Book Review: Marq de Villiers’ Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource (2003)

Water is a book about our global freshwater supply and its quality. It’s a policy-relevant and science-rich book but is neither a policy book nor an academic book. Like its subject matter, this book is meant for everyone. Author Mark de Villiers writes: “Water is not ‘ours’ or ‘theirs,’ but the planet’s. We use water, and it passes on, and then it comes back to us. But it is not, surely, something we should either hoard or prevent others from using” (p. 301). But to what extent is this principle realized in practice and policy? And how much do we know about our water supply, really?

Not nearly enough. As Canadians, De Villiers tells us, we, along with our American neighbours, are the world’s greatest water hogs (p.45). Using nearly 1,700 cubic metres per person a year, we take nearly twice as much as those in Australia-New Zealand (~900 m3), greater than twice as much water as those Europe (~720 m3), more than three times as much as those in Asia (~520 m3) and six times as much as those in Africa (240 m3). Canadians and Americans live in the lap of water luxury, relatively speaking, seemingly immune to the problems of Africa, Asia and western South America, all of which fail the basic test of providing water for basic drinking and sanitation.

But Canada is by no means immune to water problems. In terms of supply, we face issues of drought and flooding—and can expect more of the same—as the real consequences of climate change become increasingly apparent. In terms of quality, there are countless examples of contaminated supply too, some of which has had deadly consequences. Who could forget the Walkerton, Ontario and North Battleford, Saskatchewan cases,where failures to decontaminate known pathogens in water supply led to preventable deaths and illness (p.269, p.304-5).

De Villiers spends significant time on one of our—and indeed the world’s—most important freshwater supplies, the Great Lakes. At one time, only 30% of the chemicals in the Lakes could be accounted for, says the author (p.268). That means the fish and, by extension, humans, are ingesting a “chemical soup” of neurotoxins (polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs and methyl mercury) and a range of unknown substances. The ramifications are everything in the food chain—from fish to turtles to gulls to bears and humans—are “vulnerable to a shopping list of negative side effects,” granted the full extent which cannot be known (p. 268-9, 291-292).

Even today, major Canadian cities pump untreated (raw) sewage into waterways with little or no decontamination efforts. That practice is tantamount to “treat[ing] water through a combination of finger-crossing and folk remedies” (p.305) slams De Villiers. Indeed, in places like Newfoundland and Labrador, boil-water advisories have become so common (De Villiers notes a time when there were 40 at once across NL), locals are more likely to joke about it, than complain to their politicians about it.

Water was originally released in 1999, that year winning a Governor General’s Award for Non-fiction and the Canadian Science Writers Award. In 2000, it was short-listed for the Donner Prize and the Evelyn Richardson Prize for Non-Fiction. It was revised and republished in 2003 in 11 languages. Marq de Villiers is a South African-born Canadian writer who has written and contributed to more than a dozen books, many award-winning. He studied at the University of Cape Town and the London School of Economics. He is a veteran journalist having worked as an editor with Reuters, London and Toronto Life magazine as well as the Editorial Director at WHERE Magazines International. In 2010, he became a Member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to social and political discourse. De Villiers holds an honorary degree with Dalhousie University and lives in Eagle Head on Nova Scotia’s south shore. His latest book, Back to the Well: Rethinking the Future of Water was released in paperback in September, 2018 and revisits some of the major themes from Water.

De Villiers certainly drew from his experience as a foreign correspondent in Water, undertaking extensive on-the-ground research across North America, Southern Africa, Asia and the Middle East, for example. His interviewing and documentation take readers to even more destinations.The result is a book of committed, judicious reporting by a concerned global citizen and journalist.

At points it feels like the reader is hit with fact upon fact upon fact, butDe Villiers manages the enormity of knowledge in a few ways. He’s committed to making the facts accessible. For example, he relies on meaningful reference points to relate the magnitude of the problems to which he draws the reader’s attention. Take the qualifier at the end of this sentence, for example: “Pollution leads to disease, a straight-line computation that is self-evident. Best guesses are that some 250 million new cases of water-borne diseases occur every year, killing somewhere around 10 million people—a Canada every three years” (p.106). Or to relay the consequences of more than a billion people living without access to clean drinking water, De Villiers offers this stark fact: that’s a dead child every six seconds from drinking contaminated water (p.15). The author is committed to the best-available evidence too, debunking myths—for example, this one surprised me: “The notion that Canada has two thirds of the world’s freshwater resources became a commonplace in news stories though it is entirely wrong—the real number is around 6 per cent of annual global runoff” (p.295). Finally, De Villiers selects anecdotes carefully adding vivid and sensory-filled material.  Of his trip to Bafoussam, Cameroon, he writes in simple, clear prose: “. . . Here a small pyramid of mangos, a startling flash of green and gold among the dun; there a row of fish, still shining but already beginning to turn in the thirty-five-degree-heat; here an old woman wearing bunches of bananas like shackles. Diesel fumes from badly turned motors fill the air. . .” (p. 103).

All told, this is a book that calls for action to protect and preserve the world’s water supply. Conservation or technology are the likely tactical measures, but more critically is this policy imperative: “We just need the political will and therefore the money to do what we already know needs to be done” (p. 3).

_________________

I read Water between two visits to Vancouver in September-October 2018. With clear skies for travel in all directions, I was astonished at the number of waterways we flew over (everywhere but Saskatchewan). Based on what I had read in De Villiers book, I imagined hardly one waterway was free of some form of contaminant, even here in Canada. When I closed the door in the airplane washroom, I was horrified to find no running waters in the sink. Instead, they offered antiseptic towelettes. On the back of the pack, it read, “Use as part of your daily cleansing routine.” For a moment, I imagined if that were my reality.

The quality of freshwater depends not on pristine supply, but decontamination (p.102), De Villiers writes. And even in Canada, tree-huggers though many aspire to be, we are guilty of taking our waterways for granted. When I deplaned in Vancouver, at the end of the gate walkway was a sign that read “Millions of our visitors don’t have boarding passes.” It was in reference to the salmon who swim by here, as YVR (a so-called “Salmon-Safe Certified airport”) is located at the mouth of the Fraser River, one of the world’s most productive salmon rivers. Then, later that afternoon, in the coal harbour neighbourhood of downtown Vancouver, I spotted what looked to be a painted stream on the sidewalk. It was an advertisement for vancitystreams.ca, drawing my attention to where a stream once flowed, precisely where I was standing. We don’t tend to ask the fish or the rivers they swim in what they want, but perhaps sooner than later, we ought to consider listening to what they’re telling us before it’s too late.

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