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Will The World Run Dry?

A new book by science writer Nancy F. Castaldo lays out the leading causes behind the world’s water crisis—and how to reverse it.

Did you know that it takes an estimated 1,500 gallons of water to produce one burger and a portion of fries? That one pair of jeans requires roughly 1,650 gallons of water to make? And that a single almond can’t grow without around 1.1 gallons of water? Considering the rate at which all three are consumed—for context, over 1.2 billion pairs of jeans are bought worldwide every year—it comes as no surprise that the world is in the midst of a water crisis.

 

In When The World Runs Dry, a new book released today (Tuesday, January 18), science writer Nancy F. Castaldo outlines the leading causes behind the world’s waning water supply and puts forward actionable solutions to mitigate the damage. Through a series of case studies that span across industries (one chapter looks at fracking contamination, while another explores the effects of pharmaceutical pollution) and geographies (from Flint, Michigan to Cape Town, South Africa), Castaldo illustrates how climate change, poor infrastructure, and a host of other failures have culminated in a global water crisis that will see the amount of drinkable water for every person on the planet halve by 2050. The problem, she argues, is too urgent and too big to ignore. And every one of us has a role to play.

 

Below, Atmos speaks with Castaldo about the many ways water scarcity and contamination impacts human health, food security, ecological conservation, and economic prosperity.

Daphne

Let’s start at the beginning. What planted the seed for When The World Runs Dry?

Nancy

I was researching another book—titled The Story of Seeds: Our Food Is in Crisis. What Will You Do to Protect It?—when I kept uncovering story after story that intertwined with water stress, including flooding, sea level rise, and droughts. It was also the time of the Flint water crisis. And that really was the impetus for writing it.

Daphne

So, this was back in 2014?

Nancy

Exactly. I started researching When The World Runs Dry before The Story of Seeds came out in 2016. There were so many different aspects to the water crisis that people perhaps weren’t aware of and needed to know about. The idea was: let’s look at our global water supply as opposed to all of these individual stories we were hearing. After all, water is a natural resource that we all need. My book is about how it’s being impacted in a range of different ways.

 

For example, I began to realize that so many stories actually involved water that didn’t have water in the headline. Only once you started reading between the lines would you discover the root of the issue is water. For example, you’d read about climate refugees escaping now uninhabitable areas, only to understand, Oh, well, it’s because they can’t farm anymore. Why can’t they farm anymore? Because they don’t have enough water to irrigate their fields. So, it wasn’t difficult to find case studies. What I wanted to do was look at all of those stories as a way to illustrate both how the quality and quantity of our global water supply is impacted.

Daphne

The book includes some really staggering stats alongside these very emotional testimonies from people who have been impacted by polluted water or drought. How did you decide on the format and tone of the book?

Nancy

I wanted to take my reader along with me in some of these cases and introduce them to people that were impacted [by the water crisis]. It’s one thing to hear a staggering statistic, it’s another thing to say: here’s a woman who can’t go to work because she can’t shower to get herself clean or she can’t give her child a bath. We need emotional, human stories to understand the scale of the impact. So, I wanted to show the challenges people are facing, but I also wanted to show resilience, to show how people rise to the occasion. I wanted to amplify the voices of the young teens that are working round the clock to inform their communities about the details of the crisis, or that are organizing and protesting to make a difference.

 

Also, bear in mind that, as I was writing this book, legislation kept changing. Administrations were changing. New places were being contaminated every other day. I had to juggle making this book feel current, while also communicating that this issue is timeless and that water is an ongoing natural resource that needs to be conserved and managed for future generations.

“We need emotional, human stories to understand the scale of the impact.”

Nancy F. Castaldo

Daphne

You mention a range of factors in the book, but can you talk a bit about what you see as the primary driver behind the global water crisis?

Nancy

I’ll break it down by talking about quantity and quality. The changes in water quantity we’re seeing are easily attributed to human-caused climate change: we see that in flooding, in rising sea levels, and droughts. And, in terms of quality, the main culprits tend to be human-caused pollution. The toxicity that comes from industrial and human waste is routinely released into our water systems. It’s also caused by our energy consumption—and from the packaging we use. Unfortunately, we’re at the root of most of the issues, but that means we can do something about it. If we’re causing it, then we have the ability to make a difference.

Daphne

A recurring theme throughout your book is that the mismanagement of our water supply is detrimental to human health, to the food that we eat, and to our economies—the knock-on effects are absolutely massive. From your research, why and how does water sit at the intersection of these three pillars?

Nancy

Let’s look at them individually. Take the pandemic as an example of the ways in which the water crisis impacts human health. How does a community get through a health emergency such as the pandemic when clean water isn’t available? Many communities around the world have been battling rising Covid-19 cases with no access to clean water. This impacts their sanitation levels among many other things. And then, of course, polluted, toxic or unclean water is also the cause of many diseases and other medical issues.

