Not a drop to drink
Pointing out that it takes 800 gallons of water to make one hamburger, a
British writer argues that water shortage is the "defining crisis" of our time.
By Katharine Mieszkowski
Apr. 25, 2006 | LEAVE THE TAP running while brushing your teeth, and you're
dumping four and a half gallons of water down the drain, according to the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
That's the kind of shiny stat trotted out to inspire profligate
water-wasters to conserve. Just shut off the tap, save water. It's easy!
Huzzah! Yet, as British science journalist Fred Pearce makes crystal clear
in "When the Rivers Run Dry," the water we consume -- and waste -- in
everyday life is hardly limited to what comes out of our own faucets.
Pearce, a longtime editor for New Scientist, who is now an environmental
consultant for the magazine, calculates that it takes 40 gallons of water
to grow the ingredients for the bread in a single sandwich, not to mention
265 gallons to produce a glass of milk and 800 gallons for a hamburger. And
that's just what's for lunch. Don't get him started on what you wear to
this water-rich feast. Even a simple cotton T-shirt bearing some hopeful
green slogan like "Save the Bay" is a huge water user. Pearce figures it
takes 25 bathtubs-full of water to grow the scant 9 ounces of cotton for
such a shirt.
Water is the ultimate renewable resource, literally falling from the sky
back to earth after it evaporates. And since it's so heavy and cumbersome
to move great distances, it's also a local resource. Yet, start quantifying
the water embedded in foods and goods, the "virtual water" as economists
call it, and water is fast becoming a global commodity like oil. There's
Brazilian water in the coffee beans grown for an American latte; there's
Pakistani water in the cotton in that T-shirt.
In "When the Rivers Run Dry," Pearce finds a growing strain on many local
water resources around the globe, as the world's population grows. As he
visits dozens of countries, he sees rivers that have been so diverted,
depleted and dried out, such as the Rio Grande, that they no longer conform
to their original map locations. Pearce reports that the fallout from the
competition for water resources is enormous, exacerbating tensions between
Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank and even accidentally poisoning
villagers by the millions in India and Bangladesh.
Yet, Pearce also finds hope in the way some communities around the world
are harvesting and using water. Salon spoke with the writer by phone from
England about why he thinks we need a "blue revolution."
If there are 650 gallons of water in a pound of cheddar cheese, is it
futile to make small gestures like turning off the water when you brush
your teeth in the name of saving it?
It helps with water bills, so it makes sense in that way. And it may make
sense with local water resources, which may be constrained, just within a
small town, or even a community.
At the global scale, no, it doesn't make much difference. Most of the water
that each one of us uses comes from the water used to irrigate the crops
that we consume. That's principally food, but not only. Cotton for our
clothing is a major user of water around the world.
We don't really know as we pick up the food from the store whether our
purchases are responsible for making some local crisis elsewhere worse, but
it is often the case. Many countries are facing serious water shortages;
often their rivers are running dry, or their water tables falling very
fast, and in many cases much of that water is being exported by those
countries in the form of goods. Yet, when we pay market price for those
goods, that price doesn't usually include any estimate of the cost to the
water resources. We still think of water as an unlimited resource rather
like the air we breathe.
Now some countries are entirely dependent on water from elsewhere to feed
their people, on this "virtual water."
Many countries have run out of water for growing their own crops and are
now importing water in the form of food. Egypt really, for instance, lost
the ability to feed itself perhaps 30 years ago. It now imports a large
amount of water in the form of food. That is the only way it can do it.
Water is pretty heavy stuff to move, but the trade in products produced
with water is huge, and in many ways can be seen as a trade in water.
What are some of the rivers around the world that have run dry, or are most
in danger of it?
There are two rivers in a bad way in the U.S., one of which is the
Colorado. There's a U.S. treaty with Mexico to deliver water over the
border, and the U.S. has considerable difficulty in providing any water
over the border to meet its minimum treaty requirement, because all the
water is used up essentially by farmers and increasingly by cities along
The water goes off to Southern California, Phoenix, Tucson [Ariz.]. By the
time the river crosses the border into Mexico, which is close to its delta,
it is really very dry. There's not a lot of water left.
The Rio Grande is another interesting example. It essentially dries up
about a thousand kilometers from the sea near El Paso [Texas]. The riverbed
is virtually dry for 300 kilometers before some more water comes back in
from tributaries coming in from Mexico.
So, whatever it looks like on the map, really the Rio Grande is two rivers.
There's a river that gives out at El Paso, and there's the tributary that
comes in and replenishes the last run to the Gulf of Mexico. There are very
serious economic repercussions from the drying up of the Rio Grande. I met
farmers who simply no longer have water to irrigate their crops, and that's
on both sides of the border, on the Mexican side and on the Texas side.
