at present.”

The Netherlands is already sinking eight inches a century. With or without global warming, acres of dunes will disappear and the coastline will erode and become unsafe within a decade. In 1987, the Netherlands began investigating what would happen in case the sea rose still faster. At first, because changes from warming can be camouflaged by natural climactic variations, it was difficult to assess permanent deviations with confidence. But over the years, certain things became clear: more rain was falling between 35 and 70 degrees North latitude; sea levels had climbed as much as fifteen centimeters; high tides had become higher and low tides lower.

Holland’s Rijkswaterstaat came to understand that if there were to be an accelerated rise in sea level, even “Delta Safe” would no longer be safe enough. As water temperature increases, so will algae. More rain, more storms, and more severe storm surges will put pressure on inland and coastal defenses. Saline seepage into inland water and the subsoil will increase. Drainage of low-lying areas will become more difficult, requiring more pumping. Bridges and dikes will have to be raised. The danger to those living in the delta and the heart of the Netherlands—Rotterdam, Den Haag, and Amsterdam—will be severely heightened.

In the lowlands, already struggling to cope with sinking land, water tables have dropped further and the land has fallen along with them, a process accelerated by superefficient modern pumps. In some areas the land dropped as much as two feet in the twentieth century. Subsidence has affected even land around Amsterdam, where every house on wooden pilings built after 1900 is at risk, since the reclaimed land outside the city center is not solid enough to hold them. As many as forty thousand houses will tilt and eventually collapse.

“We live in a sinking country with a rising sea,” says Pieter Huisman. “So, there will come a moment when we have to leave this country.” I gasped in disbelief, to hear a Dutchman admit such a possibility. “Yes,” he grimaced. “I think it may take centuries, but there will come a moment when we have to leave this country.”

IN 1953, an engineering student named Jacobus Van Dixhoorn was helping to clean up after the great flood, when he found in the muck, near an ancient graveyard, the skull of a thirteenth-century monk. “He made polders in Zeeland,” Van Dixhoorn told me. “The monks who were cloistered here were dike builders. As a young engineer, I had found one of my predecessors.”4 Like the monks of Zeeland, Van Dixhoorn is a dike builder, a guardian of Holland’s watery landscape, but his work is on a scale that his predecessors could not have imagined. The country he has cared for as an engineer has changed beyond recognition since 1200. About a quarter of the Netherlands—2,980 square miles out of a total surface of 12,300—has been wrested from the sea. Without the protection of the dikes, sixty percent of its land surface would be flooded every day. Yet it was the monks and the farmers they served who set the Netherlands on its strange and irreversible course.

The Dutch, long ago seeking refuge from the sea, built their homes on terps—high earthen mounds—linked by clay dikes. Even then, these descendants of German tribes were living on dangerous ground. “There lives a miserable people at the highest known level of the tides,” wrote the Roman historian Pliny. “They have built their huts and live like sailors when their land is covered over and like the shipwrecked when the tides have gone out.”

Roman generals Nero Drusus and Corbulo built the earliest canals in Holland in the first century of the Christian era. Irreversible intervention didn’t really begin until a thousand years ago, as the growing population pushed into marshes and peat bogs along the North Sea. As the Dutch cultivated the lowlands, dug irrigation ditches, and built canals, slowly, surely, groundwater began to drop. As the ground water lowered, peat and clay compressed and the surface began to subside. At the same time, the Dutch were digging and burning great amounts of peat for fuel, causing the land to drop some more. As the landscape lowered, the sea began to wash over it. The Dutch built sea dikes to keep it out and interior dikes to protect their fields. They dug drainage ditches and dammed tidal inlets and creeks where the sea intruded into the countryside.5 The Netherlands had embarked on a merciless struggle.

