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Distilling 'The Big Thirst'
May 5, 2011 - 8:15pm

How much water does your campus use each day? Where does your campus water come from? How much does your water cost?

If you know the answer to these questions you are probably in the minority. We know (or should know) how much electricity and natural gas we use, but we are all used to thinking about our water as limitless and free.

The big idea in Charles Fishman's excellent The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water is that water is both an essential and scarce resource, and that almost universally governments and individuals have failed to manage this resource.

Our water failures are across the board.

We have failed to:

  • Put a realistic price on water consumption, allowing politics and sheer lunacy to determine who uses water and how much they use rather than the market and mechanisms of supply and demand.
  • Maintain, much less improve, our existing century old water infrastructure (the pipes, pumping stations, waste treatment facilities, reservoirs, etc) - leading to enormous water wastage and risks of water delivery failure.
  • Manage existing water supplies intelligently, including our failures to appropriately conserve and re-use water, and our continued insistence on sending high quality drinking water into our toilets and on to our yards and golf courses.
  • Educate ourselves about water and the water supply.

This last failure is, I think, particularly troubling across higher ed. Our students are not going to understand water locally, nationally or globally unless we teach them about water. Water can unify disciplines of economics, sociology, history, political science, chemistry, biology, environmental studies, and many more. We could use water as a lens to understand the interactions of science, history and politics. Water represents a teachable moment.

Fishman tells the water story by going to places and talking with people who are grappling with the management and delivery of water and water systems. From Vegas to India, Atlanta to Dubai, water economics and water politics are dominating the thinking and planning efforts of many companies and governments. The ed tech folks amongst us will particularly enjoy the description of how water is utilized in the making of computer chips (and be amazed how much embedded water is in your iPad).

Highly recommended. Smart, engaging, well-written, and disturbing.

What are you reading?


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