A Thirsty World

It’s easy to argue that a magazine can’t tackle as complex an issue as water and get it right–the same way that an academic or a scientific analysis might. But the tradeoffs are easily outweighed by the considerable resources of the National Geographic Society. And the result: a mixture of stunning photography, graphic text, and imaginative essays. So even if the issues of an increasing worldwide shortage of water are simplified, the accomplishments of accessibility for the layman in this special issue on Water are major, likely to draw attention to the looming crisis in a way no other media can explain the problem.

Let’s begin with Tina Rosenberg’s unforgettable account (“The Burden of Thirst”) of one woman’s Sisyphus-like daily struggle to provide water for her family. The essay begins as follows, “Aylito Binayo’s feet know the mountain. Even at four in the morning she can run down rocks to the river by starlight alone and climb the steep mountain back up to her village with 50 pounds of water on her back. She has made this journey three times a day for nearly all her 25 years. So has every other woman in her village of Foro, in the Konso district of southwestern Ethiopia. Binayo dropped out of school when she was eight years old, in part because she had to help her mother fetch water from the Toiro River. The water is dirty and unsafe to drink; every year that the ongoing drought continues, the once mighty river grows more exhausted. But it is the only water Foro has ever had.”

All that’s the part easiest understood. Binayo and other women carry water eight hours a day; their husbands sit around, talking and drinking home-made beer (brewed from the water). Much of the water she fetches is for the farm. For herself, it’s a different issue. “The average American uses a hundred gallons of water just at home every day; Aylito Binayo makes do with two and a half gallons.” She washes her hands maybe once a day, her clothes once a year, her body only occasionally. The nearest district health center is sixteen miles away; “almost half the 500 patients treated daily [are] sick with waterborne diseases.” Some women in Foro make the trip five times a day. Yet, Binayo’s story has a happy ending, because the villages of Konso are about to receive pipe-born water.

Many people in the developing are not so fortunate. “Millions of the world’s poorest subsist on fewer than five gallons [per day]. Forty-six percent of the people on earth do not have water piped into their homes. Women in developing countries walk an average of 3.7 miles to get water. In fifteen years, 1.8 billion people will live in regions of severe water scarcity.” The problem—as much as anything—is that 97.5 percent of the earth’s water is salty. Of the 2.5 percent remaining, two-thirds is ice. That does not leave much for human consumption. “The amount of moisture on Earth has not changed. The water the dinosaurs drank millions of years ago is the same water that falls as rain today.”

Worse, as everyone but Republicans know, the climate is changing. In an equally impressive essay—“The Gods Must Be Furious”—Brook Larmer explains why the highest places of the world are heating up faster than the lower altitudes. “Of the 680 glaciers Chinese scientists monitor closely on the Tibetan Plateau, 95 percent are shedding more ice than they’re adding…. Full-scale glacier shrinking is inevitable…it will lead to ecological catastrophe.” China’s situation—in spite of so many new dams—is bleak. The country “has less water than Canada but 40 times more people.” The Third Pole (the Tibetan Plateau) is the source of water for much of the Indian subcontinent. Delhi is only “180 miles south of the Himalayan glaciers,” yet already in some areas of the city, residents spend hours searching for or waiting for water deliveries.

The scariest aspect of the water problem is the growing likelihood of water conflicts across borders (in the United States, it’s across state lines). In the Middle East, these conflicts have already begun. Don Belt’s essay describes the 90 percent decline of the Jordan River during the last five decades. It doesn’t help—anywhere—that so much water is necessary for agriculture.

There’s a fold-out map of the world’s rivers included with the Geographic Water issue, filled with fascinating information. But the flip-side of the map is even more revealing because it delineates the amount of water necessary for food production. Beef is at the high end, requiring 1857 gallons in order to produce one pound; at the extreme end are strawberries, needing only 33 gallons.

Other figures on the chart list the gallons required for common goods: 2900 gallons for a pair of blue jeans; 766 gallons for a t-shirt made of cotton; 634, for a hamburger; 9 gallons for a cup of tea. The figures are not only revealing but thoroughly depressing, considering the earth’s growing population, recreational needs (golf courses), water lost by leaky pipes in most urban sanitation systems, though here and there there are genuine success stories such as Joel K. Bourne, Jr’s opening to “Pipe Dream”: “On a blistering day in the megalopolis that is southern California, Shivaji Deshmukh of the Orange County Water District offers me a cup of cool, clean water that just yesterday was swirling around in an Anaheim toilet bowl.”

Besides recycling, there’s hope for greatly improved and less expensive methods of desalinization, but probably the single most important aspect of man’s need to learn how to live with the only water he has is raising the awareness of everyone on earth. Barbara Kingsolver—in her lead essay in the issue–has the right approach; we need to begin regarding the place where we all reside as Mother Water. Most of us haven’t yet begun to think about the problem.

Rush out and get a copy of the National Geographic’s Water issue before they all disappear from the news stands. Marvel at the extraordinary photographs; digest the dozens of graphs and charts that describe everything you’ll ever want to know about water. And cheer the editors for taking on such an urgent topic.

Water: Our Thirsty World
The National Geographic Society, April 2010, 184 pp., $5.99

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature, American University, Washington, D.C.




Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.