10 Dec 2012

Drinking Water (A History) -- the review

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

Salzman
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.