Author Brings Far-Reaching Insight to ‘The Three Ages of Water’

October 25, 2023
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BookShelf: Author Brings Far-Reaching Insight to ‘The Three Ages of Water’

“The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future”
By Peter Gleick
Public Affairs, $30.00

Reviewed by Tom Henry

Image of Eight Bears book cover

Suffice it to say that when Peter Gleick’s talking about water, I’m listening.

Gleick is co-founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, California, and has long been considered one of the world’s foremost experts on anything from desalination to global water stresses.

The Pacific Institute’s long-standing series of books, which used to be published every two years and are known simply as “The World’s Water,” were among the most timely and comprehensive inventories of water shortages and struggles.

Now, in “The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future,” Gleick has produced an incredibly ambitious, far-reaching and insightful book about how water itself is tied to the birth of the universe, how it has been used and abused since the Industrial Revolution, and how mankind might still be able to live in harmony with it in the future in spite of climate change, exponential population growth and poor land use decisions.


Part history, part sustainable remedy

Gleick shows us how agriculture itself began because of water, how efforts to control water with dams and other structures have yielded mixed results, how the science of producing safe water evolved, and the promises that lie ahead with wastewater systems and better infrastructure.


What he has created here

is part history book and

part remedy for sustainability.


What he has created here is something that is part history book and part remedy for sustainability. It is that rare book in terms of breadth and depth. It is both satisfying and inspiring, offering readers a panoramic look at an essential issue.

He writes about waterborne diseases such as cholera and Legionnaires’. He writes about lead. He tells us the Flint water crisis “was years in the making, the result of bad technical decisions, difficult economic conditions, gross underinvestment in the local water system, a failure to carefully monitor and publicly report water quality to the community, and inexcusable mismanagement by local, state and federal agencies.”

Gleick writes that “The bigger crisis, however, is that Flint is not an isolated case: water systems throughout the United States are deteriorating for the same reasons, especially in low-income, marginalized communities,” citing issues in Jackson, Mississippi, and other cities as examples.


‘Failure to provide basic water services’

He calls water poverty a “spiraling crisis.”

“The most egregious and inexcusable aspect of today’s water crisis is the failure to provide basic water services for everyone,” Gleick writes. “We know how to clean up filthy, contaminated water. We know how to turn wastewater into clean, drinkable water. We know how to build dams for water storage or flood protection or hydropower. We’ve built machines to strip salt out of seawater and fresh water out of the atmosphere and launched other machines into outer space searching for water. But despite this progress of the Second Age of Water, we have not succeeded in providing everyone with even the most basic water services.”

There are still nearly two million deaths a year from diseases associated with the lack of safe water and adequate sanitation. In Africa and Southeast Asia, diarrhea alone is responsible for more than 8% of all deaths, he writes.


A scientist with perspective, passion

And that leads me to the first time I met Gleick. It was 23 years ago at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference in East Lansing, Michigan, in 2000, when he spoke on a panel examining the potential for water wars across North America and other parts of the world.


The inequities of water distribution

result in a lot of unnecessary

human misery and suffering.


He said then that while military conflicts over water are actually rare, the inequities of water distribution result in a lot of unnecessary human misery and suffering. As global water shortages become more acute, more suffering is inevitable. The same goes for the inequities of climate change.

Gleick is no stranger to SEJ. He has spoken at other conferences, including on a desalination panel I put together and moderated at SEJ’s 2005 conference in Austin. He is a tremendous resource for journalists, a scientist with an amazing perspective and a passion for justice and accountability.

“The Three Ages of Water” offers us something that goes beyond the ordinary. It’s interesting, yes. But it’s also essential for journalists who really want to immerse themselves on the water side of the environmental beat.

Tom Henry of The (Toledo) Blade is SEJournal’s BookShelf editor and a member of the publication’s editorial board.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 38. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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