The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century

The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty First Century

Wanting to know more about the future of our water supplies, and how water is being managed, I decided to read this book. And while some of these thirsts were quenched, I am left still with some thirst for knowledge on the topic. Why?

The aim of the book, as described by the cover, is to discuss the fate of freshwater in the 21st century. As the author puts it:

“Once you start paying attention to water, it is revealed to be a vast and constantly changing subject, one that spans the issues from the molecular to the cosmic. While this book is not encyclopedic, it attempts to describe some of the most significant water challenges of today.” – The Ripple Effect, pg 13.

However, what the book is truly about, in my opinion, is American water. The book does indeed discuss genuine water problems, like pollution of water sources, depletion of water sources, and overall water management; however, most of these discussions are limited to America. And that is either good or bad, depending on what you want from the book. I personally wanted a global discussion, which there definitely is some, but the book spends most of its time on American companies, politicians, and issues.

So, the book should more accurately be named “The Ripple Effect: The Fate of American Freshwater in the 21st Century”.

As for the quality of the book, I likewise have mixed feelings. The author does have, in some places, an overt bias in how he communicates the subjects; while in other places, the author takes a less biased view and communicates issues clearly. Let’s discuss more specifically the contents of the book to understand what I mean.

The book Begins with a warning, a reminder that our water supply is vulnerable. As an example, the author explains a small event that polluted a lot of water. At a water purification plant in suburban New Jersey, a PhD in hydrochemistry was thrown into a water tank, murdered, which tainted 1 million gallons of drinking water. Just one unfortunate small event, like a murder, can threaten our limited water supply, says the author. By the same logic, just as a small amount of pollution can make water undrinkable.

And, as the author quickly points out, with a growing amount of people and a fixed amount of water, our pollution of water has not slowed but has instead quickened. The author reminds us of a blunt fact about water early on in the book: 

“The earth contains the same amount of water it always has – some 332.5 million cubic miles of H20 – but the number of people using it, how they use it, and where they use it has dramatically changed. While water is the most abundant substance on the planet (it covers 71% of the globe), 97% of it is too salty for consumption. Only 3% of the world’s h20 is fresh, and most of that is frozen: just 0.3 percent of it is accessible and clean enough for people to use.” – The Ripple Effect, pg 12.

Now we can recycle water, but we are not able to remove all pollutants from water as of now. So, when we pollute water from sources like aquifers with unremovable pollutants, we are increasing our need to search for far more expensive means of getting water, like desalination of seawater.

And as to not concern you further, the author claims that water supply in America has become more polluted since 1972 and the establishment of the clean water act, not less. Massive pollution of rivers and water supply sources in the early 70s and 80s lead to things like the Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response and Liability Act. It was believed that 45% of lakes and 39% of streams and rivers were unsafe for drinking, swimming, and fishing, as of 1999.

The author links these levels of pollution to the increase in health problems as well, which helps develop a more holistic picture of the problems related to water pollution. For example, in a neighborhood in Greenpoint, which is located close to polluted water, the rates of leukemia in children and the rates of stomach cancer were abnormally high, despite Greenpoint having lower cancer rates than New York City. A detective who lived in the neighborhood said 36 people he knew from the neighborhood had developed cancer. 

Tainted water not only impacts neighborhoods, however, but also fish and birds. PCB’s (Polychlorinated biphenyls) can now be found in many different types of fish and birds around the Housatonic river due to water polluting. The tolerable level for humans is 200 PPM (parts per million), and we have caught ducks with 3,700 PPM. We also have witnessed high death rates of pups when fed food which contained as little as 4 PPM of PCB.

Those points are mostly in the quality section of the book which covers the nature of water quality. Other sections of the book cover issues like drought, conflicts over water resources, floods, as well as kinds of pollution. So, the book definitely hits many of the issues related to water, yet manages to maintain, as demonstrated above, an American point-of-view.

A strength behind the book, which I was deeply appreciative of, was how well it was written. The author does not get lost in technical language, and manages to keep the discussion implicitly about whether our current approach to a water issue was, or is, morally right or not. Should we privatize water? Does public water result in inefficient use? Is it ethical to continually expand cities, despite having no secured water resources for future growth? That, the author is good at doing.

As for weaknesses inside the book, there are few important ones.

Not enough data, and not enough analysis. The author could have gone into greater detail about how different industries use water, and how that impacts our water supplies; instead, the author only mentions occasions where companies, either intentionally or not, polluted. With the one exception of explaining how intel uses water in their manufacturing, this information is ignored for the most part. I would have loved to see some time series data on those issues.

Likewise, the lack of counter narrative left me feeling pessimistic, but at the same time, not being able to determine how justified my pessimism in fact is. Many times the author tells a narrative of a company polluting, denying responsibility, and then ordinary people contracting cancer and animals dying. Yet, next to no mention are the times where companies followed laws and avoided pollution. Which is not to suggest we defend these companies, but I now feel that I have read a biased sample and in order to have a more balanced opinion, I must dig up my own research. Again, I would have loved to see some graphs of companies polluting by year, as well as their money spent on sustainable practices by year.

A good example of the problems presented by no graphs comes from the fact that as of 1999 many rivers and lakes were polluted. I would have loved to know how much of said pollution was placed there by, let’s say, 1973 or 1974. For all I know, most of the pollution arrived early on, followed by a massive downturn in pollution. Not having graphs in the book led me to be uncertain about how to interpret the data presented by the author. In addition, there was no real connection drawn between environmental protection and how much damage was prevented, or even the efficiency of environmental policies. 

But even with all of that said, I would still recommend the book to someone who wants to get interested in the topic. I only encourage them to keep a cautious mind about becoming overly pessimistic, given the lack of counter narrative and no graphs. The book is still well written and well researched, despite its flaws.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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