If you look around the world, virtually no water flows from the Nile into
the Mediterranean; very little water flows from the Indus through Pakistan
into the Arabian Sea; the Yellow River in Northern China, one of the
world's longest rivers, is essentially dry for much of the year. A little
flow goes down to the sea, but very little. So, this is close to becoming a
global phenomenon, some of the world's largest rivers, and longest rivers,
simply not reaching the sea.
One response to rivers running dry is to move water enormous distances, at
the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. What do you make of such grand
There are plans now for huge transfers of water across some of the world's
biggest, most densely populated countries in order to provide water for the
new mega-cities, and for farming. China's got one of the largest, and
that's going to take a large amount of water out of the River Yangtze,
which runs through the south of the country, and deliver it into the
northern plains, to the Yellow River, which has essentially run dry for
much of its course.
Essentially, the Yangtze is going to replenish the waters of the north of
China. This project is already underway. Two of the three branches that are
planned are already under construction. China hopes to be delivering water
from the Yangtze to Beijing in time for the Olympics in 2008. This project
will probably cost something like $60 billion. It's a major enterprise in
order to keep northern China from running dry. India has talked about
something even larger.
Yet, in these vast projects to move water around, aren't incredible amounts
of the water lost through evaporation or seepage from canals?
Many large engineering projects suffer from a huge range of inefficiencies,
which is why -- in general -- I'm not in favor of them. It's much better to
do things locally, because you can control the water more. One thing that
surprised me greatly was discovering that with Lake Nasser behind the Aswan
High Dam in Egypt -- one of the world's kind of totemic dams -- that the
evaporation from the reservoir behind that dam annually amounts to, in
metric, 15 cubic kilometers of water [3.6 cubic miles], if you can imagine
a vast amount like that.
That is roughly the amount of water that is used by the whole of the United
Kingdom in a year. In other words, you could fill every tap, meet every
water demand in the U.K., a country of more than 50 million people, simply
by the water that evaporates from the surface behind the Aswan Dam.
Now, that's an amazing statistic, but there are other reservoirs that lose
similar amounts of water, especially in the hot tropical regions. That
can't make much sense, if you have a country which is desperately short of
water, and desperately trying to collect it up to deliver it to farmers.
There are also huge evaporation rates from some of the distribution canals.
Also, seepage from beneath distribution canals can be a major loss of water.
What's the solution?
With seepage, often, farmers, being rather practical people, simply sink
some drilling rigs into the ground, and stick a pump in and pump that water
up again. So, they tend to recycle it. But evaporation is a real loss. I'm
not quite sure what you do about it other than manage water more locally.
One of the most heartening trends I've seen traveling around the world --
and I've seen it in China and India and in other places -- is the effort by
farmers and villagers to harvest the rain as it falls. They don't let the
water go into the rivers and run away to perhaps a large dam, or run away
to the sea. They simply capture it locally, and even pour it back down
their wells, creating a storage system so that they can pump it up later in
the year. So, particularly in India where most of the rain falls in 100
hours over 100 days, you simply have to capture that and store it locally
in ponds, or even underground in wells. That's a rather efficient way for a
local community to manage its water supply. It's being very effectively
applied in thousands of villages across India.
Are you optimistic that there will be a kind of "blue revolution" of
innovative ways to conserve and capture water?
I'm an optimist, not a pessimist. I'm a pessimist in the sense that we use
water so inefficiently and so carelessly now that it makes you despair, but
I'm an optimist also because there is so much potential for doing things
better. When you find that irrigation systems waste 60 or 70 percent of
their water it does make you despair, but you realize that there is a huge
potential to do things better. I find that given the chance farmers and
local communities, and even towns and countries, will and can do a lot of
Stills, conserving water in one location can mean just donating it to
someone else to squander.
Unlike many of the resources that we rely on, water does move -- down
rivers and between countries -- in ways that we can't do much about. When
water gets short, the conflicts that arise over water do get very complicated.
On the West Bank, for instance, the Israelis and the Palestinians are
almost as much in conflict over water as they are over land. The
Palestinians are very angry that they are not allowed to sink more wells
and drill more boreholes on the West Bank region, because the Israelis say
that the water is already fully used, when most of that water is in fact
used by Israelis not only in their settlements, but also in Israel proper.
While we often see water as a kind of free resource, provided by nature,
once it gets in short supply the powerful do have an ability to grab hold
and keep water -- whether behind dams, or by sticking pumps into the
ground. We haven't quite reached the situation where water wars are
breaking out, but we're getting quite close in some parts of the world.
Where do you see potential for future water wars?
