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5 must-read books on water

From irrigation in ancient Mesopotamia to the modern bottled water industry, five recent books investigate how water has created the world we live in, and how it will shape our future. Tony Allan’s Virtual Waterreveals the hidden water costs in producing a single espresso, while James Balog presents breathtaking photos of vanishing glaciers. 


1. Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water
Peter H. Gleick

How did water, a free, natural resource, turn into a luxury commodity? In the United States, bottled water is everywhere; every second a thousand people buy a plastic bottle of water. That’s more than 85 million bottles of water per day. And certain people spend $50 or more for “premium” bottled water that is supposedly treated with some magical process. This despite tap water being readily available, safe and cheap across the country.

Peter Gleick, a world expert on sustainable water use and a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, turns his scientific eye and natural storytelling ability on the American love affair with bottled water. He explores the effects the bottled-water industry have on the environment, on American’s wallets and how skillful marketing has changed a nation’s attitude to water.

“The book’s power lies in his obvious yet compelling argument: rather than shore up the natural processes that have provided us with drinkable water for centuries, we have invented an elaborate business that causes more harm than good.” – Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post


2. Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to Our Planet’s Most Precious Resource
Tony Allan

Everything we buy – from food, to electronics and energy – has a hidden water cost, what Prof. Tony Allan calls virtual water. So the growing, producing, packaging and distribution of coffee beans, mean a single espresso takes 140 liters of water to make. A slice of toast costs 40 liters, a serving of bacon requires 480 liters. In the US or UK, the average virtual water consumption to feed and water a meat-eating individual is 5,000 liters per day. That’s 15 bathtubs filled to the brim.

This is how Tony Allan, winner of the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize, makes the gravity of the water crisis accessible, without sacrificing the complexity. Allan expands his remit to the national and international, looking at the difficulty of shared management of trans-boundary waters, the challenges of raising awareness of virtual water, the impact of population growth and how the solutions could revolve around the farmer. These are weighty issues, but in Allan’s deft hands, the read is as informative as it is fun.

“This is a small book with a huge story … Tony Allan is wise, infinitely knowledgeable in his field, witty, informative, persuasive – and he’s right! Buy this book!” – Margaret Catley-Carlson, UN Secretary General Advisor on Water and Sanitation


3. Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers
James Balog

In 2007, photographer James Balog set out to document the planet’s changing ecosystem by planting 27 time-lapse cameras at 18 glaciers around the world. This was the start of the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS). Each camera records change by taking a photograph every half hour during daylight, yielding around 8,000 frames per year. The results show the devastating – and immediate – impact of climate change on the planet. In early 2012, the documentary Chasing Ice tracked the technological, physical and emotional challenges faced by the EIS team, and the rewards when they were able to offer policy-makers visual proof of climate change. Now Balog has sifted through EIS’s million-plus image archive for this selection of 200 photographs that celebrate the art and architecture of ice. The magnificent endangered beauty of the glaciers is breathtaking, and a sober warning.


4. Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis
Cynthia Barnett

What we need is a water ethic, says award-winning investigative journalist Cynthia Barnett. Just as the green revolution has changed our attitudes to petrol-use, recycling and locally sourced foods, so a blue revolution could revive a respect for water.

Focusing on water use in the US (where NASA has measured lawn covers 63,240 square miles – which is bigger than the state of New York, and drinks up more water than all the country’s feed grain crops), Barnett finds inspiration from international water solutions, such as Singapore’s “closed water loop” recycling program and technologies that cut water use in half and could slash costs for farmers and businesses. The power of Barnett’s thorough argument is hope. She doesn’t chastise the lawn-owner, rather she shows that change is possible, all one has to do, is act. 

“Barnett shows how good water use practices can go viral, with massive benefits for society and nature. Blue Revolution offers affordable, practical, down-to-earth solutions for America’s water crisis.”—Stephen R. Carpenter, Director of the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and winner of the 2011 Stockholm Water Prize

[Blue Revolution] Named one of the 10 best science books of 2011 by The Boston Globe.


5. Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind
Brian Fagan

Could the solution to the modern water crisis lie with our ancestors? Brian Fagan believes it does, and takes readers back five millennia to ancient Mesopotamia to demonstrate how society was shaped by its relationship to fresh water. Fagan travels through the centuries and across the world, noting how when water management is responsible and community-focused, civilizations thrive and last, yet when it is abused, the societal and ecological devastation is momentous. Fagan’s argument falters when it comes to the water-work wonders achieved by the ancient Chinese and Romans through use of slave labor and harsh rule, however, the historical breath and detail of his research is enough to recommend the read.

“Eye-opening . . . Making sense of water and its place in the development of civilization . . . [Fagan] understands how the ancients struggled with changing climate and that what matters has always been the fluctuating availability of water, rather than shifting temperatures. That is an important lesson for us now.” —Washington Post

Be sure not to miss our previous interview with Charles Fishman about his book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.

by Jane Christie-Smith