Rethink, respect water and there will be plenty, author says
Author Charles Fishman remembers when bottled water was sold only for use in steam irons.
“When I was young, they sold a gallon of water in the laundry aisle … that’s it,” said Fishman, who is 51 years old. “And it was covered in dust and no one ever bought it.”
But it was an exotic, upscale brand that caught Fishman’s attention about five years ago – Fiji Water.
Fishman traveled to Fiji – the water is actually from Fiji – to the bottled water maker for an article he was writing for Fast Company magazine. He also went to San Pellegrino. And Poland Springs.
The trips became the impetus for his new book, The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, which goes beyond bottled water and examines humans’ relationship to the resource.
“The days of easy water are over,” Fishman said. “We have to rethink how we use and manage our water.”
The book tracks water from Saturn to Australia. Fishman writes about scarcity, water systems and drought. He argues that the world has plenty of water – we just don’t use it smartly.
But there’s a big “20 percent of the world’s surface water” sized piece missing from the book’s global water puzzle.
“I didn’t get into the Great Lakes much … they get a fair amount of attention,” Fishman said. “I was looking for things that people could learn lessons about.”
Fishman notes a general lack of respect for water. In Fiji, for example, the locals see water harvesting as a cash cow, with little regard for how it may affect their own country, he said.
“They are like, ‘we may not have clean water but who cares? The idiot Americans want to buy it.’
“It is complete absurdity.”
Solutions to scarcity don’t have to be complex, he said.
Florida pumps its aquifers dry and constantly panics about water. But every year about 48 inches of rain fall in Florida where it is collected and spilled into the ocean.
“If God gives you all the water you need, don’t complain when you send it to the ocean,” Fishman said.
He compares water to the food movement, which, in his eyes, has progressed much faster. Just as people have begun to re-imagine their relationship to food, a change that is driving the growth of the organic and local food movements, people need to develop an appreciation and understanding of where their water comes from.
And even though the Great Lakes weren’t a main character in his book, Fishman still had words of wisdom for the region.
“You all have the ability to understand water the way that people in places like Nevada can’t,” he said.
Fishman said the Great Lakes region has an opportunity to be world leaders in sustainable water usage.
But, as factories are huge consumers of water, he said that water should also be used as a marketing tool to spur economic activity in the region.
“Market it … develop strategies … teach the world,” he said.
Fishman’s book is not all doomsday. For all the misuse, mismanagement and ignorance, there are good things happening. Among them: IBM software that helps utilities use just the right amount, heavy investment in water recycling technologies at General Electric and rain barrels in cities all over the planet.
Ultimately, he argues we have the water to quench everyone’s thirst – we just have to wake up.
“Our relationship with water is changing … we didn’t have to think about it much before,” he said. “Now we’re starting a new era and people around the world need to be more conscious about water use.”