Wednesday Book: A damp squib of an argument

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The Independent Culture
YOU CAN imagine the pitch in the commissioning editor's office:

De Villiers: "It's about water."

Editor: "You want to write a book about water?"

De Villiers: "Water, essence of life, keystone of civilisation. We'll give them the basics - hydrological cycles, a bit of history. Run through the problems - dams, irrigation, pollution."

Editor: "Sounds a little worthy."

De Villiers: "Yeah, but then we give 'em war and conflict. What happens when the water runs out - from oil wars to water wars."

Editor: "And of course you'll travel. Lots of parched landscapes, vig- nettes, personal stories."

De Villiers: "Of course. It's a winner."

And so it should have been. Few issues can dramatise so effectively quite how profligate, mean and myopic humanity has become in the 20th century than the desperate inequalities of access to water, the global transformation of the planet's fragile water systems, and the potential conflicts that water scarcity might initiate. But this book, despite a great deal of travelling, parched landscapes, vignettes and more, is not a winner.

Why? It's not for want of information or breadth of coverage. De Villiers takes the uninitiated through the extraordinary complexities of how much water there is on this planet (bucketfuls), why so little of it is usable by humanity (too salty or too icy), and why water is often inaccessible to many (the rich and powerful take more than their fair share). He touches on the role of water in the rise and fall of great agrarian empires and civilisations, and its enduring spiritual and cultural significance. He catalogues the enormous range and power of modern societies - developed and undeveloped - to pollute water, dam rivers, drain swamps, irrigate land and unsustainably mine the reservoirs of water beneath the earth's crust.

There are some real gems here. The Aswan Dam on the Nile may save Egypt from floods, but it also traps the fertile river silt that forms the Nile Delta: Egypt's breadbasket is shrinking fast. Gaddafi's Libya teamed up with one of the dodgier Korean companies to mine the enormous water resources hidden beneath the Sahara and pump the lot to the coast. They have 40 years and then it's gone.

It's not really a question of motivation. De Villiers starting-point is an affectionate picture of his Afrikaner grandfather, scratching a living in the South African deserts, mining water from aquifers but mindful and careful of this precious bounty. Happy childhood in harsh environmental circumstances yields adult sensitivity to issues of sustainability. But De Villiers gives the game away when he admits that he has been collecting water stories on his travels as a foreign correspondent - so I guess it was time to cash in on them.

Nothing wrong with that. Reading this book reminded me of my grandfather, who grew up in the same part of the world as De Villiers's, was but of Latvian Jewish origins, and advocated cashing in on anything as often as possible. But if he had put down his Sporting Life for long enough to take a look at the arguments of Water Wars, I think his response would have been something along the lines of "Oi, what a busy gerferlech. And for such a Motza pudding!" Loosely translated from the Yiddish, that reads "All that running around for 400 pages of disorganised prose."

The reasons Water Wars is not a winner are editorial and intellectual. The editing is nothing less than lamentable. Like Old Man River, the prose just keeps rolling along. Great swampy paragraphs are left undrained. Narrow streams of argument are allowed to flood uncontrollably across the page. The unsustainable mining of the same anecdotes and examples is left unregulated. One is abandoned in great oceans of explanation without life raft or supplies. Complex biological processes need diagrams to make them explicable, and complex geopolitical conflicts need maps to make them tangible. This book has neither.

Where Water Wars really comes unstuck is in the argument. The final third turns to water scarcity and water conflict: Turkey, Syria and Iraq fighting over the Euphrates and the Tigris; Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians scraping over every last drop of moisture in the Holy Land. India at odds with Pakistan over the Indus, and with Bangladesh over the Ganges.

But (a big but) even on his own analysis, De Villiers concludes that all these conflicts are primarily driven by a variety of other strategic, ethnic and religious forces. Military solutions are seen by everyone as expensive and unproductive, in comparison to technological, economic and conservation strategies. As he admits in the final pages, water scarcity is much more likely to contribute to growing civil disorder, migration and internal social breakdown than to armed conflict - and then only as one element in a broader swathe of ecological and economic problems.

He is basically right, but for a book called Water Wars, that is damp squib of a conclusion.