The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart practically cowered under his desk last month when journalist Alex Prud’homme appeared.
That’s because Prud’homme’s just-published The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century is 435 pages of bad news about how North Americans waste, contaminate and violate our water supplies.
“Water is a deceptively plain substance,” he notes in his introduction. “Yet it is the basis for life, and is considered an ‘axis resource,’ meaning one that underlies all others.”
Without water, there is no life. As we have seen this summer, droughts have ravaged the U.S. mid- and southwest, China and even France. In Somalia and Kenya, it’s a humanitarian disaster.
In North America, we’re spoiled.
On the phone from his home in New York City, Prud’homme says, “We really need to start thinking about water.
“Because we’ve become so good at collecting, transporting and treating water, people feel they can turn the tap on anytime they want and get as much water as they want, at any temperature they want, for as long as they want. So we’ve forgotten how important it is. But what we haven’t done is manage it very sustainably or wisely.
“But now conditions have changed. There are more people on Earth, we are using water more and more, the climate is shifting, our diets are changing, the ways we pollute water are shifting. Our indifference is a luxury we no longer can afford.”
On a per-capita basis, Canadians are just behind the world’s most wasteful water users, the Americans, reports the Conference Board of Canada. That’s a lot of water down the drain.
What’s more, says Prud’homme, we excrete Viagra, synthetic estrogen and other prescription drugs — as well as illicit substances — when we use the toilet. Some of us are even flushing chemicals and leftover pills away. We poison fish every time we wash with antibacterial soap. Our factory farms send rivers of runoff — including potentially E. coli-carrying manure — into lakes and streams. Turn on an appliance, including the computer on which you may be reading this, water is used to power hydroelectric dams, or cool nuclear plants, or run coal generators.
And personal water usage is just a few drops in the bucket compared to what industry uses and pollutes on a daily basis.
Then there are the catastrophes. Last year’s BP Deepwater Horizon explosion spewed at least 2.5 million gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, ranking it as the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history.
But that’s nothing, according to Prud’homme, who notes that every day “millions of tiny leaks from the cars, trucks, motorcycles, lawn mowers, boats, planes, snowmobiles and other machines we use” get washed into sewers and flow into the rivers, lakes and the ocean.
Citing a National Research Council report, he writes that “humans spill more than 300 million gallons of oil into North American waters every decade, which is double the highest estimate of the BP spill.”
“This is not as photogenic as Deepwater Horizon or Hurricane Katrina, something where images can really sway people emotions,” he tells the Toronto Star. “The fact is, ultimately it’s far more destructive.”
But The Ripple Effect is about a lot more than water quality. It’s also about water quantity, which we take for granted.
In the U.S., water is literally poured into the desert.
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That’s why Prud’homme zeroes in on the driest city in the driest state, Las Vegas, Nev., where the famous strip’s hotels boast extravagant water features, water slides, water shows and even shark tanks.
While Sin City has started to recycle and manage its water — that could be your used bathwater spurting out of the Bellagio’s famous fountain — it has also been snatching up ranch land to claim the groundwater beneath.
“Las Vegas is the city that wasn’t supposed to be,” says Prud’homme. “Despite the fact that they have implemented a lot of efficiencies, it’s still a city in the desert, which is kind of crazy. So they’re considering this project which would essentially build this pipeline up to central eastern Nevada where the basins are seemingly dry on the surface but there’s actually water beneath. The ranchers and the environmentalists and Native Americans are not happy about it and, most important, the state of Utah is not happy about it because that aquifer is shared between Nevada and Utah.”
Which brings us to water ownership.
Prud’homme devotes many pages to tycoons such as Canada’s Maurice Strong and American corporate raider T. Boone Pickens, who both own thousands and thousands of acres of land atop two of the U.S.’s largest aquifers. It’s a 21st-century bonanza.
“The hydrocarbon era is over. Water is the new oil!” says Pickens in The Ripple Effect.
Then there are the multinationals that are eager to buy water, bottle it and sell it for profit.
They’ll also tempt cash-strapped municipalities with offers of replacing aging infrastructure, such as century-old sewer pipes, in return for collecting fees for water.
“This gets to this really interesting moral question,” says Prud’homme. “Is water a common (good) like the air we breathe and therefore should be free to everyone, or is it a commodity like oil and natural gas that is extracted and processed and then sold in the market place?
“Sometimes private water can be good. They’ll come in and fix up your utility and they will run it more efficiently and you’ll get better water. Yes, there’s a price for that but it’s an affordable price.
“But there are other times where the dark side of human nature has gotten the better of water companies and they have seized on this essential resource. Private water companies have occasionally gouged their customers and started charging high water rates when people are desperate for a drink. This has happened in places like Central and South America, and it’s led to protests and riots.”
Like many, Prud’homme worries the coming water scarcity could lead to hostilities.
“That’s the great fear,” he says. “If you look at places like Pakistan-India, the two Koreas, China and its neighbours or the Tigris-Euphrates nations, there are certainly going to be tensions in the coming years, maybe even violence. There’s only so much water in the world, the population is growing, the climate is changing and people are using water in new ways.”
Canadians, who may feel smug about having one of the world’s largest supplies of fresh water, may need to, well, pour some of that water into their wine.
“Canada is water rich but it’s not so easy to pipe water from Quebec to Alberta, for example, and there are consequences,” cautions Prud’homme. “There is a way of managing water more holistically instead of having a hodgepodge of laws and initiatives.”
Pointing to the tiny island nation of Singapore, he says, “It’s an island nation and it’s ruled by an autocrat but they use water extremely efficiently. Their system is overseen by a body of highly skilled and educated managers who are well-funded and independent. It can make decisions based on what’s right rather than what’s politically expedient.
“Every drop counts there. They are always reminding citizens how important it is to be efficient and to conserve. There’s a great depth of education about water there that neither Canada nor the U.S. has.
“So these are lessons and strategies that can be adopted on a larger scale for nations like Canada and the U.S. We are going to have no choice over the coming decade.”