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21 August 2008 Edition

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A flawed treatment of a vital issue

Book Review:
Water. The final resource: How the politics of water will affect the world
By Robin Griffiths and William Houston
Published by
Harriman House

Reviewed by
Paul O’Connor

Political issues may be divided into two classes. On the one hand, there are the topics which fill the headlines and dominate the concerns of voters – a factory closing, petrol prices rising at the pumps, public services under threat. And then there are the underlying forces which shape these issues but which often attract less notice. One of these is the coming shift away from a global energy economy based on fossil fuels as a result of the converging issues of climate change and peak oil. Another is the increasing pressure on the world’s water resources and, as a consequence, on its ability to feed its population.
Water is essential to life and to human civilisation. It is the basis for world agriculture. Clean, fresh water is also a resource in increasingly short supply. Consumption of water has quadrupled in the last 50 years and in many parts of the world water supplies are under growing pressure.
Water: The Final Resource, addresses this issue and its potential consequences. Its authors are William Houston, a former British naval officer, and Robin Griffiths, an economic analyst. However, while some of the book’s arguments have merit, its treatment of the issue is fundamentally flawed.
“Whether or not there is sufficient water to sustain life” write the authors, “is the direct result of weather patterns that are primarily affected by the sun but also by periodic oscillations in the great oceans and by volcanic action”. In the 20th century world climate was relatively benign; in the 21st century changing temperatures in the great oceans and volcanic activity will cause a shift in weather patterns that will see less water available in many of the world’s major crop-growing regions.
The Green Revolution of the 20th century – the application of modern technology such as pesticides, fertiliser and machinery to agricultural production – enabled the world to feed its rapidly rising population. However, this progress is threatened by increasing water shortages and soil degradation. A changing climate, over-pumped aquifers, saline pollution, the erosion of topsoil and desertification are undermining food production. Global production of cereals reached a peak in 1998, then declined 40% until 2006. From 1998 to 2006, output was in deficit for six out of seven years.
If these trends continue into the future, the authors argue, the results will include an increased flow of refugees and potential military conflict. The two regions most vulnerable will be the Middle East and Asia. The Middle East is by far the driest region in the world with only 1,200 cubic metres of water per person per year compared to a global average of 7,000.  Some 88% of water entering Arab lands is controlled from non-Arab sources. Meanwhile, China has some of the lowest per-capita water supplies in the world, and the Yellow River is increasingly under stress from pollution and a reduction in rainfall. Some 400 of China’s 600 cities already suffer from water shortages.
Water: The Final Resource is correct to identify water security and food production as among the critical issues facing today’s world, and to underline the potential for a refugee crisis and military conflict if they are not managed properly. The principal fault of the book is that it lays the blame for these problems on oscillations of climate that are beyond human control. The authors argue that climate change is due to changing ocean currents, not human activity. “Mankind’s contribution to the rise in carbon a pitifully small seems unbelievable that politicians in the Western world should feel obliged to turn their countries upside down for such a slender reduction of global temperatures.” You would expect that somebody arguing against the almost universal consensus of scientific opinion would provide some evidence to back these claims – but the authors do not.
While mention is made of aquifer depletion and inefficient use of water for irrigation in many countries, the book does not address the basic issue that lies behind stress on global water supplies and food production. This is the contradiction between a global system dedicated to exponential growth and increasing consumption and the physical limits of the world’s ecosystems. The solution is therefore not just growing more drought-resistant crop varieties and building desalinisation plants, as the authors suggest, but conservation, efficiency, reducing CO2 emissions to tackle climate change, and re-examining the energy and water-intensive system of factory farming which dominates world agriculture.  
There are also some ideas put forward in the book which are, to say the least, downright cranky.
A chapter is devoted to the ideas of an American academic in the 1930s who put forward the view that human personality, and therefore the characteristics of a culture, were decisively influenced by climate. The ideal temperature for mental activity was 38 degrees Fahrenheit: this explained the success of cultures in temperate regions. There was also “a definitive pattern of events falling into a five hundred year cycle, suggesting that there is a regular shift of influence from East to West and back again. The last half-millennium was the turn of the West. Now the influence is turning East.” This kind of broad historical schema is overly prescriptive and does not fit the historical data.
In a chapter offering various scenarios for the interaction of water shortages and political conflict in the future, the authors write: “Level three could trigger the great battle of Armageddon forecast in the Revelations of St. John where the demonic forces are defeated by God’s armies.” This battle would pit the west against Islamic militants. However, all is not lost, for individual initiative will see us through.  “Emerging from the chaos will be a new golden era in the early decades of the Third Millennium after Christ.”
This book touches on important issues but its treatment of them is inadequate and it is flawed by an ideological position that in some respects is similar to the wilder fringes of the American right.

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