The Big Thirst: new Charles Fishman book looks into the future of water

April 24, 2011 at 7:53 am Leave a comment

“The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water” was just published. It was written by Charles Fishman, an award-winning writer that is well-known for his best-selling “The Wal-Mart Effect”.

Fishman, whose 2007 magazine article covered the hidden secrets of bottled water, knows how to tease out the compelling facts in any story. For instance, the article about bottled water shows that 24% of the bottled water we buy is tap water repackaged by Coke and Pepsi.

And now Fishman has turned his gaze towards water in general.

Here are some of the items that caught our attention:

Water is taken for granted to such an extent in the developed world, that we don’t even know we’re taking it for granted. Water is assumed to be safe, unlimited and essentially free. Now this must change.

In a recent NPR interview, Fishman describes this as follows:

“The last 100 years has been the golden age of water in the developed world: water that has been safe, unlimited and essentially free,” he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “But that era is over. We will not, going forward, have water that has all three of those qualities at the same time: unlimited, unthinkingly inexpensive and safe.”

“One of the big problems of water is that the success of the golden age of water has created an invisible system. We don’t even take [water] for granted because taking it for granted would suggest we pay attention to it. That hidden system is corroding, and as it corrodes, it even corrodes our support for public water. We think, ‘Why should I pay more for water? I’ll just go buy bottled water.’ But, in fact, we don’t actually spend that much money supporting the system. In the U.S., we spend $21 billion a year buying bottled water, and we spend $29 billion a year maintaining the entire water system — pipes, treatment plants, pumps. We spend almost as much on crushable plastic bottles of water as we do maintaining the water system.”

Taking water for granted means that too little attention is paid to the future of our water utilities and their ability to supply our needs.

This problem, evident when one looks at the deficit in infrastructure spending and large rates of water loss (25%-30% according to the world bank) is summed up here:

“The average U.S. home pays an average of $34 a month. So our always-on, unlimited, almost universally reliably safe water costs us about $1 a day. Our water bill is less than half what our cable TV bill or our cell phone bill is. So cities are starved for financial resources and water utilities are often in terrible shape. In Philadelphia, there are 3,300 miles of water mains in the city, and they replace 20 miles a year. They’re on 160-year replacement cycles. One of the officials from the Philadelphia water utility said to me, ‘We want to make sure we get the 20 miles right.’ That’s not a question of money, it’s a question of public resistance to digging up streets.”

Water is mis-priced.

Fishman mentions that business are already taking into account the dire need to reduce their water spend – for a variety of reasons, from protecting their reputation (by not harming local water supply) to saving costs and preparing for a less water secure future. This is what the  big corporations are doing – Nestle, Coca Cola and IBM –  but while businesses appreciate the hidden water they depend on, consumers and smaller businesses do not. One of the reasons for this is that water is never priced in accordance with its value.

Every gallon of water we use has an economic value — the value of whatever we can actually do with that water, whether it’s brew our morning coffee, grow an acre of wheat, or make a microchip.

Yet in our homes, our schools, our companies and organizations, we typically behave as if the opposite were true. We act as if clean, on-demand water has zero economic value. Especially in the developed world, the value inherent in water is hidden under a cloak of invisibility. Although the water has indispensable usefulness, it rarely has a price.

Yet Fishman ends on a positive note – although the US is using the most water per-capita and although India and China use more water as their economies become more developed, water use can be made much smarter. His most salient example is the reduction in the use of water as compared to GDP in the US. According to Fishman, today the US uses less water (410 billion gallons of water a day) than it used in 1980 (440 billion gallons of water a day). So although the US is an example for high per-capita water use, it is using less water to support a $ 13 trillion economy than it used for the $ 6 trillion 1980 economy, 30 years ago. This is dramatic. Today US farmers (71% of total global water use is for agriculture) use 15% less water to produce 70% more food. This is Fishman’s most important lesson: smarter use can bring a dramatic difference in how we use water and in our water future, without making the world a less habitable place.


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