Journalist Steven Solomon

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On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, economics journalist Water author explains use versus abuse of the precious resource and what water policy ought to look like.

Steven Solomon is an economics journalist who's written for The New York Times, BusinessWeek, The Economist, Forbes and Esquire. He's also addressed the World Affairs Council, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and various university forums. Solomon is author of The Confidence Game, which warned about the growing dangers in the global financial system, and Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, which explains how access to fresh water has replaced oil as the primary cause of global conflicts.


Tavis: Today marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, which was started back in 1970 by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson as a teach-in about the environment. Today, of course, Earth Day is celebrated in countries all around the world.
Steven Solomon is a noted journalist and author whose timely new text certainly speaks to the conversation about our environment. The book is called “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization.” Steven Solomon, good to have you on this program.
Steven Solomon: Well, thanks for having me on, Tavis.
Tavis: Who knew that water was at the center of all that – an epic struggle for wealth, power and civilization?
Solomon: From the very beginning. The very first civilizations began when in Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley when we began to irrigate rivers on a large scale. With all that manpower that was required we were able to build many of the edifices that launched what we call civilization today.
Tavis: Is it still at the heart of that same struggle, or how has the struggle shifted?
Solomon: It has always changed with the available technologies. You could fast-forward to a very important example – the seminal invention of the Industrial Revolution was the steam engine, which was water in another form.
In the 20th century, once again we had our giant dams, starting with the pioneering Hoover Dam, which created a great amount of hydropower, irrigation, flood control, and that became not just the basis for the development of the western portion of the United States but was to become a critical element, in fact, of the entire green revolution, which helped feed the world in the 20th century when world population quadrupled.
Tavis: We’re hitting this now from a macro perspective. Let me break this down, if I can, to a micro perspective. Draw a direct link for me – I want to go to your subtitle and break this down. Draw a direct link for me between access to water and the wealth that can accrue from that. Then we’ll go to power and civilization.
Solomon: Sure. Well, just taking the irrigation societies, they were able to create surpluses of food that they were able to store over the various seasons rather than just having enough from year to year. Hydropower, for example, was able to create vast amounts of electricity that we were able to cheaply produce aluminum and build all the things that we were able to build with industry. So in all sorts of capacities we create what amounts to economic surpluses.
Tavis: The link between water and power is?
Solomon: Well, there’s also power in two senses. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, I thought you might say that.
Solomon: In political power, obviously, those who are able to control the water resources tend to become the wealthiest and the political leaders as well of the civilizations, from the time that Rome was able to harness its giant aqueducts, for example, to manage its cities.
But also energy – the water wheel was one of the ways we began to – about 2,000 years ago it was invented – to be able to let water power do some of the work that man and animals had done. Today, you would be surprised, but the largest single water user in the United States is not agriculture, it is the energy industry, for producing thermoelectric power, for cooling those power plants.
Tavis: I’m not asking this question out of naiveté but how is it that a god-given, god-made resource ends up being at the epicenter of a fight over civilization? That’s just so interesting to me.
Solomon: Well, there is a finite amount of fresh water that is available to man, and that water recycles through the process of evaporation and precipitation. Throughout all civilization – and it falls and it replenishes our rivers and our lakes and all the things that we have drawn water from.
That same amount of water has been available from the first societies to us today. But now, across the planet, with the number of people that we have, the industrial technologies that we’re using, we consume water at twice the rate of our population growth.
We are now exhausting many of those sustainable, replenishable resources in many parts of the world and that’s where people are drilling groundwater, mining groundwater, for example, in India and Pakistan and they’re beginning to hit the bottom of these reserves of water that the planet has. As they do, we start to have dangerous situations.
Tavis: So there is a fresh water scarcity?
Solomon: This is the greatest crisis most Americans have never heard of. Three point five billion people are going to be living in countries that can’t feed themselves in the next 15 to 20 years from now. India is going to be amongst those countries. States fail when they can’t supply food on a cheap basis for their – and a reliable basis for their populations throughout civilization.
We have a billion people that don’t have access to safe drinking water today, and 2.5 billion without sanitation, which poses a health threat in our global society to everybody.
Tavis: If you combine a fresh water scarcity with a limited supply, the answer is what?
