Drop by drop, a tiny trickle becomes a sea change

Keepers of the Spring

April 14, 2006

In Keepers of the Spring , Fred Pearce proposes a paradigm shift from what he sees as a modern obsession with large-scale infrastructure solutions to the global water crisis towards smaller-scale, more people-centred approaches.

Pearce’s journalistic skill makes the factually rich narrative, overflowing with examples from both sides of the argument, an easy and fascinating read. The political intrigues that surround contentious projects such as the Aswan Dam on the Nile, the Jonglei Canal in Sudan and Libya’s "Great Man-Made River" are well documented. So, too, are their negative repercussions: human displacement, silting, the triggering of earthquakes, and changes in the shape and rotation of the Earth, to name a few. Arsenic-contaminated groundwater in Bangladesh, India’s "fluoride tragedy" and the disappearance of the Aral Sea are similarly treated in a comprehensive yet engaging manner.

Pearce challenges such "myths" as water saved through greater efficiencies is water added to the water cycle, and he attacks privatisation as the "hijacking of water supplies by Western engineers and inappropriate Western technical solutions". In a recent Times Higher review, Pearce himself wrote: "Water wars books are usually written by journalists, political lobbyists or laymen. Maybe they are alarmists and scandal seekers." There is an element of alarmism in the first half of this book, though for the most part, it is well justified.

The second half moves on to the "keepers of the water" — the last of the Cypriot water diviners, the spring tunnellers of Palestine, the rainwater harvesting Papago Indians of Mexico, and the terracing of Burkina Faso, among others. "New" technologies of drip irrigation, catching fog, wetland rehabilitation and the use of seawater to generate condensation, to name a few, provoke a fundamental question: can such sustainable small-scale interventions be scaled up to meet

world needs? Along with older technologies of rainwater harvesting and, especially in the industrialised world, more efficient use of water, including recycling, Pearce argues that they can be. He ends on a tentatively positive note with a whiff of a paradigm shift among the Chinese.

A quirk of the book is that its style on the one hand appears to be aimed at assisting parochial American readers enlarge their world-view. Printed in the US, it uses imperial units such as acre-feet of water and draws comparisons with predominantly American geographical features. Yet the foci of the book are the many examples that would be of interest only to those with a global perspective.

So it could be that Pearce is aiming to include both types of readership: an initial metric conversion from acre-feet would have helped achieve this. Although Pearce states that much of his book’s data are from interviews and internal documents, the thin "bibliography" of an average of two references per chapter is disappointing.

In summary, if you want an array of well-researched and easily digested examples of "small is beautiful" in the water engineering world, coupled with the dangers of large-scale interventions, look no further.

James Webster is lecturer in community water supplies, Cranfield University.

Keepers of the Spring: Reclaiming Our Water in an Age of Globalization

Author - Fred Pearce
Editor - Island Press
Publisher - 254
Pages - £18.95
Price - 1 55963 681 5

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