Water is an extraordinary substance that makes life on Earth possible. But almost all the world’s water is salty, and for us on land a regular supply of fresh, clean water is the most precious commodity. Such a supply is the most important service that an ecosystem can offer, yet is often allowed to lapse through abuse, or it is diverted from those who really need it, or destroyed by over-use or pollution. As a result, over a billion people now have no access to clean water and 2.6 billion have no effective sanitation system. One consequence is a huge waste of human energy in an endless quest for water, a burden that often falls hardest on women and children. Another is unnecessary illness, which every year claims the lives of nearly two million children. We are, in every sense, facing a global water crisis.
Yet, as Julian Caldecott explains here, this global crisis is in fact made up of tens of thousands of local water crises, each one due to decisions that affect local ecosystems. Water and ecosystems are linked, from the boundaries of each catchment to the streams, rivers, lakes, floodplains, swamps and estuaries created by water. Everything we do in a catchment affects what happens downstream, so logging, farming and grazing, applying fertilisers or pesticides, dumping garbage, releasing sewage or spilling chemical wastes, all have an impact that’s conveyed by the ultimate solvent, water. Meanwhile, we’ve taken to pumping water from the ground at rates far higher than it’s being replaced, causing wells to run dry in region after region.
This book is about human decisions. Julian Caldecott draws stories from all over the world, and reveals the many ways in which our experience of water is a common one. He shows how different approaches can have different outcomes, some destroying ecosystems, some transforming them, some sustaining them. But there’s also a bigger context. The viability of the biosphere depends, fundamentally on water – often in ways that we barely understand. Local ecosystems that determine whether or not there’s water in your well, river or tap, also help dictate rain or drought, storm or famine. All the evidence is that the negative changes we make to ecosystems are contributing to mass extinction, local water crises, and climate chaos that further stresses ecosystems.
This fascinating book explains not only why we need to restore balance, but more importantly how we can do it.
Director, The Ecologist
London, July 2007