The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric, Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future by Peter Gleick

Public Affairs

Water Always Wins: Thriving in an Age of Drought and Deluge by Erica Gies

Chicago Press

Water for All: Global Solutions for a Changing Climate by David Sedlak

Yale University Press

Review by Rasoul Sorkhabi

Long before Earth formed some 4.6 billion years ago, there was water – lots of water in the universe. Hydrogen, a primordial element, still constitutes the bulk of outer space, and water (H2O) was one of the earliest molecules to form in the early history of the universe. Even on Earth, there is plenty of water. With the seas covering 71 percent of Earth’s surface, our planet is more oceanic than terrestrial. Yet, nearly 99 percent of Earth’s water is either salty or icy; freshwater accessible to us is merely one percent of Earth’s total water budget – hence the famous line in Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798): “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” 

Today, more than two centuries after Coleridge, and after several decades of rapid industrialization, population growth, environmental degradation, and climate change, our freshwater resources are hugely at risk. Water has become a global issue, and nowhere more evident and acute than in the American West, North Africa, and the Middle East. 

In recent years, a number of books have been published on the water crisis. The three new books reviewed here were all written by authors from California. Peter Gleick, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is a cofounder of the Pacific Institute, an independent water research group in Berkeley; Erica Gies is a California-born and based journalist who has written extensively about water and climate change for National Geographic Explorer, Scientific American, and other magazines. David Sedlak is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California in Berkeley and director of the Berkeley Water Center. Although their books understandably overlap to a certain extent, each book has its own perspective and focus.

Peter Gleick offers a big picture of humanity’s interactions with water resources in three dramatic Acts, as mentioned in the book’s subtitle. The First Age of Water on Earth, according to Gleick, encompasses the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s evolution up until about 12,000 years ago, when the last glaciers melted and a warm interglacial age began. Humankind, depending on how we define it, appeared in the past two or three million years (with Homo sapiens in the past two or three hundred thousand years). In the First Age of Water, small pockets of humans, depending on where they lived, had access to plenty of ice or water. Their relationship with water was unplanned but appreciative and intimate. The Second Age of Water, the past 12,000 years or what geologists call the Holocene (“All Recent” Age), has been a warm and humid climate. In this period, human populations flourished; they practiced horticulture and agriculture; they dug water wells and invented water mills; civilizations emerged on the banks of major rivers across the world; marine navigation spread human settlements, trade and wars across the oceans; the culmination was the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

But the Second Age of Water also led to environmental degradation and global threats to water resources – to the dawn of the Third Age of Water. Gleick believes that we are “at a fork in the road of our own survival.” We can either continue mismanaging, wasting, polluting, and damaging water resources, or start protecting, restoring and optimally managing them. The present trend of environmental degradation actually began in the 1950s which marks the beginning of what scientists have nicknamed Anthropocene (the “human-dominated age”). 

Avoiding runaway global warming is probably the most critical challenge of our time and of our environment because climate fundamentally affects the water cycle and resources. This is specifically illustrated in Erica Gies’s book. Depending on where you live, global warming accelerates both droughts and floods. Gies introduces the concept of “Slow Water,” to “let water be water, to reclaim space for it to interact with the land.” Fast Water – overusing, wasting, polluting, ruining and misplacing water resources – is like “Fast Food and all its ills.” Through ten chapters, Gies covers her subject-matter chronologically. After describing the crisis we are in, she proceeds to discuss water resources in rocks and soil, water’s interactions with life, water engineering in ancient times, and water in the Industrial Era. The final three chapters offer glimpses of the near future and people’s adaptation, innovation, and common-sense restoration toward water. 

Gies rarely discusses the political, economic or technological challenges and solutions to the near future of water. Overall, her book adopts a journalistic style, with illustrative case studies and field trips, and an environmentalist perspective calling for ancient wisdom and respect for nature. One of the most interesting and informative aspects of Gies’s book is her stories of “water detectives,” those who are trying to find and map lost rivers, ghost streams, and buried creeks that were misplaced by human development projects and urbanization. “Worldwide,” Gies writes, “only one-third of rivers longer than 620 miles travel uninterrupted to the ocean. Most of the remaining free rivers run through remote parts of the Arctic, Amazon, and Congo. All the rest have been dammed, straitjacketed in levees, and dredged to make shipping channels.”

David Sedlak offers a more technical (and indeed technocratic) and optimistic view with regard to Gies’s “near future” and Gleick’s “Third Age” of water.” Sedlak points out that even ancient societies faced water crises of their own; nevertheless, he agrees that our present water crisis is part of the Great Acceleration in population, economic and industrial growth, the so-called Anthropocene beginning in the 1950s. Sedleck prefers to deconstruct the so-called “Global Water Crisis” into six specific issues: (1) Water for the wealthy people living in affluent cities (he specifies Santa Barbara as a telling example); (2) water for the many and majority of people living in low-to-middle-income countries and cities in Asia and South America; (3) water for the unconnected – nearly a quarter of the world’s population in rural and less-developed countries that have no access to safe water and sanitation; (4) water for good health in general; (5) water for food and agriculture; and (6) water for ecosystems such as rivers and lakes. In this way, Sedlak attempts to analyze and offer solutions to each of the six distinct water crises. 

Sedlak discusses various technical solutions, both large-scale infrastructure projects including desalination of sea water, construction of more efficient dams and canals, groundwater wells, as well as small-scale but numerous devices such as drip irrigation and other water conservation schemes. He highlights the recycling and treating of sewage for crop irrigation or underground reservoir refilling as a significant technological solution in many parts of the world. Finally, Sedlak remarks that some of our water issues require no technologies; they can be solved through better policies and regulations. 

As I write this review in January 2024, the human population has surpassed eight billion. I also write this in Utah, a part of the arid and water-challenged American West. Water has become a global environmental, economic, and socio-political issue. With the changing climate, water issues in myriad facets – from shortage, drought and desertification to floods, hydropower dams, and conflicts over common “rivers” (which is the very origin of the word “rivalry”) will pose daunting challenges to communities, governments, and economic entities. 

We need “water literacy” for the public as well as politicians and policy-makers. These three books, written by experts but in non-technical language, offer in-depth critiques of how water resources are used or misused, and what can be done to avoid catastrophic water wars and socio-political water stresses in the coming decades. 

Rasoul Sorkhabi is a professor of Geology at the University of Utah. This is his first contribution to the California Review of Books