Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On My Nightstand: Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, by Steven Solomon traces the development, use, exploitation, and overuse of water throughout human history. It's an insightful look at where we as a civilization have come from and the challenges that loom ahead.

Key developments include the ability to control water via dams and irrigation, steam power, and reorganizing water usage on a massive scale in projects like China's Grand Canal, the Hoover Dam, and similar projects that open up new frontiers for settlement, crops, and population growth.

Now, we face a major hurdle as water usage is running hard into the limitations of available potable water and conflicts may loom in coming years as developing nations find available water harder and harder to obtain. Climate change may also play a growing role in water extremes - droughts and floods as rainfall patterns shift or are amplified. These problems will affect the developing world far more than places like the US and Europe, where rainfall is more moderate and year-round as compared with India and Africa where rainfall falls primarily during a monsoon season. Even existing water infrastructures may be insufficient to deal with extremes and it puts a tremendous burden on planners to deal with water shortages.

The US has seen the tip of the proverbial iceberg with droughts in the Southeast affecting water supplies for Atlanta and shortages. It will require a significant change in how water is viewed as a commodity and as a limited resource that has been sorely overstressed. Reductions in use for industry and agriculture will be necessary going forward, but that change will be hard to come by in places where governments are ill-equipped to regulate those changes.

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