Development: Liquid assets

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Margaret Catley-Carlson is invigorated by a brace of books on the future of world water supplies.

  • Water 4.0

    Yale University Press 2014. ISBN: 9780300176490

    Buy this book: US| UK| Japan

  • Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever

    The New Press 2014. ISBN: 9781595589477

    Buy this book: US| UK| Japan

Sweeping, yet very different, perspectives on the human demand for and use of fresh water feature in two new publications. David Sedlak's Water 4.0 explores what has and should be done to manage water, with efficacy, economics and use-effectiveness as the main metrics. In Blue Future, Maude Barlow argues that it is who manages water that is of prime importance; here, the essential metric is the widely cited but not yet well-defined right to water. (I should disclose here that Barlow strongly disapproves of many of the organizations that I am involved with; a photo of me appears in one of her activist videos, I am told.)

Sedlak, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has contributed a gem to the growing shelf of books on the emerging crises surrounding water, such as the billion people who lack clean supplies. His is an in-depth technical and often political history of water systems with a broad central theme — techniques for water delivery and wastewater treatment, how they work, and what they cost. For example, Sedlak amply covers the water-related infrastructures that are most vulnerable to climate-change-related storms and sea-level rise, such as sewage systems in coastal cities. His focus is on US cities now; he gets there by way of an erudite romp through two millennia of water and sanitation practice and technology.


People collect water from a standpipe in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sedlak explains that the Roman Empire's aqueduct system ('Water 1.0') delivered different qualities of water for different purposes, using the least clean supplies in latrines and the baths. North Americans today, by contrast, use the same very expensive clean water for all purposes, most of it for watering lawns and flushing toilets. Sedlak quotes Karl Marx's scorn for water management in Victorian England: “they can find no better use for the excrement of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense” (Capital, 1867). Marx admired the extensive sewage farms around Paris, which irrigated crops with the effluent — a method still practised round the world. We also see how bad habits developed in the United States: for instance, in 1887 the city of Chicago in Illinois reversed the flow of the Chicago River and sent the sewage to the Mississippi River.

Sedlak is an engineer, but does not overwhelm with technicalities. He marshals chemistry, biology and microbiology to answer numerous pressing questions. For instance, is the nasty film on top of water-filtration systems harmful? (No.) Can we get endocrine disrupters out of water, and stop feminizing male fish? (Perhaps, over time.) Can the natural functions of a very polluted river, such as the Yamuna as it flows through Delhi, be restored through treatment? (Yes, with time, change of habits and investment.)

Sedlak also gives full weight to cultural obstacles such as a reluctance to pay for water. And the economics of the long past, the unsustainable present and the potentially astronomically costly future are clearly put. Among the revelations is the US$13,500 per household it could cost to repair and update drinking-water systems in the United States.

The 'must read' chapter of Water 4.0 is its last. Here Sedlak explains the book's title in a serious exploration of the decentralized delivery and wastewater options open to industrialized countries and emerging global cities such as Beijing. Sedlak ruefully concedes that a more likely option is even greater investment in today's 'Water 3.0' — centralized, complex, expensive known technology. I wanted him to come out swinging for widespread conversion to greywater systems, in which water from showers and sinks is recycled to flush toilets. But he is too wise to find a silver bullet in any solution, or to dismiss any out of hand. The undercurrent in this book is that the way forward lies in answers — from the biological to the sociological — that suit the local culture.

Sedlak and Barlow agree that our worldwide failure to value water is at the heart of the problem. Both believe in community participation in decision-making. And both endorse a strong role for public investment in water, particularly in research and in setting guidelines. There, their paths diverge. Where Sedlak seeks to explain the science and technology, Barlow seeks to expose the power relationships.

In Blue Future, Barlow, a citizens' advocate, makes a passionate plea for the societal change needed to honour the United Nations' 2010 resolution that water and sanitation are a human right. The powerful few, Barlow argues, are blocking this transformation, which would benefit the powerless many. Blue Future expands the language of the UN right to encompass all uses of water, and calls for management by a public-trust regime under which all competing uses for watersheds or aquifers would be decided according to a hierarchy of use managed by public agencies.

Barlow has published some 16 books — spirited critiques of issues such as water metering and of bodies such as the World Bank. In Blue Future she is also critical of water privatization, which she sees as covering most forms of participation by the private sector, including companies that own no part of the resource or infrastructure but are contracted to carry out government policies. (Only Britain and Chile have privatized water itself — having sold the resource to private companies for onward sale.) And she questions commodification — that is, the use of water markets, price mechanisms, purchase by beverage or mining companies, sale on open markets, and leases to resource extractors, as well as the conversion of utilities to corporatized entities. Looking at one such case in Ireland, Barlow somewhat ingenuously suggests that a water price hike is not needed because Ireland has a lot of water. Yet payments into municipal systems are needed to cover costs: pipes, chemicals, personnel, security and energy for pumping.

However, Barlow's primary concern (and Sedlak would heartily concur) is that “most political leaders ... create policy decisions as if there were no end to water supply”. That is the problem in a nutshell.

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