Back to the Well

Back to the Well cover

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *