Interview with CHARLES FISHMAN

A long but very interesting interview for Magazine, dedicated to our most precious ressource: WATER. An interview with Charles Fishman, author of “The big Thirst. Secret Life and turbulent future of Water”.More news on:

FM:”The big Thirst. Secret life and turbulent future of water“. Heavy title. How did you start to work on this project?

CF: Heavy title but” The Big Thirst” is not a â ”heavy” book, it’s not doom & gloom, as we say in the U.S. I’m optimistic about the future of water and the book is optimistic. Water is fun, and water is amazing stuff ” and I try to emphasize that all through the book. We need water to cook, we need water for the biology of our bodies â every cell, every second of every day but so much of what it’s fun and relaxing about life involves water. We love a hot bath or a hot shower, we love racing into the ocean on a hot summer day, we love the sauna, the hot tub, we love sailing and canoeing and fishing. The book is about important questions involving water, but it’s also about how much we really enjoy water. I got started thinking about water because of bottled water. I grew up in Miami, Florida, and we were visiting my parents a few years ago, and our hotel room was stocked with bottles of FIJI Water. I couldn’t believe that in Miami, Florida, there were bottles of water that had really come all the way from
FIJI. t was, of course, literally water imported from FIJI to Florida. And when I got home, I did some research, and I discovered that 53 percent of the people in the nation of Fiji don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water every day. What that means is that a typical in American who lives in Orlando or New York or San Francisco can walk to a convenience store and buy water from Fiji, a typical American has easier access to clean water from Fiji than the people on Fiji do. We’re bringing water to people in the U.S. who absolutely do not need it and it’s coming from people in Fiji who desperately need it. That’s astonishing. That led me to write a story about the business of bottled water. And the interest in that story in the U.S. was so strong, it was clear that people wanted to know more about water in general. So I moved on, trying to understand the larger issues of water, of which bottled water is really only a small part. here is the link to that original story on bottled water:

FM: FAO’s hunger map reminds to us all as well as to the governments, that Hunger will be the greatest plague of this century. And water seems to be its twin challenge. You are a well experienced journalist. How do you think the Institutions will try to improve the situation?

CF: Right now, there are 1 billion people in the world who are hungry every day. And between now and 2050, the world will grow by 2.4 billion people in just the next 40 years, we will add the equivalent of all the people in China and all the people in India. It is possible that 1 billion of those new people will also be hungry. Meanwhile, almost an identical number of people each day do not have access to clean water. But here is the truth: The 1 billion people today who are hungry, the 1 billion people today who are thirsty , they are not hungry and thirsty because there is not enough food or water in the world. We let them be hungry and thirsty. We certainly have enough food and enough water so that no one needs to die of either malnutrition or thirst. We don’t have the political will and the organizational sophistication to insist that those gaps be filled. Having another 1 billion people who are hungry or thirsty will not wake us up, either. What, 1 billion people we overlook, but when the number reaches 2 billion, then we’ll take action? Farmers use 70 percent of the water that people use every day, worldwide. And farmers waste half that water, on average, worldwide. That’s not so much an indictment as an opportunity. It means two things: We can grow a lot more food without needing any more water, if we teach farmers to be more careful and precise with how they use their water (and if we help change the incentives so it doesn’t make financial sense to simply flood fields with water, regardless of value). It also means that farmers don’t need to use nearly as much community water as they do, in order to grow the food they do, freeing up water for other purposes. We need a blue revolution for the next 25 years, to follow the green revolution of the last 25 years. We need to teach farmers worldwide how to use water more carefully, more smartly. That doesn’t require dramatic investments in capital it’s more a question of education and changing practice. At the same time, governments need to remember that one of the best investments they can make is in providing clean water. That unleashes economic development, it dramatically improves health (and reduces health care burdens), it makes education possible, it allows people to raise their own food and support themselves. And people need to insist that clean water be a priority in their communities and their countries. The problems of hunger and thirst are not, fundamentally, problems of food and water. They are human problems, political problems which means they can be solved.

FM: Global Economy, Developing Countries, Environment and Technology. How do this fields relate when it comes to the Future of Water?

CF: I would ask a question in response to your question: Why is water an urgent issue at this moment? It is because of the four things you list above: economic development, population growth, and climate change are all putting new pressure on water supplies and making water an urgent issue in places where people are not in the habit of having to think about water, and making it a more serious issue in places where it is already a chronic problem. Population growth puts obvious pressure on water supplies as new people need water, of course. But population
growth is being concentrated in cities, and for urban centers to supply water, they need to find new sources, build new treatment and pump facilities, lay new water pipes. That all requires planning, political agreement, money. Economic evelopment requires water in sometimes surprising ways. As people move from subsistence into the middle class as millions of people are doing in developing countries every year they use much more water. That water isn’t in their everyday lives, it’s hidden water. Electricity, for instance, for household use. In the developed world, the electricity a typical person uses each day requires twice the amount of water that someone uses for things like washing and drinking. Food is the same way as diets become more sophisticated, the water required to produce those foods increases, and in developed countries, the food people eat each day requires many times the water than the actual water people use. And the factories that produce everything from clothing to computers all require huge volumes of water and often release that water in less than pristine condition, in terms of impact on the environment and downstream users of water. Finally, climate change is starting to shift the availability of water. Although, overall, the same amount of rain is likely to fall worldwide, climate change is moving where that rain falls. We don’t even realize how dependent we are on the current patterns we have literally built our cities, and the water facilities that support those cities, based on rainfall patterns. Even small changes in climate can reveal how brittle those systems are. Perth, Australia, for instance, saw its rainfall drop 20 percent over 25 years. That resulted in a 75 percent drop in the amount of water lowing into Perth’s reservoirs. That change caused a major economic and political crisis in Perth the entire water system had to be re-designed in a kind of crisis mode. Those three things argue for thinking ahead, which is something communities don’t do that well. We respond best to crisis. But the trends are clear and most water problems are, in fact, solvable. We will be much happier if we think ahead. Solving water problems in advance is much cheaper and much more likely to provide long-term solutions than solving water
problems in crisis mode.

