2012 Reading reading

Reading 2012: When the Rivers Run Dry

January 28, 2012

Following the Hunger Games trilogy, When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century has thus far been the runner-up as the book I didn’t want to put down. While I’m not sure if water will be the defining crisis of the twenty-first century, there is no doubt that many parts of the world are already at crisis level.

Not only did I learn about fascinating things like qanats, dew ponds, and cloud seeding, but I learned that the water crisis entails more than just running out of water.

Our Influence on the Crises and The Tragedy of the Commons

In our affluence and relative isolation from much of the world, it’s easy to forget about the necessity of water and the consequences for using it as if it’s an endless resource. Yet, often it is our affluence that is affecting the global water crises on a daily basis.

For instance, proclivity for wardrobe expansion could very well impact farmers in India. In an attempt to feed the Western appetite for more clothes for less money, a cotton-plant clothing factory in India takes dangerous shortcuts by not treating their water-run-off, which is filled with carcinogenic and poisonous chemicals. Because they also have unlimited (at least for the time) funding compared to the surrounding people and industries, they can afford to buy and waste water while nearby villagers die of thirst. And even when their local water harvesters realize the danger of providing water to the dye factory, they feel they can’t stop. “This is what environmentalists call ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Everybody chases short-term wealth even at the cost of destroying their long-term collective future. Nobody can afford to miss out on the boom, because they will all share in the eventual bust (41).” Meanwhile, the water harvesters continue to harvest water, continually decreasing the local water table. The chemicals leach into the soil and back into the ground water, and nearby villagers begin to die of arsenic poisoning, salt poisoning, and birth defects are at an all time high. Eventually, the soil will be so contaminated that even crops won’t grow, and villagers will either starve to death or become environmental refugees. Granted, it may be a stretch to say that will all be the result of buying an extra t-shirt, but the remainder of the story is not hypothetcial and currently taking place in India.

Lessons of Hydrology

We also tend to apply Westernized hydrology across the board. This often does more damage than good. Damning a river or lake to may provide more water to one area, but what does it do to the people/environment upstream or downstream?  Or does damning water in a high heat area with much more surface-area exposure cause more water loss than if we had left the water in its natural places? We are also drying up aquifers of water that may not be able to be replenished. Subsurface aquifers, of course don’t know political boundaries or state borders. So one country’s use of water may actually be taking a valuable resource from neighboring countries.  These are just a few of the problems in global hydrology that are discussed.

While the majority of the book discusses the water crises, the final matter does spend some time discussing solutions. The author proposes less-invasive water solutions, and solutions which consider the long-term effects of water use and exploitation. In many cases, it would be wiser to learn to work with nature, rather than against it. In the long run, it is also more beneficial to rediscover, relearn, and reteach ancient and more natural methods of harvesting water.

From personal experience, it was interesting to learn more about drip irrigation, it’s history, and it’s current implementation. While on rather productively intense mission trips with Teen Missions International in 1999 and 2000, we took drip irrigation systems to Madagascar and Kenya. During those 8 weeks each summer, we had special training courses on using the systems and teaching other to use them.


After reading this book, I’m reminded that our attempts to escape the curse are never really true cures for the cursed ground and painful toils. Our reduction of labor, disease, or hardship in one area still usually sees it manifested in another area. (For instance, chemotherapy that may cure cancer often produces miserable side effects.) In some ways, thinking about that and reading this book could be discouraging. And while we know that perfect shalom will not be brought about until the end of the age, we can still labor to bring about small pictures of that perfect shalom in this broken world.

Often, (particularly, American) Christians tend to overreact against anything with a hint of perceived environmentalism, thus swinging the pendulum to remaining wasteful and leaving a trail of mess in our wake. We generally think that modern methods and industrialization are what is best for all people in all places. But we cannot simply blindly use creation without considering the consequences, particularly thinking of how those consequences could effect others. Christians, especially, should remember our two-fold commands of loving God and loving our neighbors and filter our thinking and actions through those teachings.

Ultimately, we can still realize that God is sovereignly in control of His universe while simultaneously being faithful stewards and tenders of the Earth in the time and space we are given. This book provides much food for thought, particularly for those of us who can read the book and moments later go get a glass of water from the tap, wash our hands in the room next to us, and do a load of laundry at any time of the day. Perhaps it can also quite literally allow us to learn how to better provide and preserve safe, clean water for the thirsty, as well.

There are some parts of this book that may border on overemphasis of the part water has played in the rise and fall of civilizations, and some solutions may also be harmful long-term to both humans and the environment. The book could also be improved by giving more sources, references, and resources on the subject. Overall, it is a fascinating and eye-opening read..

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  • January 2012 Reading | Daniel Threlfall February 1, 2012 at 7:25 am

    […] This is a highly infor­ma­tive and eye-opening book. After read­ing this book, you’ll never think about water the same way. Water is, as the sub­ti­tle states, the defin­ing cri­sis of the twenty-first cen­tury. Keren has an excel­lent review at her blog. […]