Book Review: The New Atlas of Water Aims Both High and Low

Colm Fay

Colm Fay

Gabriel Thoumi

Gabriel Thoumi

By Colm Fay, Erb MBA/MS student, class of 2012 and Gabriel Thoumi, Erb MBA/MS Alum, class of 2008.

This review was originally posted in EcosystemMarketplace.

The new edition of 2004’s Atlas of Water seeks to provide a high-level yet easily-accessible introduction to the wide variety of political, economic and environmental pressures and constraints that exist in the global management of water resources for personal, agricultural and industrial use. Colm Fay and Gabriel Thoumi say they have only partially succeeded.

29 March 2010 | The recently-updated Atlas of Water (University of California Press/Earthscan, 2009) employs a data-centric approach to describing the global water crisis. The authors cover a wide range of topics under six broad themes: specifically, water as a finite resource, environmental pressures on this resource, human pressures, economic and industrial pressures, pollution and the future of water management.

We admire the attempt to deal with such a wide swath of issues in such a small volume, but this breadth, combined with a fairly rigid and restrictive format, leaves the effort somewhere between a beginner’s introduction to these issues and a reference volume. It is, in the end, neither accessible enough to be of use to a general-interest reader, nor comprehensive enough to be the go-to reference we had hoped to find.

The Target: Simplicity

Within each of the themes, the authors break the material into sub-topics, each of which is each dealt with in a two-page format. In these two pages, they attempt to offer both an introduction to the issue being covered and a map of how the issue is distributed globally. In addition, the pages are peppered with interesting facts that give more insights and useful statistics.

This ‘template’ is designed to make the atlas a handy reference work, and we can only applaud any effort to make such a complex body of knowledge accessible. Unfortunately, but we feel that the format is too rigid to deal with diverse topics that vary from ‘Climate Change’ to the ‘Millennium Development Goals’, where the balance of introduction and data seems to do neither element justice.

The Perils of Oversimplification

For example, when presenting a global map of water shortages, the format doesn’t allow for granularity any more detailed than differentiations at national level. This obscures the reality that the distribution of water even within national borders is inequitable both in terms of socio-economic and geographic distribution. The authors do address this to some extent by pointing out specific exceptions such as Brazil, where the unpopulated Amazon receives nearly 75% of the country’s water and the coastal regions housing 20% of the population only receives 2% of the water.

While the scope of issues covered by the book is impressive, by treating each of these issues separately and in isolation, the authors fail to convey the true interconnectedness of water management and the systemic nature of these issues and their remedies.

What’s Missing: Drivers and Correlation

Water is, by its nature, a transnational resource. Consequently, the legal and political issues surrounding water sources that are shared between and indeed within countries are complex.

Again, this is somewhat a restriction of the format but it would be interesting to see maps depicting geography, resource intensity, and politics overlaid with each other to help the reader understand the links between water shortages and conflict, or pollution and water use for industry or agriculture.

Highlighting some of these correlations would have lifted the title up a level and would really have maximized the use of the atlas medium to communicate these concepts.

Missed Opportunities

The book touches on some interesting topics that specifically lend themselves to the highly visual medium that such overlays provide, such as ‘water footprint’ and the concept of ‘virtual water footprint’. The authors could have used the opportunity to help the reader visualize some of the more abstract concepts in this space – such as the virtual export of water from water-scarce regions to water rich regions. Again, this systemic approach would have yielded some interesting insights for the reader beyond the headline statistics.

While there is a lot of data presented, as one would expect from a volume describing itself as an atlas, there are points where the depth of information seems inadequate for the topic under discussion. While references are provided at the end of the book, no individual pieces of data can be directly related to a referenced publication, which limits the usefulness of this publication as a guide to data sources and research.

The Challenge of Serving Two Masters

In summary, The Atlas of Water provides a comprehensive overview of the water crisis and the multitude of diverse issues, but suffers from trying to balance an unfeasibly wide scope with an unfeasibly restrictive format for what the authors are trying to achieve.

In the end, it neither provides the depth of explanation to be considered a beginner’s guide nor the depth of exploration to be considered a true reference standard.

Rather, it fills a somewhat awkward gap in the middle of that spectrum.

The data presented is just detailed enough to represent the magnitude of the problem, but no more and as a result, some of the intricacies and nuances of many of these issues are lost. But, it’s a good book to have on hand that gives you the headlines stats and data for a wide range of water related issues.

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