By the mid-fourteenth century, land in the northern, southern, and western parts of the Netherlands had subsided so greatly that gravity alone could no longer remove excess water. Netherlanders began to pump. Dutch millwrights borrowed the design of Mediterranean windmills but added rotating tops, which could catch winds from any direction, and put them to use, pumping water off the land. Row upon row of windmills were built to dry out sprawling parcels of ground. The newly reclaimed polders were surrounded with protective clay dikes strengthened by seaweed and wooden spikes.

Embankments were only as strong as their weakest points, and the task of maintaining them eventually grew too great for the monks. By the end of the twelfth century, a new system of caring for them was evolving. Each farmer was required to maintain his own portion of a dike—a solemn task, for if a poorly kept embankment broke, everyone in the vicinity went under. If a farmer couldn’t manage, he was required to strike his spade into the ground and leave the property forever. Four upstream and three downstream neighbors then chose someone else to take over the property, a rigid protocol called the Law of the Spade.

Local societies elected representatives to oversee the care and building of larger waterworks that were beyond the means of local landowners. These elected “water guardians” formed regional and provincial waterschappen, or water boards, headed by a dike reeve, or dike lord. The water boards levied taxes, administered water matters, and doled out fines. Water boards in Delft and Leiden still own branding irons once used to deal with miscreants. At least one farmer was put to death for failing in his duty. “In this country the right of society is greater than the right of the individual,” I was told by a flood-control engineer. “This comes from the water.”

For centuries, the resolute Dutch have pushed against the sea—and the water always pushed back. When protection failed, the water could undo in a day work that had taken decades. In 1287, a tidal wave destroyed much of the north coast and tore open the mouth of a large inland sea, the Zuider Zee. Fifty thousand people died. On Saint Elizabeth’s Day in 1421, the sea broke through both the coastal and the interior dikes, washed away twenty-four villages, and covered more than three hundred square miles of the Rhine Delta. During that flood, people stranded atop the Alblasserwaard Dike near Dordrecht are said to have seen a wooden cradle being washed along by torrents. In it, a cat jumped from side to side, steadying the cradle in the waves and thereby saving itself and the baby inside. The dike where the cradle came ashore is still called Kinderdijk, “the baby’s dike.”6 It is also said that those survivors of the flood at Alblasserwaard stayed and became fathers to the best water-fighters in the world.

“The foe outside must be withstood with our common resources and our common might,” wrote Andries Vierlingh, dikemaster to sixteenth-century king William the Silent. “For if you yield only slightly the sea will take all.” Vierlingh’s thoughts reflected those of his countrymen, a belief in a God-given right to fight the sea’s “blind strength” with all of their own. The church, after all, had been the leader in land reclamation and the right—indeed the imperative—seemed in every way theirs. “The making of new land belongs to God alone,” wrote Vierlingh. “For He gives to some people the wit and the strength to do it.”7

The Dutch used the sea’s “blind strength” against their enemies as well. To this day, the Netherlands holds an annual celebration of ending the eighty-year-long Spanish rule by use of its dikes and canals. The Sea Beggars, or Guex de Mer, mercenaries in the service of William the Silent, undertook a systematic breaching of river defenses to rout the Spanish by flooding Dutch cities. Their great triumph came in 1574 when, after breaking through a succession of dikes, they sailed from lake to lake in flat-bottomed boats and, with the help of a wild September storm, broke the five-month Spanish siege of Leiden.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Holland’s merchant fleets sailed the world and returned heavy with the spoils of trade. At one splendid moment in time there were more Dutch merchant ships than those of all other European nations put together. Wealthy merchants invested in new, deeper canals and helped finance the reclamation of hundreds of thousands of acres of land. In 1612, a Dutch drainage expert, Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater—his name means “empty water”—used forty-three windmills north of Amsterdam to dry out an 18,000-acre expanse known as Beemster Lake. Leeghwater believed that draining Holland’s inland lakes was among the “most vital, most profitable, and most sacred tasks, which faced the whole of Holland,” and before he was through he had turned 80 square miles of inland water into good farmland. Leeghwater wanted to employ 160 windmills to drain Haarlem Lake, 150 miles square, but the fulfillment of this dream had to wait until the end of the eighteenth century and the advent of steam-driven pumps, powerful enough to drive water over high dikes. In the mid-nineteenth century, long after Leeghwater’s death, Haarlem Lake was emptied by just three steam-powered pumping stations.8

