10 Dec 2012

Drinking Water (A History) -- the review

HH gave me James Salzman's book, which just came out.

is a Duke professor of law and environmental policy and this book represents 6-8 years of his readings on water policies. This depth of experience -- he quotes many cases and examples -- helps him explain the varied history of drinking water. His work on law and policy means that he puts more-than-typical attention onto the various perspectives, allowing him to present a balanced view on most issues.

My only, topline, gripe is the mixed quality of the material in this book (it was written over several years with the help of several research assistants).

But let's go to my marginalia:
  • After a slightly boring introduction to our spiritual and cultural attachments to water, Salzman spends eight chapters reviewing the history of drinking water from the Romans (or before) to the "technological future"

  • Here and there, I found myself disagreeing with his emphasis on one factor or another (was "taking the waters" about the minerals or the fact that the water wouldn't kill you?). On other occasions, I was READY to disagree before Salzman landed some sound and useful words regarding points on my mind. There were far more good points than bad ones, but I regret that Salzman appears to be citing Fishman as a "authority" when his work has got some issues.

  • I really enjoyed the historical chapters on the development of reliable water supplies in New York, London, Rome, etc., which he appeared to have covered in this 2006 paper.

  • I really enjoyed his discussion of water contamination and regulation in the US. I also need to double check my impression that drinking water and bottled water are equally inspected, as he raises the good point that bottled water quality regulations are the same on PAPER but not as implemented.

  • His chapter on water terrorism was interesting on the many ways to poison water but grounded in his skepticism that terrorists have "better" ways to work.*

  • I was also pleased to see that some US states have deposits on plastic water bottles. I wonder if they have less bottle litter. Anyone?

  • He has a good discussion of the challenges of DELIVERING water as a human right, and makes an excellent point about drinking water in LDCs: it may be cheaper and more effective to make dirty water safe just before drinking (Point of use) rather than trying to set up systems that carry safe water all over an area.
The good news for me is that this book, like many others I've reviewed here, gives readers a decent background on the scope of our water problems without spending too much time on the solutions -- or the barriers to solutions -- areas on which my book concentrates.**

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS for its excellent history of drinking water (I learned things!), a history that is occasionally uneven in quality or analysis.

* Reminds me of something the TSA claims: no terrorist attacks on planes since 2001. The same can be said about buses and trains, of course!

** I recently decided to make TEoA 2.0 much "cleaner" in discussing problem:cost:cause:solution. There are PLENTY of books that describe the problems without getting at the root causes or solutions.


Allison Voglesong said...

Your comment per a review of states with water bottle deposit laws and litter also has me interested. I did some extensive research into beverage deposit law in my home state of Michigan, USA and it had an amazing effect on litter reduction. We have a 10 cent deposit here, most states have a 5 cent deposit, and many cite the higher cost / incentive as the reason for next to no beverage container litter - recovery rates are close to 98% (last time I looked).

Interestingly, Michigan has turned down legislative opportunities to implement a deposit law for bottled water. Why? Well, when I got involved in the political process for that bill, I found that there were corporate interest lobbies influencing the politicians to vote against it water bottle deposits because, allegedly, it would be too uneconomic/costly for the stores who manage the bottle return process due the increase in volume of recycled materials and the cost of handling. I was skeptical of this argument, but I wasn't the one making the decisions. So, the bill for water bottle deposits is just "stagnant"

Maybe, if it gets brought to the legislation again here in Michigan, some stats on litter rates would be a persuasive counterargument. It would be also interesting to learn if the bottle return operators lost any revenues or paid higher prices after they implemented the water bottle deposits.

Hope someone can enlighten us to the relationship between water bottle deposits and litter rates!

David Zetland said...

@Allison -- interesting information. I bet that they were MORE worried about the higher "sticker" price driving down sales, as some % of the ten cents could be diverted to the cost of machinery/labor/profits for stores. The Dutch have 10 cent deposits on beer bottles and SOME water bottles, and nobody seems to be buried in bottles. Please DO let me know if you run across any additional data (I just picked up a few bottles left on the train today, while hiking in Borneo :(

Jeannie said...

On the topic of making dirty water safer at point of use, I saw a great presentation by Robert Metcalf from CSU Sacramento on citizen science and water microbiology in developing countries. He created a very low-cost, low-tech system of assessing water quality for communities to test for E. coli in their water supply. There's a high degree of education involved - he has to hold a workshop to train people on the process, but it engages and makes communities aware of and responsible for their own water supply, whatever it may be (pond, stream, well). He couples the testing protocol with various tools for disinfection, including chemical and pasteurization (using solar cookers). I was particularly impressed that for the incubation portion of the testing process, all that was required was keeping the sample (protected by a ziploc bag) at body temperature against the skin. Electricity can be taken for granted!

Here's more info on Dr Metcalf: http://waterinternational.org/?page_id=274

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