The eternal battles over the earth's water

August 11, 2002|By M.G. Lord | By M.G. Lord,Special to the Sun

Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst, by Diane Raines Ward. Riverhead Books. 368 pages. $24.95.

In Los Angeles, where I live, we have always respected water -- aware that without water diverted from the Rocky Mountains, our desert home would look like, well, a desert. In other places, for other reasons, water has earned similar respect. With half the Netherlands located below sea level, the Dutch have developed a high regard for water, which, without constant pumping, could take their land away.

But water is not merely crucial in reclaimed deserts and lowlands. It is the globe's most valuable resource. In Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst, author Diane Raines Ward makes this point: "If you end the oil supply, the motor stops. But if you stop the water supply, life stops."

Ward's engaging book provides a comprehensive look at international hydropolitics, as well as a history of the dams, dikes and engineering wonders that have divided the world into brown and green. Ward, co-author of Tiger-Wallahs: Encounters with the Men Who Tried to Save the Greatest of the Great Cats, uses clear, jargon-free language to explain the construction of canals and dams and shows how the placement of such structures can heighten international tensions.

Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project, for example, which involves redirection of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, is not popular with its neighbors, Syria and Iraq. It will diminish and pollute the water that flows into these countries. Water issues even affect national identity. According to one Dutch commentator, the Netherlands' "determination to control" its water constitutes a "mass neurosis."

Water Wars chronicles not only ambitious construction projects but also the ambitious personalities behind them. These include William Willcocks, a British engineer who in the 1890s designed the first dam across the Nile. He also characterized "the white man's burden" as the obligation to "leave the soft life of the cities" and "subdue" the earth. Another key figure is David Lilienthal, the American technocrat who presided over the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a vast engineering project begun in the 1930s that enriched this region through river-basin control.

Ward also highlights environmentalists such as author Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who stood up to developers, leading a battle in the 1970s and '80s (when she herself was in her 80s) to help save Florida's Everglades.

Ward doesn't tell her tale flatly. She vents her prejudices, characterizing Las Vegas as a "water-sucking desert nightmare," whose worst offender, the Mirage hotel, with its shark tanks, dolphin pool and five-story waterfalls, uses "almost a million gallons of water a day." Such selfishness, she writes, has dried up springs and wetlands, eliminating several species of birds.

This is not a good situation, but it is also not as bad as she suggests in her text. In an endnote, she has buried a fact that struck me as important: The Mirage reuses waste water to create its displays.

In the American West, people say that water "flows uphill, towards money." And after reading Ward's book, it's hard not to agree. However, Ward did manage to find at least one group of non-greedy dam builders that has demonstrated environmental sensitivity over time. They are the four beavers (and their progeny) that her Uncle Marion introduced to construct ponds from a swamp on his property in Washington State.

M.G. Lord is the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. She is finishing a memoir of mid-20th century aerospace culture.

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