May 2011, Vol. 23, No.5

Water Volumes

Out of Water: From Abundance to Scarcity and How to Solve the World’s Water Problems

Colin Chartres and Samyukhta Varma (2010), FT Press, Upper Saddle River, N.J. 07458, 256 pp., $25.99, hardcover,
ISBN-10: 0-13-136726-9, ISBN-13: 978-0-13-136726-5.

The title of this book is rather general, but in reality, this book has a focus on the links between water, agriculture, and food supply. As the authors clearly point out, this is an immense challenge in the coming decades: Food production should double by 2050, compared to the production in 2000, whereas water supply is expected to decrease by 10%. This has not only technical implications but also social, management, and financial implications.

The authors state that there are numerous ways in which agriculture can be more productive and require less water. Pessimistic predictions of doom and gloom seem to be the only ways to make people understand how serious the situation is today, but in this book, this is complemented by a positive message: It can be done. Business as usual is the worst approach, but many alternative suggestions are made throughout the various chapters. Changes are needed not only in irrigation technology but also in water policy and incentive frameworks, which most countries don’t seem to have put in place or even planned.

The authors cover all aspects of water use for irrigation in view of food production. The first three chapters investigate the background and causes of “another crisis,” the water crisis, based on a description of four cases (River Jordan, groundwater use in South Asia, the Murray–Darling Basin in Australia, and Colorado River). This leads to an outline of some of the causes of water scarcity — which we know but sometimes prefer to ignore — population growth, dietary changes, biofuel production, urbanization, and last but not least, described in a separate chapter, climate change.

 During the discussion surrounding climate change, years were lost, which could have been used to mitigate the effects. When it comes to water scarcity, here’s a start! Technical advice is given on how to achieve more “drop per drop,” but the discussion also involves water planning and management, water governance, water rights, and water costs. The link with poverty is made, zooming in on developing countries, which have a large share in irrigation practices, very often on a small scale.

The final chapter proposes solutions along six lines of thinking, summarizing the nine preceding chapters. Easy solutions do not exist, but application of the advice offered will help us to find the right direction.


Bart Van der Bruggen is a professor in the department of chemical engineering at the University of Leuven, Belgium.


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