 

We also need water to grow and produce our food. To state the obvious, a lack of clean water means crops will die, which in turn causes food insecurity. On the other hand, too much water, as in the case of flooding, impacts our crop production. For example, if sea levels rise, coastal farming communities are flooded with salt water, damaging the fields for them to grow food.

 

The water crisis’ impact on the economy is more complicated. Water stress impacts businesses precisely because it impacts people and their communities. Water is a necessary component of manufacturing as well as energy production. Take Flint as an example. During their lead crisis, a lot of local businesses were forced to close in part because of the human loss the city suffered. When people need to relocate from water stress, the community left behind experiences an economic loss. And then there’s the additional factor that the transportation of goods is impacted during a water crisis, especially if areas are flooded or destroyed due to extreme weather.

“We’re at the root of most of the world’s water issues, but that means we can do something about it.”

Nancy F. Castaldo

Daphne

In When The World Runs Dry, you dissect the various polluting factors that are behind the global water crisis: pharmaceutical, agricultural, and industrial to name a few. And while structures of accountability exist, they appear to be failing when it comes to protecting entire communities and ecosystems from harmful chemicals.

 

For instance, I was struck by your chapter on agricultural pollution—and particularly how common it is for harmful pesticides that are proven to contaminate drinking water and cause damage to the surrounding ecosystems and wildlife to be banned from use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture only to be re-approved years later under a different leadership.

Nancy

I found that pretty disturbing, too. Pesticides are used by many industrial farms to grow crops as well as herbicides. The chemical companies that produce these substances lobby the government to get them approved for popular use. They are joined by commercial farmers, who will get a greater yield—and make more money—if they use the products. It’s about following the money. To break this toxic cycle, we need to turn to sustainable and regenerative farming methods because, as things stand, chemical companies are hugely influential over the agricultural bills that are passed by the government.

 

Instead, we need to raise our voices and demand legislation to remove the pesticides and herbicides that are harmful to our health. Each administration makes changes that impact farming practices across the U.S. through the Environmental Protection Agency. I assume it’s similar in many other countries. Voting for responsible leaders is the most powerful way to protect our health and preserve our ecosystems from chemical threats.

Daphne

I’m assuming the same destructive follow-the-money mentality applies to extractive industries, like mining, dredging, and quarrying?

Nancy

Yes. Mining is troublesome in so many ways. Because we need coal (and water) to generate energy. Perhaps one aspect we can focus on in the short-term is abandoned mines. Abandoned mines leach toxic compounds into our waterways. There are over 5,000 coal-related abandoned mines in the U.S. alone. Most of them are located in just three states—West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. But not all abandoned mines are coal mines. There are about 46,000 abandoned mines in the U.S. on public land alone.

 

The problem here lies in the waste materials—called tailings—produced by these mines. Tailings is a combination of crushed rock, chemicals, and heavy metals. And if those tailings escape into waterways, we not only lose fish, but human health is also at risk. And the United States isn’t alone in dealing with a large number of abandoned mines. The United Kingdom has thousands of abandoned mines as well. Mining peaked in the United Kingdom between the 18th and 19th centuries, and many have been left behind. So, the problem is a complex one: coal mining itself creates a lot of water toxicity, but even as we close mines and switch to alternatives, we are left with the prospect of ongoing water contamination.

“We need to raise our voices and demand legislation to remove the pesticides and herbicides that are harmful to our health.”

Nancy F. Castaldo

Daphne

Let’s talk about solutions. You’ve already mentioned the value of regenerative farming practices and renewable energy sources as well as the urgent need for legislative change, but—on a personal level—what can we do to mitigate the water crisis?

Nancy

Yes, indeed—moving to alternative power and energy sources will definitely help our water issues. And we have to have hope, it’s why I write the books I write. We have to find ways to address climate change and conserve water. On a personal and immediate level that means cutting down on our shower use and not having the water run when we’re brushing our teeth, but there are also ways that we can change our habits long-term to conserve water. For example, buying less clothes. From thirsty cotton crops to the use of synthetic dyes and fibres, the fashion industry uses a ton of water. Washing clothes less also helps. As does making conscious choices to buy local items with less packaging.

 

One of the reasons I wrote When The World Runs Dry is because I believe that recognising we have a problem—in this case our global water supply—is the first step towards meaningful change. Only by facing the issue can we lead to action. And I also wrote it because I think we have a lot to be hopeful about—despite the scary stats. I saw a lot of hope in the kids that I interviewed—the teens, the young people and the water protectors—that are paving the way for a safer and healthier future.

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