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Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity.

Sandra Postel alerts us to a "sleeper" of a problem. Most people in the industrialized nations of the world rely on water but think about it only when turning on the tap for a refreshing drink. Because water covers about 75 percent of the earth's surface, any problem with it must be the outcome of some extremist fancy given credence by the occasional drought.

In Lost Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity, Postel argues that this image of plenty is an illusion. The reality is that all lands from desert to fertile valleys and all people from the poorest to the most affluent face a critical shortage of water.

Postel, vice president for research at the Worldwatch Institute and a lecturer at Stanford and Duke universities, considers two very dissimilar cities: Phoenix, Ariz., and Lodwar, Kenya. The first is a bustling metropolis with swimming pools, baths and water on tap for drinking, watering lawns and washings cars. The second is very poor; its inhabitants journey several hours every day to fill one or two jugs of water for cooking, washing and drinking. Each person in Phoenix consumes 3,000 liters of water a day; in Lodwar, each uses 5 liters a day.

Though different by almost every socioeconomic indicator, Phoenix and Lodwar are "sister cities" when it comes to the amount of water that nature provides. Each receives a meager 16 to 18 centimeters of rainfall annually. Populations have outstripped the ability of local water supplies in both areas to established a moderate standard of living.

Both the poor undeveloped city and the wealthy industrialized metropolis, however, mask the scarcity of water. Lodwar provides its water through the toil and drudgery f its people. Dams, diverted rivers, streams and aquifers together rush water to Phoenix, creating an illusion of plenty for this water-scarce area.

Yet there are harmful side effects to these efforts to secure water. The consequences for the poor are immediate, evident and disastrous. Scarce water extracted through intense labor keeps them on the verge of famine with little hope for improving intolerable lives.

Meanwhile, for the economically affluent, technologies apparently satisfy the spiraling demands for water. But these technologies operate blindly with no thought for the consequences to future generations.

The ecological services provided by streams irrevocably damaged. Despite its importance and significance to all forms of life, water is polluted, wasted misused and mismanaged.

Drawing from extensive environmental research of the last 75 years, Postel documents further signs of scarcity and efforts to deal with the resulting problems. By constructing dams, rerouting rivers and exploiting the underground aquifers, humankind has tried to satisfy its need for water for agriculture, industry and cities.

Postel discloses hat technologies exist to make every drop of water go further. Because agriculture claims two-thirds of all water removed from rivers, lakes, aquifers and wetlands, making irrigation more efficient is the top priority.

Many industries, the second-largest consumer of water, recycle the water they use instead of dumping it after a single use. Cities, the third-largest consumer, conserve water with sophisticated measures offering cost-effective and environmentally sound ways of balancing urban water needs and budgets.

By themselves, these measures are hardly adequate, especially when we consider this scarcity as a worldwide phenomenon. Battles over the right to use water have broken out in water-scarce area like the Middle East and China, and conflicts are waged in the United States when large agricultural interests compete with growing cities like Phoenix over dwindling water resources.

Using the land ethic developed by the conservationist Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac, Postel describes a new relationship of humankind to the environmental and to water: "Grasping the connections between our own destiny and that of the water world around us is integral to meeting the challenge of meeting human needs while protecting the ecological functions that all life depends on."

In effect, this book advocates a water-management policy ethic that views people and water as parts of a greater whole, and requires us to ask a different set of questions about water.
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Author:DeCoursey, Vincent W.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 12, 1993
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