Take Me To The Source, By Rupert Wright

Water, water everywhere: this refreshing history gives you plenty to drink

Reviewed,Jonathan Gibbs
Tuesday 22 July 2008 00:00 BST

"Everything is water," according to Thales of Miletus. Water's two-thirds majority hold on the planet as a whole, not to mention our bodies, means that it runs through every element of human life – politics, religion, art and science. So to write a book on water that takes in all these topics might seem like lunacy, if not facetiousness. What you leave out will dwarf what you put in. You must balance the joy of water – the splashing of kids at bath time – with its more terrible aspect. Consider the 1931 flooding of China's Yellow River, which killed "anywhere between one and four million people".

Rupert Wright's compendium, subtitled "in search of water", attempts to give a personal angle. As he has worked for the World Bank on water issues, his angle is better-informed than most. He reminisces about work in Uganda, where office politics scuppered a water hygiene pamphlet, and travels to New Delhi, where slum families wait by the roadside for the daily delivery of fresh water. The water is clean and free, but you pay for it by taking your children out of school to queue up for the tanker.

Wright is admirably clear on how large-scale water projects should be approached. He even gives ten commandments, which include the warning: "People will have to pay for their water. Enough to cover the cost of delivery and to stop them from wasting it." He disagrees, however, with the former Secretary-General of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who said in 1985: "The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics." You can argue what the two Iraq wars were about, but it certainly wasn't water.

The environmental-political sections give the book its weight. I was glad to learn about the different kinds of aquifers – the great stores of underground water, some replenishable, some not – but wanted facts and maps, not instances and anecdotes. This scattergun approach can leave you splashing in the shallows. Wright tastes posh mineral water, and has a water diviner dowse in his garden, but doesn't investigate either phenomenon thoroughly enough.

It would be impossible for anyone to read this book and not come away with something. My favourite moment is "the bizarre spectacle of Governor Sonny Perdue standing on the steps of the Georgia Capitol, head bowed, praying for rain to end the region's historic drought". Maybe the World Bank should give him a call.

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