Solomon: Well, world society is polarizing into water have and have-nots. You are having states – for example, take the case of Pakistan, one place that I’m particularly concerned about because it is sort of our ultimate failed state nightmare scenario – it’s a nuclear-armed state, it’s Taliban-besieged, Osama Bin Laden is living there – and it has one river that it relies on heavily.
It’s the Indus River, and it is overused to the extent that it no longer reaches its delta and about 30 percent of its flow is expected to disappear in the next 20 years as the glacier melts in the Himalayas that feeds that river, at a time when its population is growing also very rapidly and it has internal conflicts and conflicts with India at the same time over some of those waters. It’s an explosive situation and I think you are going to start to see states fail as a result.
Tavis: How much of this Steven, is about use versus abuse?
Solomon: Very good question. We are very inefficient in the way we use water, and we also abuse it in terms of polluting it. In fact, there probably is enough water if we were able to muster the political will to reform the way that we do use water, even for the 6.5 billion we are today and even for the nine billion that we’re becoming by 2050.
Tavis: Why is it you think, then, given the case that you’re making for us, that this conversation tends to come up around Earth Day, number one? Moreover, why is it that we can’t get traction on this issue if it is as serious as you’re telling us it is?
Solomon: Well first of all, traction, people are beginning to recognize it, and I’ll tell you the State Department under Hillary Clinton announced just a few weeks ago that they were incorporating the water crisis into the highest levels of foreign policymaking. So it is beginning to be recognized as a crisis. It is known to be a crisis in the Middle East, where 50 percent of the food is imported and they ran out of water long ago.
It’s the United States that has not really recognized it, because we are really one of the water-rich countries, although we too, here in California and in Florida and elsewhere, are beginning to, because of the abuse and the misuse inefficient use of our –
Tavis: What makes us water-rich, our location?
Solomon: Two factors. One is our location, because water is distributed unevenly around the planet, and population. We have a relatively small population compared to that – so we have something like 8 percent of the available fresh water and only 4 percent of the world’s population.
Tavis: Yet we still abuse our use of the resources that we do have.
Solomon: That’s right. Water use in the United States between 1900 and 1975 I think grew three times faster than our population. When we began to put a price on the water, however, through the Clean Water Act in the ’70s, the big users to whom that law was applied began to use it much more efficiently, and in fact since that time water use has plateaued in the United States and our population continued to grow and our GDP continued to grow.
In other words, the productivity of our water use increased. So we know what to do. We have to put a value on the water, there has to be a price for water, and we have to make sure that we protect the ecosystems that provide that water.
Tavis: I’m sure that this comment I’m about to make now will end up on YouTube in about 30 seconds and I’ll be called cheap and miserly, and that’s a kind and charitable read, for what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway because I want to ask a question.
So I own this TV show and I have to pay all the bills around here. One of my pet peeves, my assistant Danny knows, because I follow him around doing this – well, Brian’s laughing because he knows what I’m about to say, my stage manager.
One of my pet peeves is when we open bottled water for our staff or our guests and people don’t drink the water, and I walk around at the end of the tape day and I see half – (laughter) I see bottles of water that have only been half-devoured, and it just angers me. Because first of all, I’m paying the bill, number one, and number two, I know, to your point, here in California that we have a water shortage.
So even when we open these bottles, we’ll take a sip of it and then it just goes in the trash can.
Solomon: That’s right.
Tavis: So there are two questions here. The first question is, talk to me about the absolute burgeoning growth, at least as it appears to me, of the water industry as a business. How much money is there in just selling bottled water?
Solomon: Yes, there’s – (unintelligible) statistic, I don’t remember. The statistic’s in the book, but I think it’s growing at double-digits. It’s growing faster than any other beverage in the world.
Tavis: Bottled water.
Solomon: Bottled water itself. (Laughter) Faster than Coca-Cola, which is made with bottled water and syrup. So it’s crazy and it takes about three times the amount of water to produce that single bottle – I mean, in other words, three gallons of water to produce one gallon of the bottled water, much less all of the –
Tavis: Why is that?
Solomon: Because they filter it through the reverse osmosis and all the rest of it.
Tavis: Purification and all that, yeah.
Solomon: The rest of it is also the plastic. The plastic is very difficult to make, uses a lot of water to produce that as well, and of course it’s not good for the environment.
Tavis: So we’re using a bunch of water to make the water that we waste when we don’t – wow.
