21 September 2015

Water Knife -- the review

I read this fictional work by Paolo Bacigalupi after a few water wonks recommended it. The book is set in the American Southwest in the "near future" (around 2030?), and the plot revolves around struggles for water via legal and illegal strategies. "Calis" are the heavy hitters, Las Vegas has its act together (in a coldbloded way), Phoenix (and its Zoners) is #goingdownthedrain, and Texas is a wreck expelling desperate refugees with guns.

Just for fun, I tweeted one snip per chapter as a stream of consciousness of each chapter's "thought," and I'll paste them here (because twitter has no decent search or archive function). The first and last tweets are linked to twitter, the rest I downloaded.

The Water Knife Chapter 1: Promising. Vegas has "court orders" to blow up AZ infrastructure. #seniorright2kill. @paolobacigalupi — David Zetland (@aguanomics) September 3, 2015

WK2: "Weather anchors used the word drought , but drought implied that drought could end" #phoenixdownthetubes

WK3: "The price on the pump is all about how much water... When [supply] gets low, the price goes up so people will... not take so much."

WK4: Some of us used to believe in [patriotism]. Now we just wave the American flag so the feds won't come down on us for militias."

WK5: "Places were blown away, or drowned or burned, and it just kept happening. The equilibrium of the world was shifting."

WK6: "People would take it. She needed this water turned into cash that she could shove into her bra and have a hope of protecting."

WK7: "Pure Life and Aquafina and CamelBak had set up relief tents. Getting good PR photos of how they cared for refugees."

WK8: "Rules are what the big dogs say they are. The reason you pay tax is so they forget to kill you today. That's what you buy with tax."

WF9: "built by Chinese solar investment cash, and probably standing a better chance of survival than anything the locals had created" Phoenix

WK10: "...bloody clothes. His wallet... Jamie always got reimbursed for his business expenses, but this was ridiculous...Salt River Project."

WK11: "The water lawyer?" "Yeah. Since the lawyer's missing his tongue, let's see if she talks any better."

WK12: "...the blood on her skin, trying not to think of where it had come from. It's just water , she told herself. It's just red water"

WK13: "lots of people noticed that when the CAP blew up, Las Vegas immediately stopped spilling water out of Lake Mead"

WK14: "The bartender looked at the 50 dollars like it was dogshit. "You got yuan?" she asked."

WK15: "Maybe tomorrow they couldn't pay rent and they were dead... but tonight she was dancing dirty with a man, and then a woman..."

WK16: "I didn't do anything to Phoenix. Phoenix did itself." " [no] Phoenix didn't cut the CAP. Someone did that with high explosives."

WK17: "Better than a zip code. A five-digit address. A fiver. Five-digit ticket. Permission to enter another world."

WK18: "Cadillac Desert? It's about cars or something?" "Water, actually. It's kind of how we got where we are now."

WK18.2: "I need a book about how I'm supposed to live now." Maria needs http: //t.co/RgtP4hJFaE @paolobacigalupi : )

WK19: "California had gotten tired of negotiating... and had done something about it. It wanted its water, and it wanted it now."

WK20: "He'll pay, he'll pay... Money."

WK21: "I'm going to throw big bad Vegas a fuck in the teeth." He laughed. "Zoners should thank me for that, at least."

WK22: "Why do you care?" He looked surprised, then thoughtful. "You're right. I don't."

WK23: "principles...gets you killed." "Stupid," the girl said. "Yeah. You'd be surprised how many people get their priorities screwed up."

WK24: "She didn't stop for a long time." :(

WK25: "she was sure that this was the place she had dreamed of. It was alive and cool, and... it was her aquifer."

WK27: "Angel remembered Julio standing in his hotel room, staring down at his phone, bitching about the loteria pretending to be frightened."

WK27: "so many overlapping jurisdictions and ... conflicting agreements about water, that it's like digging through bureaucratic spaghetti."

WK28: "When things got too crazy, he stepped way the fuck back. And here she was, diving in deeper."

WK29: "India would survive all this apocalyptic shit, but America wouldn't. Because here, no one knew their neighbors."

WK30: "Lucy stared at the bodies. A whole pile of misunderstanding. The city felt as if it were imploding."

WK31: "They don't control of their own water rights? How'd they manage that?" "Never underestimate the incompetence of a government salary."

WK32: "His fingers held her throat and her entirely. Taking away her air, and her, letting him take it. This was trust. This was life."

WK33: "I just want to get paid, girl. Either I get paid in cash, or I get paid in blood"

WK34: "This is what fear does , she thought. It makes you a perfect liar"

WK35: "You want to get me high before I get eaten alive? You think that helps?"

WK36: "A shadow loomed over him, Death, at last. La Santa Muerte coming to him. The Skinny Lady coming to gather him up."

WK37: ""They put some pressure on you?" Lucy looked away... "My sister. They threatened my sister." "'S a good threat."

WK38: "Sometimes you realize that not risking something so you can live is worse than dying."

WK39: "You didn't judge people for caving under pressure; you judged them for those few times when they were lucky enough to have any choice"

WK40: "Never could figure out why people would think they could survive all out on their lonesome...going to ride out the apocalypse alone."

WK41: "I like you, Angel, but I'm not going to be made a fool. Get me those rights, and we'll talk about bringing you back from the dead."

WK42: "The Red Cross tents were full of people getting sick as the town's water systems failed. The city was awash with sewage"

WK43: "They have no idea...the people who are supposed to be pulling all the strings, and they're making it up as they go along" YEP.

WK44: "Renters always leave first. They got nothing tied to a place that doesn't have water coming out of the taps"

WK45: "People died and hurt each other and struggled, and in the end everyone came up dry..."

WK46: "Phoenix made people crazy...turned people into devils so bad they weren't recognizable as human [or] turned them into goddamn saints"

WK47: "She had old eyes. My dad had that problem, too... She thinks the world is supposed to be one way, but it's not. It's already changed."

WK acknowledgements: "...to know what our future will look like, it's worth following the people who report the trends defining our world."

Bottom Line: A realistic fantasy of a future of scare water where nobody is bound by laws, honor or community. FIVE stars. September 15, 2015


  1. You should respond to this post at the On the Public Record blog: http://onthepublicrecord.org/2015/09/17/a-rough-answer-by-region-and-sector-would-go-a-long-way/

  2. Done...
    You're right that "we" would never discuss outcomes as much as process, since markets (for water, cars, avocadoes) represent the outcomes of many values. I *always* recommend that new markets for water start with, say, 5 percent of the water and perhaps grow by 5 percent per year (or 5), so people can see what's happening and perhaps adjust.

    Want social flows? Set those aside from the market (as I do in my books). Want to preserve some farmers? Don't allow them to sell in the market? Want to protect cities? Do nothing, as they can outbid farmers 99% of the time. Want to protect groundwater? Make sure it's regulated BEFORE markets get going, in case people try to pump and export.

    Water markets are nothing voodoo. We have markets in many many commodities. The key is to make sure we know who has water, where (limiting and defining rights) before markets get going... but that's kinda common sense.

    Anyone is invited to contact me if they want to know more.

    1. Hi David,
      Your comment above, "...who has water, where..." really defines the significance of what we are going to accomplish when waterbag transport systems become a reality. Waterbag technology will give a much broader meaning to your word ..."where." Recall the ECONOMIST statement (July 19, 2008), "In total there is more than enough water for all, but it is often in the wrong place and is difficult and expensive to transport." Transporting water in long modular waterbag drone trains traveling long distances through the ocean powered by solar energy and guided by GPS will create a paradigm shift in the way water is moved around the world.


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