The River Nile is one, which is often talked about. The Egyptian government
has said in the past that if a war is likely to be fought in their region,
in North East Africa, it is almost certainly going to be about the River
Nile. Egypt is absolutely and totally dependent on the Nile water to
survive. The Nile flows through 10 countries before it reaches Egypt, which
is very concerned that a country upstream, like Ethiopia, might start to
build large dams, which would interrupt the flow of water down the Nile to
People have also rattled their sabers over the Tigris and the Euphrates,
both of which flow out of Turkey through Iraq on their way to the sea. In
fact, during the first Gulf War, Turkey threatened to stop the flow of
water down into Iraq as an act of war, using the dams it was building. It
never did it, but it threatened to, and that caused a great deal of unease
in that region.
India and Pakistan have a treaty over the River Indus, which flows through
India. In fact, it collects most of its water in India, and then flows on
into Pakistan, which is heavily dependent on that river for its survival.
There is an agreement about who can have what water from that river, but if
that treaty would break down then that again could be the basis for a very
nasty water war. Of course, now you're talking about two countries that are
both nuclear powers.
Is the American lifestyle more consumptive of water than other counties, as
it is of energy resources, like oil and natural gas? And do you think the
U.S. might end up importing water from Canada in the future?
It's an issue that keeps coming up. Canada has a great deal of water,
particularly in the West, and America has quite a lot of demand for water,
particularly in the West. So, you can imagine circumstances under which the
U.S. would like to get its hands on Canadian water. Canadians are adamantly
opposed to this, and I think that you'd have a great deal of difficulty
getting any water out of them. They are prepared to use their rivers to
generate hydroelectricity to sell electricity to the U.S., but they're not
prepared to sell their water.
Domestically, American users are among the highest water users in the
world, but you [Americans] stabilized your water consumption in recent
years, principally by having more efficient toilets that use much less
water in the flush. Canadians have not changed their toilets in the same
way. They are probably now the No. 1 domestic users of water in individual
homes. But neither the U.S. nor Canada reaches anything like the per capita
water consumption of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Both of those use absolutely vast amounts of water to irrigate their cotton
crops. It's a system set up by the Soviet Union, which has been carried on
through today. They produce huge amounts of cotton grown using water taken
out of the rivers in what is in many ways an arid region. The main
consequence of that huge use of water is that they've dried up the Aral
Sea, which was once the fourth biggest inland sea. It's sitting in Central
Asia not far from the Caspian Sea, which is even bigger. They dried up the
rivers that fed that sea, virtually no water reaches the sea anymore, and
the sea has retreated fantastically.
I have been to see it, and you stand on the shoreline or what was the
shoreline of the Aral Sea, and look out towards what once were waters where
fishing boats got good catches, and all there is is desert. The water is
over the horizon 60 miles away. It's one of the most extraordinary sights
you'll see in the world -- how the Aral Sea has disappeared. People call it
one of the great ecological catastrophes in the world, and I really think
that's true. It has happened entirely as a result of misuse of water to
pour the contents of what were large rivers onto fields to grow cotton, and
it destroyed a sea in the process.
[Editor's note: A recent report in the New York Times found that the Aral
Sea is being brought back in some places.]
Aside from rivers and seas, how is water disappearing that we can't so
readily see, underground water?
As rivers are running dry, in many countries of the world, and I've seen
this especially in India, farmers are beginning to rely more and more on
pumping out underground water reserves. There is usually a lot of water
underground one way or another, some of it recent from rainfall, some of it
essentially fossil water that's been there for thousands of years. Farmers
are pumping this water out, which is lowering the water table.
That is causing an emerging water crisis in a number of Asian countries,
but India is probably the worst example. They call it a creeping anarchy
because nobody has any control over what the farmers do. They simply get a
private drilling rig. They drill down, and they stick a pump into the
ground, and start pumping the water up.
In some parts of India where they're relying more and more on underground
water, they're bringing up unexpected poisons, perfectly natural poisons,
but ones which have lain in the rock beneath them undisturbed for hundreds
of thousands of years. The two big examples are fluoride and arsenic. Both
of these turn out to be absorbed by underground water. Because there is no
great tradition of using underground water, until recent years, nobody
really knew. But as farmers and people start pumping this water up, they're
finding that there are huge rates of poisoning -- especially in Bangladesh
and in West Bengal in India.
What are some of the effects of those poisons?
Well, they kill ultimately. They're slow-acting poisons, so you can drink
the water for a number of years and then you slowly start having effects.
Scientists from the World Health Organization have said that they believe
this is one of the world's worst poisoning epidemics ever seen, because it
involves tens of millions of people in both Bangladesh and parts of eastern
What impact will climate change likely have on water supplies around the world?
Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen to rainfall under global
warming. We're fairly certain that climate change will make most of the
world warmer. There are uncertainties about how weather systems are going
to change, but the bottom line probably is that the wet places will get
wetter, and the places that are dry will get still drier.