Back to the Well

Back to the Well cover

Shortlisted for the 2016 Donner Prize for Best Public Policy Book by a Canadian

Shortlisted for the Evelyn Richardson Prize for Non-Fiction

No, really, we’re not doomed …

As the drought in the American southwest stretches past its fourth interminable year, as Brazil’s biggest city comes within weeks of running out of water altogether, as Beijing’s water table drops alarmingly, as water crises seep into every continent, as water-borne diseases continue to kill escalating numbers of millions, as floods ravage cities from Salvador to Mozambique, here’s a clear-eyed look at the biggest water question of all: how could it possibly have come to this? Can it really be that bad?

Have we really reached peak water, the point at which the renewable (and safe) global supply is forever outstripped by unquenchable demand? Or was the irrepressible Pollyanna right to be always glad, and our water woes can be fixed by clever management?

Sure, it’s true, as a recent UN report put it, that global water use has grown at more than twice the rate of the world’s population for the last century, and it’s true that we are drawing down, or overdrafting, many of our water resources at a rate that is unsustainable, and it’s true that too many rivers no longer run all the way to the sea, and it’s true that we are still polluting water that we should have cleaned up decades ago, and it’s true that nearly half the global population does not have safe and clean water for everyday use. But no, we’re not necessarily doomed, and this book will explain why.

Along the way, Back to the Well takes on some of the biggest shibboleths bedevilling the water world: who owns (or should own) and who manages (or should manage) the world’s water for greatest equity and greatest efficiency? Is the privatization of water supply a solution – or just another way the late 20th century neoliberal assault on public initiatives is manifesting itself? Is access to water a human right? Should it be?

Fifteen years after the publication of Water, an influential Governor General’s Award–winning book on the state of global water, here is a fascinating assessment of the politics of our most precious and contested resource — from the personal and commercial uses of water to the impact of climate change and global conflicts.

As Back to the Well explains, looked at one way the “water crisis” is global. Looked at more closely, the crisis splits into two intersecting and overlapping crises: the crisis of supply (shortages) and the crisis of contamination (pollution). Looked at more correctly, there are no global-scale crises. Instead, there are a thousand smaller regional and river-basin crises, only some of which intersect or overlap with the others, and there are, in fact, still many places without crises at all. This makes water problems more tractable — easier to solve, not harder. This book delves into that too.

From the book’s introduction: “If we can avoid the most deeply irrelevant ideological quarrels to which the water world is so prone (the notion of a callous Big Water cartel that would reserve clean water for the rich, paranoia about bulk water transfers from “us” to “them,” polemics against dams, quarrels over whether water should be defined as a human right), a wide range of techniques will take us very close to solution.”

Back to the Well proposes an optimum path, in conclusions that will perhaps surprise both sides of the main debate and disconcert all who cling to either end of water’s ideological spectrum.

Published in September 2015 by Goose Lane Editions.

Reviews for Back to the Well:

“This book will ruffle some feathers as well as open some minds, but for anyone who cares about the earth’s most precious resource, it is worth the read.” — Publisher’s Weekly (2015-11-19)

“Having laid out a discouraging list of the world’s water-related problems, de Villiers does not fail to put forward some solutions. In fact, since there are so many different water-related crises, each with its own challenges, he offers a large toolbox of solutions.” — Winnipeg Free Press (2015-10-21)

“Marq de Villiers’s latest book on water, Back to the Well, is an impressive survey from the brink of water wars, failures, and crises, culminating in a forceful prescription for a sustainable water future. The soft path of demand-side management, at the heart of Green strategies, is a hopeful and practical direction.” — Elizabeth May, OC, MP, Leader of the Green Party of Canada (2015-09-01)

“Marq de Villiers is an expert guide to the vast and contentious terrain of water management, and in Back to the Well he steers skilfully past ideological excess and careless hyperbole to provide a clear and thorough account of the state of the planet’s water today. This is a provocative and engagingly written book that strikes a welcome balance between hard-eyed truth and buoyant optimism.” — Chris Turner, author of The Leap and The War on Science (2015-09-01)

Amazon Readers Write:

By “Turning Point” on Dec 16 2015
Back to the Well reveals the rapidly increasing threats to clean water around our planet. Mr. de Villiers provides accurate information, a global perspective, and suggests practical actions we should take to meet these threats. He invites us to think big and think small at the same time. Bread may be the staff of life but without potable water we’ll choke on it.
Back to the Well poses important questions such as who owns water—and who ought to? How should we balance the “soft path” approach (water management to reduce demand) with the “hard path” (dams, reservoirs, pipelines treatment plants, high-end technology, and the like)?
It may have been Mark Twain who said, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” Mr. de Villiers tells us who is already fighting and—with 1.5 billion people without access to safe water—who will be. More frequent “water wars” may be avoided if Back to the Well motivates readers to join the growing legion of activists who refuse to accept the status quo.
Politicians who are “climate change deniers” also have their heads buried in the ever-expanding sand with respect to water problems. They may not read this book—but the rest of us should.

Excellent Read
By “Lisa Turner” on Dec 21 2015
Marq de Villiers’s conversational writing style makes Back to the Well a pleasure to read. At the same time, its contents make your brain buzz. He never rehashes the obvious, gnashes his teeth in despair, or suggests unattainable panaceas. After suggesting many practical solutions, his summation is that we need to be smarter in our policies, spend as much as we have to, and play much better together.

Mr. de Villiers is also the author of Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource in which he analyzed the quantity and quality of the world water supply. Like Back to the Well, it is a must read.