Our Thirsty Future

In March, twenty-four thousand delegates from around the world gathered in Kyoto for the World Water Forum. “Our discussions will have far more effect on humankind for the twenty-first century than…any other political problem of the day,” said William Cosgrove, vice-president of the World Water Council. The United Nations reported that it had identified three hundred potential “zones” in which there is now “water conflict.” Indeed, some development workers have insisted for the last two decades that water is becoming the planet’s most precious substance—“wet gold”—and that the next round of regional wars will be fought over rivers and aquifers.

And yet, even as they were supposed to be meeting, delegates gathered around large-screen televisions to watch the latest news from Iraq—from that other war fought in part over last century’s preeminent liquid, good old oil. Hundreds of delegates were leaving the conference early, and the heads of state were staying home. Kofi Annan sent his wife, and Jacques Chirac sent only a videotape decrying “resignation in the face of inequality.”

Water, in other words, is a problem whose time has not quite yet come. It hasn’t even risen to the status of the last crisis that wasn’t solved by a meeting in Kyoto, global warming. The burden of the books under review, however, is that the problem can’t be postponed much longer.

Clearly, water has long been a critical problem for poor people. In many places, access to clean water all but defines poverty. The consensus among experts is that 1.4 billion people in the world do not have access to safe water (that is, roughly, one person in four), and 2.3 billion people lack adequate sanitation (more than one in three). If you live in North America or Japan, you use on average 158 gallons of water a day (even though Americans now drink far more soda than tap water). If you live in Europe you use about 80 gallons, and if you live in sub-Saharan Africa 2.5 to 5 gallons. If you’re unlucky enough to live in rural Haiti, it’s less than that. As a result, 2.2 million people die annually from diseases related to contaminated drinking water—including about one child every ten seconds. “Every year two million children are dying from lack of access to water or waterborne diseases,” according to William Cosgrove. “That’s year in and year out, it’s been going on for decades.”

But that steady drip, drip, drip of daily dying has not led to a political crisis—it’s more like background noise. It doesn’t get louder and more ominous, as with AIDS in Africa; it doesn’t threaten visible people, as with SARS, which this spring claimed lives in affluent parts of Asia. Though there has been a growing number of protests in cities around the world, the worst water problems are often in the countryside, where protests rarely draw attention. Who …

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