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Table of Contents

Water WarsIntroduction
Sweet Water

Chapter 1
Hold Back the Sea
Climate Shock and Rising Waters

Chapter 2
A Sin of Scale
The Great Projects

Chapter 3
A Thousand Valleys
River Basins and Utopian Dreams

Chapter 4
Dry, Drier, Driest
Greening the Desert

Chapter 5
Predicaments
Power and Water

Chapter 6
Raging Rivers
Living in Floodplains

Chapter 7
The Wars

Chapter 8
Praying for Rain

Epilogue
The Everglades

Notes
Glossary and Abbreviations
Selected Bibliography by Subject
Acknowledgments
Index

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2005

    Water Wars

    In Diane Raines Ward's book, Water Wars, she gives an in-depth view into a variety of water problems that people around the world face today. The problems range from flooding to droughts and are found all over the world. Ward stated that when she was younger she did not even know of the problems she knows of now. This probably was the reason she was able to explain each idea clear to the reader. This book is also very novice friendly. Overall, the language used is simple. The ideas are clearly stated and then supported. You do not have to be an envirnomental expert to understand the ideas that Ward presents. There is also a glossary and abbreviation list in the back of the book to explain any terms that might not be common knowledge. I am neither an evirnomentalist nor an expert on water but with the glossary and abbreviation I was able to follow along with everything that Ward explained. I also was able to retain a lot of the information and statistics stated because it was written almost as a story. Each idea was fully explained with easy transitions between two different ideas. In the Introduction, Ward gives shocking statistics about water related deaths taken from several sources. She points out that people today fight and die over clean water. Raw sewage is being dumped into drinking water all over the world, leading to major health problems. In a part of the former Soviet Union, ward states that the life expactancy is twenty years shorter than the average for the rest of the area. This is caused by a variety of problems that are all traced back to contaminated water nearby. This example shows that even if people use clean water, if there is highly contaminated water nearby other parts of the envirnoment are affected too. Another alarming statistic is, ''Fifty percent of India's morbidity is because of water.'(p.5) These statistics are all backed up by an extensive bibliograpy that is composed of research articles from major universities and also private research laboratories that focus on the growing problem of contaminated water. In addition to using statistics, she also uses many of her own life experiences to demonstrate the problems. 'One of my favorite stories about water control involves my husband's resourceful Uncle Marion.'(p.45) The story concluded with Marion buying beavers to divert water instead of building a dam. This apparently caused no problems with flooding in the nearby area, suggesting that many problems we face today can be solved by using nature. Ward has not only researched the water problems in-depth, but she has also travelled worldwide to witness the problems first-hand. This greatly adds to the credability of the book because she writes about what she sees and backs everything up with sources. Although some people may believe first-hand accounts may be extremely biased, Ward does not offer any evidence that she is trying to accomplish anything more than notifying the public of growing problems. Extremely detailed information is giving on the past few decades but it offers also information on dams and their effects 'built sometime between 2950 B.C. and 2750 B.C.'(p.52). Ward gives information from every era showing that water problems have been around for quite sometime and will only worsen unless changes are made. At the same time, this is not just a history book. The reading is easy and also very intriguing. This book is not all just negative information that just point out problems. Ward also shows current projects underway and the effect they will hopefully have. These projects include dams and purifying stations. Not only would these dams divert water to areas where water is scarce, but it would also generate much needed electricity, solving two environmental problems at once. Although dams could cause unwanted flooding in some areas, areas that have large bodies of water nearby should consider building a dam to make an evironmentally safe form of electricity.

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