FM:Young People for the Water. Many boys and girls around the World care about the problem, and they discuss it in Universities, or using social networks or blogs, or even starting a political carreer. We never forget the amazing volunteers who dedicate their lives to the safeguard of human rights in general. What do you think about it?

CF: I think young people are the key. Young people have a natural affinity for environmental issues, and water is one of the fundamental issues of environmental stewardship and sustainability. Where does our water come from? What river? What aquifer? What lake? How is that source of water protected? Do we take more water than nature provides back to our source? What is the technology, what is the creativity, what is the culture of innovation, that can be applied to water use, to water re-use, to our own water habits? Water is a whole industry, really a whole world, that has not yet been transformed by the information revolution, and by a culture of innovation. Most water systems
which are well run, overall are managed the same way they were 50 and 100 years ago. Very little information. Very little transparency. Very little questioning of assumptions and practices. Asking those kinds of questions comes very naturally to young people I think the energy and the creativity that comes from university students, that often blossoms on social networks, can and should be applied to water. It’s not just a question of activism water requires practical work every day. It requires smart young people to jump into engineering and operations and say I want to make sure my community has water forever, and I’m going to use my brain and my energy to help see that that happens. That’s what
people did 100 years ago the systems the developed world depends on today were revolutionary 100 years ago, they required both genius and energy to conceive and install at the start of the 20th century. We need that same kind of insight and determination today — and young people are a great source of both.

FM: From Nasa to Walmart and more, til Water. What will be your next project?

CF: You know, reporting and writing “The Big Thirst” has taken almost three years. There are many books about water out there, but I think this one has turned out differently it’s appealing, it’s fun, it’s written not really for politicians or water professionals, it’s written for regular people. (But the politicians and the water professionals can get a lot out of it, too, including a new water of talking about water.) The goal was simple: I hope anyone who reads “The Big Thirst” will never think about even a glass of water the same way again. The book has a very clear message: The golden age of water in the developed world is over the 100-year-long period when we have had water that is, essentially, unlimited, safe, and free. But we don’t have to enter an era of water scarcity;  don’t have to dry out our lives to move forward. We need to enter an era of smart water, we need to use the water we have more smartly, we need to learn to pay a little more, and invest a lot more in the future of water. And we need to remember that water is both essential and fun. If we don’t take care of water, we’ll be in trouble .So for the moment, I’m not thinking about the next project. I think “The Big Thirst” has a new message, but people have to hear about the book for that message to find an audience. For at least the next six months or so, I’m going to be thinking about and talking about water every day. I’m pretty sure water issues will still be with us six months and a year from now.

FM: You’re presenting your book in Italy, where environmental themes are currently very present. What is the message that you hope will be reached by your readers?

CF: I’m very impressed with how much environmental issues are part of the conversation here in Italy. Right now, you all are having a big national conversation about water systems and privatization will private companies do a better job of running water systems than government? Just the fact that you are having that debate has brought water issues into the public conversation. Ordinary people are learning about water and discussing water issues. That’s great. It’s important. In the U.S., we almost never talk about water issues. I think the message for Italy from “The Big Thirst” and the message from the debate you are already having about water, is this: Water is a public resource. Water is a public trust. Whether water systems themselves are operated by government or by companies is a question of the management scheme the water itself doesn’t ever belong to a corporation. It is our responsibility to figure out a system that allows us to provide the water we need, and to protect the source of that water, literally, forever. Water problems are solvable. There is no global water crisis, the way there is a global economic crisis, a global health care crisis, a global environmental crisis, a global climate crisis. Water problems are local they must be. The water issues of Italy cannot be solved by decisions or conservation in Atlanta or Barcelona or Melbourne. And once you solve your own water problems within a watershed no one can undo your solutions. Progress made in water stays with you it can’t be undone by habits a continent away. That makes water very much unlike climate or fossil fuel or economic issues. Finally, most water issues don’t require dramatic technological breakthroughs, or huge new resources. We understand water very well, and there is a fair amount of money already being spent on water. Italians lead the world in buying ottled water if Italians, for instance, spent just 20 percent less buying bottled water, and willingly invested that money in their water systems that would provide tens of millions of dollars for improving and modernizing those systems. Water problems can’t be ignored. We have the intelligence and the
resources to fix those problems and we have the emotional connection to water, as well. We really appreciate and enjoy water. So we should take care of it. And we can.


About Odile Milton

I travel through words whenever possible. Odile Milton is my signature on the web as I wanted an alter ego to indicate only my writings and works, not my personal life. Odile like the dancer in black swan, and Milton from the novel An old-fashioned girl. View all posts by Odile Milton

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