By 2025, 1.8 billion people are expected to live in areas where water is scarce—a prediction, among many troubling others, that was highlighted during World Water Day on Monday.
The sixteenth annual event, sponsored by the United Nations, drew fairly light coverage. The most popular peg came from a report released by the U.N. Environment Program, “Sick Water?” which found that more people die from polluted water every year than from all forms of violence, including war.
The Environment News Service ran the longest and most detailed account of the report. The Christian Science Monitor, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Voice of America chimed in with shorter pieces. Among blogs, The Huffington Post stepped up with at least four posts (here, here, here, and here) on World Water Day. It’s too bad there wasn’t a bit more. Fortunately, one publication dove headlong into the story. In honor of World Water Day, National Geographic is offering a free download (from March 22 until April 2) of its current issue, which is entirely dedicated to freshwater issues around the globe.
Under a simple cover beaded with water, the book is stocked with articles and items related to “Our Thirsty World.” As one might expect from National Geographic (or any other magazine, perhaps), the content is very solutions-oriented. The front contains a number of interesting briefs on new desalination technologies, sunlight disinfection techniques in the slums of Kenya, “fog catchers” in the mountains of Peru, and even the suspected locations of major reservoirs throughout the solar system.
Barbara Kingsolver writes the lead essay, however, and does little to assuage my distaste for the environmental musings of celebrity writers. The opening has her marveling at beads of water on a spider web, the end at light refracting through a glass of water sitting on her desk. Somewhere in between, she tells of traveling to the parched Bajo Piura Valley of Peru to see “an innovative reforestation project” launched by local conservationists and an international NGO. Kingsolver makes a point of telling readers that she was there “as a journalist,” and surely it is an interesting project, but she doesn’t explain it very well.
These criticisms aside, Kingsolver captures the power that water wields over human existence in two excellent lines: “We stake our civilizations on the coasts and mighty rivers. Our deepest dread is the threat of having too little moisture—or too much.” After a beautiful photo essay (of course—the issue is littered with incredible images of the life aquatic) by John Stanmeyer about the use of water in ritual blessings, six features deal with this concept exactly.
The lead feature, “The Big Melt,” addresses the threat that retreating Himalayan glaciers pose to the two billion people across Asia who depend the rivers they feed. The article, by Brook Larmer, is a welcome read after the recent controversy surrounding an error in one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 reports, which said the massive tongues of ice might disappear far sooner than is actually likely. But they will disappear if the world continues to warm.
Larmer’s article—which acknowledges that “the rate of melting is not uniform” and that there are “gaps in scientific knowledge”—isn’t really about the science, though. It’s about the people who depend on the water the glaciers provide. There, too, Larmer leaves room for Tibetan farmers who are pleased by swollen rivers that have expanded croplands and lengthened the growing season. There is a growing realization that “such benefits often hide deeper costs,” however, and in other parts of Asia the facts are plainly obvious: the reservoirs are running out.
The rest of the features cover the plight of women in Ethiopia who must trek tens of miles each day for meager amounts of polluted water; an “ark”-like laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee, where scientists are trying to save a variety of Southern Appalachia’s endangered aquatic species; why California’s “heroic system of dams, pumps, and canals can’t stave off a water crisis;” how water is source of both war and peace (seems like mostly the former, though the article kind of sugar-coats it); why the fate of the Earth’s waterways ultimately depend on conservation.
“In conjunction with the special issue, the National Geographic Society has named Sandra Postel its first Freshwater Fellow,” according to a press release. “She will head a National Geographic-led multiyear project to motivate people across the globe to care about and conserve fresh water and the extraordinary diversity of life it sustains.”