River Watch Header Image

When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century

Fred Pearce, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. xi + 324 pp.
$26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8070-8572-1; $16.00 (paper)
Reviewed by Eliza L. Martin
Published on H-Water (December, 2008)

Water: A Global Crisis

Among the barrage of environmental problems we face today, from climate change, to deforestation, to pollution, there is another potential disaster looming on the horizon that journalist Fred Pearce argues is not getting enough attention–major rivers across the globe are no longer flowing all the way to their traditional outfalls. This is leading to a shortage of clean, potable water for many communities and damaging riparian habitats and wetlands. In his book When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–the Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century, Pearce takes his readers on a global journey, explaining the impact of increasing water scarcity. He explores how this dire problem came about, and posits some possible solutions.

Pearce places agriculture at the center of the problem. Most of the water we currently use goes towards growing and processing food. Many green revolution crops are particularly water-intensive, and water is quickly becoming the factor limiting global agricultural output. Transporting “virtual water” in the form of food and crops such as cotton and alfalfa also acts as a drain on an area’s hydrological resources.[1] Pearce is especially concerned with the use of groundwater to fill the water gap drying rivers leave. While over-pumping underground aquifers is an interim stop-gap measure, it is not a viable lasting solution. He sees large dams as another technological expedient that offers short-term benefits while creating long-term problems, such as habitat destruction, population displacement, blocking the movement of silt, and flooding.

In the end, Pearce calls for the standard battery of solutions. For agriculture, which he posits as the most substantial quarter for water savings, he proposes farmers aim for “more crop per drop,” which can be achieved through drip irrigation, more water-efficient crops, and growing crops appropriate to the particular area’s climate. He calls for less subsidization of water prices as a way to make farmers think before they open the sluice gates. He also supports domestic conservation and better-maintained water conveyance systems. Overall, Pearce urges us to better manage the water cycle–to turn away from a dependence on diminishing groundwater resources and instead look towards rainwater harvesting. He asks us to work with nature and implement the strategies offering the greatest social benefit, not to primarily look after the self-interests of those who can afford to build dams or import water. The planet needs a “blue revolution” before the consequences are irreversible.

Pearce’s book is well researched and well written, good for a popular audience, university undergraduates, or anyone looking for an accessible introduction to current world water issues. He has an engaging, highly readable style and uses copious amounts of examples from a wide geographical span, lending credence to his claim that increasing water scarcity is a worldwide issue. On the downside, I believe some footnotes and bibliographic references would have added to the work, if just to point interested readers to further sources of information, such as Sandra Postel and Marq de Villiers’s books on the world water crisis.

Pearce could have expanded his analysis of the impacts of climate change on the water cycle, an increasingly important question as we alter the environment around us. Potentially, global warming could cause changes in rainfall patterns, sparking massive drought in some areas and flooding in others, further impacting communities and ecosystems that are already distressed. Climate change could also cause snow-packs to melt earlier, freeing water in a surge instead of a more modulated release, directly affecting river flows. While Pearce does allude to the importance of groundwater recharge, I would welcome more emphasis on this potential solution in his conclusion. Placing water back into aquifers is one of the most environmentally friendly forms of water storage–it does not inundate large tracts of land, and once the water is captured it does not evaporate as it would in an above-ground reservoir. A last point I would like Pearce to develop is what countries are doing on an international level to regulate the use of water. Many of the rivers Pearce discusses cross national boundaries, making cooperative international political action just as important as local drives to conserve, especially as climate change makes water flows ever more unpredictable. Are there any nations that have successfully cooperated to share this vital resource in an equitable way? And what can others take from these agreements?

As major rivers worldwide dry up, economies as well as ecosystems are impacted. Like Pearce, I am a proponent of “soft” engineering solutions as the best ways to approach our current water issues. Addressing wasteful agricultural use is a start, but we cannot ignore urban areas as we face our global water problem. Though the bulk of our water, 70-80 percent in most estimates, does go for agricultural use, every conserved drop counts. Our current water use patterns are obviously not sustainable, and it is time to chart a new course before the negative effects become even more disastrous.


[1]. Economists created the term “virtual water” to refer to the water used to grow crops or manufacture products destined for export. For instance, if it takes 130 gallons of water to grow a pound of wheat, and that wheat is sold abroad, then that 130 gallons of water is being exported as well.

One thought on “When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century

Comments are closed.