Today, our guest, historian Rob Zaretsky, hopes to buy a cup of water.
The University of Houston
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
In Frank Herbert's book Dune, there's
an unforgettable moment when one of the desert planet's inhabitants
spits in front of a visitor. This shocking gesture's meaning is turned
upside down into a gesture of respect on water-parched Dune. Spitting
means more than a handshake or hug ever could in our own world.
Water means life itself.
In Houston, we easily overlook the relationship between water and life
-- apart from those moments when its overabundance threatens us. Yet
this is not the case for so much of the world. The global distribution
of water resources is unequal. New Yorker writer Michael Specter
weighs water inequities. For example, Canada has more water than China, but
there are forty times more Chinese than Canadians. India staggers under
20 percent of the global population, yet taps into less than four percent
of the world's water resources.
Something has to give. In Beijing, it is
the foundations that are giving way. Countless ground wells are emptying
the aquifers, turning the city into a massive elevator equipped only with
a down button: Beijing's water table has sunk 200 feet over the last 20 years. In India,
democratic institutions sag under the demands for water between rural and
urban residents, poor and rich. The Minister of Water Resources refers
to himself as the Minister of Water Conflicts. The poor of New Delhi
scrape by with fewer than 25 gallons a day -- equal to the three sloshing
buckets they carry from water tankers to their homes. At the same time,
domestic use in America is over a hundred gallons of water daily. And the
total water chargeable to us is more like 1200 gallons a day.
Is western greed the culprit? Consider the question the next time you order
a hamburger. Specter claims that it took thirteen hundred gallons of water
to make it. Yet, paradoxically, the same technology responsible for our
fast-food addiction has also made us into recovering water addicts. Thanks
to market forces and federal conservation laws, we use less water per capita
than we did in 1975. The proof is in the plumbing: ten years ago, flushing
one's toilet sent seven gallons of water cascading into the sewer, four times
more than the current designs.
The same trend exists in other mature economies. Clearly, as technologies
ripen and industries develop, nations pay less attention to the health of
their GDP and more to the health of their citizens. We do not need a
technological silver bullet to solve the problem, for the solutions already
exist, from water drip irrigation to repairing old and decrepit water lines.
But it's also a philosophical problem. Whether in India or Indiana, we see
water as a resource unlike any other: abundant and free. Governments thus
hesitate to make people pay for water -- hence our inadequate and decaying
infrastructures. As one Indian expert sighed, "If water costs nothing it is
worth nothing." Like the residents of Frank Herbert's Dune, we too
may end up spitting, but only at ourselves.
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
M. Specter, The Last Drop. The New Yorker Magazine, October 23, 2006.
Robert Zaretsky is professor of French history in the University of Houston
Honors College, and the Department of Modern and Classical Languages. (He
is the author of Nīmes at War: Religion, Politics and Public Opinion in
the Department of the Gard, 1938-1944. (Penn State 1995), Cock and
Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue. (
Nebraska 2004), co-editor of France at War: Vichy and the Historians.
(Berg 2001), translator of Tzevtan Todorov's Voices From the Gulag.
(Penn State 2000) and Frail Happiness: An Essay on Rousseau. (Penn
State 2001). With John Scott, he is co-author of So Great a Noise: Jean-Jacques
Rousseau, David Hume and the Limits of Human Understanding. To be published
by Yale University Press in 2007.
(All photos by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.