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A journey in the future of water

A journey in the future of water

By Terje Tvedt
Published by IB Tauris
Website: www.ibtauris.com
2014, 262pp, ISBN 978 1 84885 745 2(Pb) £14.99

The glaciers of the Tibetan plateau are a source of fresh water to more than a quarter of the people on Earth. But the glaciers are retreating, and by 2100, it's predicted that they will disappear completely. Should that happen, the water level in many of Asia's major rivers, including the Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Yangtze and Mekong, will be significantly reduced, with profound implications for billions. And prior to that reduction, increased annual flooding from the meltwater is likely to bring greater levels of destruction than those witnessed in Pakistan in 2010.

While the depiction of doomsday scenarios seems to dominate current assessments of our global future, A journey in the future of water is not a depressing catalogue of mankind's follies and deserved demise. It reads like a travel book, not a thesis, its author - a Professor of Geography, Political Science and Global History at the universities of Bergen and Oslo, and former president of the International Water History Association - happy to describe his thoughts, encounters, the sights and sounds, as he conducts a global tour of water 'hot spots'.

Also unusual is the lack of preaching about 'what we need to do'. Tvedt is more interested to document what we are doing - for better or worse - and frequently acknowledges the uncertainty about how things will turn out, either in terms of the climate, or whether mankind's ambitious schemes to secure future water supplies will actually work. These schemes include attempts by Egypt to irrigate over a million acres in the Sahara, by pumping water from the Nile, and - the most ambitious engineering project in the world - China's attempts to divert 5% of the water in the Yangtze to the North West plains via three artificial canals.

The centrality of water in the future of humanity, which is never far from the surface in Tvedt's writing, is aptly illustrated by this example from China. The North West plains are a breadbasket for the country, but have seen over 300 rivers dry up or become little more than 'open sewers' in recent years, according to Tvedt. Should China be forced to import just 10 percent of its grain requirement, he writes, it would take out 20 percent of grain available on the world market, leading to price increases and political instability in numerous countries. Yet China's attempts to move water from the wet south to the dry north in order to prevent that scenario could prove deluded and futile, should the anticipated Himalayan melting occur.

First written in Norwegian in 2007, but only published in an English translation in 2014, readers may be frustrated that the author's journey and subsequent analysis are seven years 'out of date'. But Tvedt is a historian as well as a geographer, and like other fine travel writers, he is adept at putting our current situation - and the various efforts of governments around the world to secure their water supplies - in their historical context. This adds enormous depth and interest to his account, making it as much (or perhaps more) a book for the bedside as the desk. As a historian, Tvedt also has an appealing humility in making predictions - or recommendations - concerning the future, largely allowing his readers to draw their own conclusions, or choose not to.

Date published: January 2014


Have your say

Very pertinent and a relevant issue to raise. Water is criti... (posted by: Dr. C.B. Jagannatha Rao)


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