Social Studies of Environmentalism

The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman

In Reviews on October 7, 2011 at 7:00 am

Review by Daniel Polk

Daniel Polk  from Princeton University reviews Charles Fishman’s book “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.”

Water appears in shifting states of ungraspable forms. It is present in each breath and all living things, and remains a key resource without which humanity would have neither energy nor food nor life. It floods cities and sustains farms; it fills the oceans; it dictates climate; and it courses through every vein. Its ubiquity amplifies its multiple symbolisms while diluting any concrete structures of meaning that could ever be absolutely ascribed. Water seems an ever present necessity, but its many manifestations challenge the need to comprehend and channel its force.

In The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, Charles Fishman addresses both attempts to understand this substance and to practically manage its use. A business journalist, Fishman travels to the United States, Australia, and India to research the issues and interview the people that comprise the book’s main settings. The first two chapters provide a review of recent scientific inquiries into water’s lesser-known qualities (“the secret life”) while the remainder of the book focuses on contemporary management in the face of increasing scarcity (the “turbulent future”).

Written for a wide audience, the conversational prose is as playful as it is direct. Fishman does well translating numerous water-related statistics to more intelligible forms, but the book operates best in conveying the characters of various water managers. In this sense, while the text concerns itself most explicitly with economic questions of supply and scarcity, solutions lie in the human stories of invention, innovation, and social change.

Fishman begins his narrative by framing the history of modern water use. In recent times, cities from Beijing to Los Angeles have grown exponentially on the assumption of continuing water security. The last century, explains Fishman, “has conditioned us to think that water is naturally abundant, safe, and cheap—that it should be, that it will be.” However, Fishman declares, “the golden age of water is rapidly coming to an end…. We’re in for a rude shock.”

From urbanites in the American West to Australian farmers to Indian slum dwellers, Fishman shows this “new era of water scarcity” to be caused as much by climate as by human management. Examples from each country help illustrate Fishman’s detailed survey of the regions. The reader meets several individuals at India’s “very leading edge of a critical shift in attitude” towards water. Among those is Sanjay Desai, a city engineer for Navi Mumbai. Desai and others help Navi Mumbai obtain continuous, clean water access. By orchestrating a shift in how residents use and value water, the city became the first modern metropolis in the subcontinent to enjoy uninterrupted municipal supply.

This success, which appears as much sociopolitical as infrastructural, contrasts with the experience of Toowoomba, Australia. To battle crippling droughts, city officials made plans to build a treatment plant, which would convert waste water into drinking water. At first seen as a feasible solution, it employed cost-effective technology to purify water to be cleaner than that found naturally in nearby rivers. However viable the plan was on paper, it ultimately found defeat in an uproar of public disapproval among residents who grew up drinking rainwater. The social and cultural resistance against the idea of “toilet to tap” usurped even the greatest attempts of infrastructural management.

Among the book’s most memorable stories is that of Patricia Mulroy, the lead water manager for Las Vegas, Nevada; a woman noted as “the best-known water manager in the country, and perhaps in the world.” Fishman portrays Mulroy as a driven and politically adroit individual, one who has “outmaneuvered, and lassoed, the West’s water bureaucrats with the speed and agility of a cowgirl.” Fishman portrays an oasis of opulence in the searing desert heat, which survives and thrives in testament to Mulroy’s ingenuity. The city’s rate of water consumption has remained the same while suburban growth has mushroomed by 50 percent.

Fishman, like others, holds up Las Vegas and its water-fed casino capitalism as an exemplary model of efficient and practical use. But it is a clear irony when admirable feats of public conservation make real the most extravagant displays of wealth: the Mandala Bay hotel “Shark Reef Aquarium,” the 8.5-acres Fountains of Bellagio, or the nightly staged pirate battles of Treasure Island. Such watery excess, Fishman argues, is worth the political, social and environmental costs because of the uncanny economic engine it creates—Las Vegas gambling alone produces $8.8 billion per year.

It is here where Fishman’s main argument arises: economic uses of water must be a prime consideration for its proper management. Citing economist Mike Young, Fishman prescribes a formula applicable to all cases of limited supplies—reserve the first 20 percent for the environment and critical human needs, while selling the remaining amounts at increasingly higher tiered rates. In this ideal model, local ecosystems and families would receive their basic allotments, after which businesses could pay premiums for reliable access.

Such models appear reasonable, yet do not fully account for the multiple meanings and differing methods of water use found across the globe. Fishman’s book nicely catalogues numerous ways that regional politics and cultural specificities dictate water’s use. To prescribe a single economic approach to water appears contradictory to the book’s eloquent portrayal of the local vagaries of management. “All water problems are local, or regional,” asserts Fishman in his concluding chapter, “and their solutions must be local and regional.”

Although Fishman calls for a blanket, market approach, his book just as convincingly, if implicitly, makes the case to understand the sociocultural variables of water’s future.  Economics will certainly loom large in that future.  However the most durable successes may ultimately hinge on understanding the intrinsically local phenomena wherein the true meanings of water fluidly emerge.

Daniel Polk investigates the history and current challenges of water management in the American Southwest. His present focus is on the transfer of water rights in the US/Mexico borderlands. He is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Princeton University.

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