Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review of Drinking Water: A history by James Salzman

We all depend on water. Without water we die. Unclean water kills about 3.4 million people per year and is among the leading causes of death in humans today. This book accomplishes the rather impressive feat of giving the reader a broad introduction to various issues associated with drinking water. In one book he manages to cover the history and myths associated with water, justice and economic issues (who gets to drink and can you charge for water), safety and health issues, terrorist issues, and last but not least, how you can help bring water to those who do not have it today.

This tendency to associate powers with water is as strong as ever in our modern society, which is partly why it is extremely profitable for companies to sell bottled water. These companies rarely shy away from shouting out grandiose claims about the properties of their water. The fact is that, with some exceptions, tap water is as good or better than bottled water which may come from contaminated springs.

In chapter 2 and chapter 7 Salzman discusses the often forgotten but extremely important issue of whether water should be considered to be an essential human right or whether it should be considered a commodity, or perhaps rather a little bit of both. Humans who don’t get water die is one very good argument for why water should be a human right. However, should we say therefore that it is not ok to sell water. It is after all not free to transport water from those who have it in excess to those who have too little. If people are allowed to earn money on water they might even work hard to build systems that allow them to transfer their commodity to their potential customers. Salzman, even if he may not say so explicitly seem to argue that a combination of these two approaches is best. The romans developed a very efficient system for delivering water to all their people, but that would not have been possible was it not for the money they earned by selling privileges (e.g. water directly into your house), to the rich. There are few things that motivate people and businesses as much as money and often the best products are achieved if people are allowed to earn money when they do deliver.

Another thing that become evident when reading this book is that there is really no such thing as clean water, only water that is clean enough. Water taste different depending on where it originates from. Almost all water, including tap water in western nations, also contain certain small concentrations of poisons such as arsenic and lead. As if that was not enough there are many kinds of bacteria that also live in our water sources. To eradicate every kind of contaminant completely from the water we drink would be excruciatingly expensive, and it would really not be worthwhile given that the human body is generally quite good at handling small amounts of contaminants (this why I am rarely convinced by alarm report saying potential carcinogen found in x - it is often (not always) negligible amounts). I guess the lesson that should be learned is that our tap water is clean (again there are exceptions), but that does not mean that it is devoid of any microbes

Apart from being a good book, it also made me realize the importance of providing clean water to those who do not have it (in comparison with other types of charity). The benefits go very far, because not only does unclean water kill people and make them sick, it also uses up people’s time when they have to walk, sometimes several miles to get water (dirty water). Often girls in Africa have to quit school at an early age in order to spend their days fetching water. Indeed in Africa alone people spend 40 billion hours per year, fetching water. This book has inspired me to create a profile on where you donate money or even start your own fundraiser that helps build wells and bring water to those who need it. How about for your next birthday, wish for a donation in dollars equivalent to how many years you become.

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