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The Last Drop

30 May 2024

Water stress is increasing worldwide, with pollution leading to water quality issues, over-abstraction leading to reservoirs drying out, and water shortages creating millions of climate refugees. In The Last Drop, journalist Tim Smedley explores water crises and their mitigation. Many issues arise through human mismanagement of water sources, the unpredictability of rain causing floods or droughts, and unsustainable groundwater pumping, often for agricultural needs. Smedley emphasises that the world isn’t running out of water but that we are running out of potable water. Of the 1.4 billion km3 of water on Earth, 97.5% is seawater and, therefore, unfit for human consumption. Less than 0.5% is freshwater, with household tap water making up just 1% of this. Half a billion people already face severe water scarcity annually, which will worsen as global population grows. Hence, this book is timely.

Smedley interviews water experts, activists, and victims of water scarcity to tease out the problems and potential solutions. In the first half of the book, Smedley travels to Jordan, Ghana, the US, and elsewhere to explore the often-dire state of the situation. The second part of the book gives glimpses of hope. In Britain, creative farming practices, such as no-till and cover crops, could utilise the fact that soil holds eight times more water than all the world’s rivers. Beaver rewilding also has the potential to enlarge wetlands. However, in India, China, the US, and South Africa, many major aquifers are diminishing, and more are sounding like growing disasters. Could seawater desalination be the saviour? Or would this exacerbate the ecological nightmare due to coastal effluent discharging? Smedley suggests that water capture from the humidity in the air could supply huge volumes of potable water, and that solar panels on the surfaces of water reservoirs, which could simultaneously slow down evaporation and generate electricity, might be beneficial.

Smedley emphasises that water (mis)management is often controlled by political and human greed and, now increasingly, changes in climate. He demonstrates vividly that looming global water scarcity will be disastrous for all, and we need novel ideas, good governance, and sustained political will. Repairing leaks, accurate metering, rainwater harvesting, rewilding, and native tree planting are possible directions. The Last Drop is essential reading for students, commentators and, in fact, all who want to become well-informed on the growing water crisis.

Reviewed by Richard Dawe



BY: Tim Smedley (2023). Pan Macmillan and Picador. 416 pp. (hbk)

ISBN: 9781529058147

PRICE: £20.00 www.panmacmillan.com