Dave Walsh/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Water runs our world yet we take it completely for granted. In his mind-opening new narrative, The Big Thirst, journalist Charles Fishman takes readers on a fascinating journey from the moons of Saturn to the hotels of Las Vegas.
The golden age of abundant, free and safe water is over, says Fishman. The problem is most people in the developed world don’t know it.
While he was in Seattle earlier this month, Fishman took time for an interview. Here is an edited version of the discussion.
Martha Baskin: Much has been written about the global water crisis. In The Big Thirst you prefer to talk about thousands of water crises happening all over the world. Some are from drought, others from climate turmoil, still others from insufficient water systems. Why did you take this approach?
Charles Fishman: I think talking about the global water crisis actually has the opposite impact of what water people hope it will do. I think people have too many global crises. There’s a global economic crisis and a global climate crisis, a global health crisis. If you add another crisis people will throw up their hands and say I’m already waking up at 4:30 in the morning to deal with the crises I’ve got, I can’t handle another one. But also it’s not really true.
The water problems of Seattle and of Atlanta, the water problems of Dallas and Delhi, and the water problems of Barcelona are all separate. If Atlanta has a water crisis and actually does smart things to fix that crisis, Orlando and Louisville and Charlotte can’t undo the solution that Atlanta puts in place. By the same token if Atlanta which is kind of cavalier about its water and doesn’t manage its water gets into a crisis, there’s nothing Orlando or Charlotte can do. So there is no global water crisis precisely because all water problems are local, not on your block, but in your community or your region and that’s the only place they can be solved.
Baskin: You suggest because water systems are hidden, almost secretive in the developed world, we don’t understand the golden age of water abundance may be coming to an end. We remain out of touch, despite droughts and record floods that have wrecked water supplies. Most of the nation flushes its toilets with clean drinking water!
Fishman: We flush our toilets with cleaner water than one of seven people has access to every day. They would love to drink out of our toilets. The water system in the U.S. and most of the developed world is a kind of a marvel, a human created miracle. Even a hundred years ago or hundred and ten years ago, at the turn of the last century, most everybody still had to think about water every day. It really made large, economically energetic cities possible because it was suddenly safe to live in the city. After water purification was discovered and put in place it changed the dynamic. And part of the ethic – there were two elements - one was we’re going to see that cities get as much water as they need so you never say you can’t grow because there’s no more water.
And the second thing is the water system is hidden. It’s brilliantly designed and it’s out of view. And the people who did the engineering and designing are proud of that. But now that really does a disservice because people don’t understand the work required to get them their water or what that engineering system costs to sustain. So we need to talk a lot more about what’s behind the process of just being able to turn on the tap and what’s required to sustain it.
Baskin: Your first chapter is called “The Revenge of Water.” Revenge implies getting even. Is that what you mean?
Fishman: What I meant by that is we’ve ignored water for so long now I think water issues are going to become very prominent. So revenge in the sense sometimes when you ignore something important it comes back to bite you. Even here in Seattle which has an incredible abundance of water, you have all kinds of water management problems. Your storm water is an issue, safeguarding the Sound is an issue. Wildlife in the Sound are coming back but if you take a seal or salmon that has died and do a necropsy on it and look at the condition of those creatures, they’re dense with toxins..
Baskin: A recurring theme in The Big Thirst is that water is in trouble and people are in trouble. You might be hard pressed to convince anyone in the wet Northwest.
Fishman: I don’t think the Northwest is in trouble when it comes to water but I think ignoring water here is no smarter than ignoring it in Phoenix or Las Vegas. Abundance should not be confused with surplus, with excess. Nor should abundance be confused with thinking that you don’t have to take care of what you have because abundance can be both tainted and overtapped very easily.
I spent a month in Australia and a month in India to see what impact scarcity has. Australia is a place that looks like a lot like the U.S. in economic and cultural terms. It’s very familiar. They had a 10-year-long drought across the entire continent and they had to remake their entire economy to accommodate a lower availability of water. Now they didn’t dry out the economy but in every major city in the country they changed their water habits.
They changed water habits at home and in the commercial and farming and business sectors and now, of course, it’s raining in Australia they’re having terrible flooding. The drought was followed immediately by flooding but you’re never sorry that you learned to live successfully with less of a resource. There’s nobody with a car that gets 35 miles to a gallon that thinks boy, I just wish I was driving a car that gets 18 miles to the gallon.
India is a place where half the people in the country don’t have access to clean water every day, that’s 600 million people — that’s twice the U.S. population — who don’t have access to water every day. And while I was in India I did the water walk with a group of women and girls in a village outside of Delhi and they do this twice a day every day. It’s actually a very short water walk in world terms it was just 4 kilometers out and 4 back, but I was only able to carry 20 pounds of water on my head. That’s about three and a half gallons. If you have to walk to get your water every day often that means you do almost nothing else. We should be appalled that anybody has to walk to get their water everyday.
Baskin: Yet there’s one city in India, Navi Mumbai, that decided daily, accessible water could be an economic tool as well as a liberating one.
Fishman: Navi Mumbai decided that 24-hour-a day-water was important to the nature of the city. It’s not a short story of how they got there. It took them eight years of politics. They had to raise water rates. They had to dig up every street in the city. They determined to separate their water supply pipes from their wastewater pipes so that even if there was a leak they wouldn’t cross contaminate. So what it took was a group of local leaders saying we want Navi Mumbai’s water system to look a certain way 15 years from now and say: We are going to marshal the argument and the money. We’re also going to get out and talk about this in a way that’s real and start to prove it little by little so that we gather the political support necessary to do it.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!