BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Ripple Effect’

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By Alex Prud'homme
Scribner, $27, 448 pages

As a governance adviser with a provincial reconstruction team at Abu Ghraib, I par- ticipated in a water war in Iraq. Abu Ghraib is not just a prison; it is a county-sized municipality on the western outskirts of Baghdad on the north bank of the Euphrates River. The infamous prison is roughly in the center of the county and plays a surprisingly small part in the lives of ordinary citizens.

However, water management is literally the lifeblood of the area. Without the canal system that flows north from the Euphrates, Abu Ghraib would be a desert; in 2009, the northern portion of Abu Ghraib, which is called Aqur Quf, was reverting to desert because of water theft from the canals by rich southern sheiks from the Sunni Zobai tribe. We battled hard and, I think, successfully, to wrest control of the canals from the powerful and well-armed sheiks.

The potential of water wars is one of the significant fresh-water issues discussed in Alex Prud'homme’s “The Ripple Effect.”

We also worked hard and successfully in Abu Ghraib in 2009 to prevent a recurrence of a cholera outbreak. Cholera and other diseases caused by poor-quality water is another problem discussed in this far-ranging book on the coming water crises of the 21st century.

Fair warning: This is a policy-wonk book and a pretty good one. Mr. Prud'homme is an experienced author who worked on the book “My Life in France” with his aunt, Julia Child. He discusses the problems of the diminishing supply of fresh water competently and thoroughly. We may debate the human causes and even the reality of global warming; however, the diminishing supply of fresh water in the world undoubtedly is caused by man, and only man can fix it. Our water consumption is doubling every 20 years while our sources of fresh water are diminishing.

This is a story told in vignettes. Mr. Prud'homme savages China and India for accomplishing world-class growth at the expense of polluting their fresh water. He also attacks entrepreneurs such as T. Boone Pickens for making a profit by selling scarce water. The problems of water pollution caused by extracting natural gas by using high volumes of water combined with chemicals, called “hydrofracking,” also are addressed. Perhaps the most interesting factoid is the high level of cocaine that shows up in major rivers such as the Thames and the Po. Human-induced floods also are discussed.

There is no denying that the author exhibits some anti-capitalist leanings. He is highly critical of privatization efforts to address the problem. He is more enamored with broad statist solutions such as the approach taken by Singapore in dealing with its chronic fresh-water shortage. This involves public education programs, the enforced use of water-efficient toilets and home systems and the recycling of waste water.

In the long run, here and abroad, some form of desalinization or reverse-osmosis purification likely will be needed on a large scale, no matter what approach is taken.

For conservatives, the ultimate solution for the United States is likely to be a combination of private- and public-policy approaches that will be local and regional in nature. The current demand for less federal involvement in everything requires that. But we need to get thinking about water, and Mr. Prud'homme’s book is a good place to start.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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