Solomon: Yeah. Most of the bottled water comes out of municipal – a lot of it comes out of municipal tap water anyway that is then filtered.
Tavis: So why is it then that – you mentioned California; of course, we sit here in California right now. Why is it, then, that some states in the country have a more difficult time with the water issue? Is it because of merely – is it just because of population? Why are certain states in such dire straits?
Solomon: That’s an interesting question. Obviously, the Southwest has been in dire straits in part because it’s a naturally arid region and there’s been a very – the population growth, we have a lot of agriculture here that was vested long ago when we built the big dams.
But places like Florida have been running short, Georgia had a big shortage. They tried to move their state line one mile to the Tennessee River so that they could try to draw water from that river, and that’s really a case of just no planning, of development was just unbridled and they just set up the – just started pumping the water.
Tavis: To your earlier point, our abuse of the water that we do have access to notwithstanding, the U.S. as compared to other nations is sitting okay given where – geographically, at least.
Solomon: Well, geographically, and we ought to be. We have a golden opportunity in the United States because not only do we have water, we also have fairly good-functioning institutions as well, although it doesn’t always seem so to ourselves.
So we should be able to produce, by increasing the productivity of our water usage, to be able to produce the food, the industrial goods, many of the energy-intensive goods that are very water-intensive at the same time, for the world that is growing increasingly thirsty around the planet, and that includes China, India, Pakistan.
Tavis: I started to raise that question because I wanted to ask, for folk who are not sitting where we are, that is to say the U.S., folk on the other side of this battle, the other side of this struggle, as you might put it, folk on the other side of this wealth, power and civilization divide, how do they ever get in the game?
Solomon: That’s a great point.
Tavis: How do they compete?
Solomon: That’s great. I discuss it in this book. It’s really pretty heartbreaking to see, because I went to Kenya myself and worked, for example, on a – we laid water pipes for some villagers that didn’t have water, and they have to walk two to three hours every day to be able to get that water. So that’s productivity time that they would go to school, time that they could work.
So they’re falling farther behind. There were also earthen dams that the people had built 20 years earlier by hand, and we worked on those to reinforce those. They have to spend weeks each year doing that.
So what you see around the planet, ancient technologies, medieval technologies and modern technologies side by side, and they impart enormous competitive differences to the people who have to utilize those technologies because water is so vital to everything that we do, and the poor people don’t have a chance to catch up. They fall farther behind.
Tavis: Water is vital to everything we do and everything we do is subject to politics, so talk to me then about the politics of water.
Solomon: Water everywhere is the most politically subsidized and usually mismanaged vital resource that we have. It’s been underpriced, particularly for certain groups in the economy, particularly for the agribusiness groups, and therefore it has ended up to become not very well allocated.
It’s very hard – it’s so hard – we have really two choices in the world. One is to go ahead and try to, as I say, tackle the politics and reorganize the water sector. It happens to some degree.
But the other is to try to buy time by putting off these hard political choices, mine groundwater beyond the levels that it’s replenishing, or to build large pipelines between rivers that maybe have a surplus to those parts of the country that do not, like in China, they’re building a south-to-north transcontinental pipeline to do just exactly that.
And hope that one day one of these other new technologies, like desalination or the recycling or genetically modified foods, will arrive in time to save us. But from where we sit now, you don’t see that that is going to happen.
Tavis: So what does – let me jump forward, and then I’ll come back. What does water Armageddon look like?
Solomon: Look, former UN Secretary Boutros Ghali had predicted about 25 years ago that the wars of the 21st century were going to be fought over water. That hasn’t happened so far. Water has been a basis more for trying to cooperate to get the most out of the resources where there is competition; for example, in Egypt and the up-river states and other regions.
But I think what’s going to start to happen, because of the large number of people that are not going to be able to feed themselves, because of the fact that climate change also affects the water problem and is creating 150 million climate migrants are going to be coming because of floods and droughts and other water-related things, that we’re going to see states start to fail.
When they fail, we know – for example, in Yemen, it became the seedbed for the al Qaeda group that launched the attack at Christmas in Detroit. We know that failed states tend to create regional instabilities and possibly entering into wars with their neighbors. Right now, there’s something brewing in Pakistan and in India that’s very frightening.
So for China, we also see a geopolitical change going to occur because if China can’t – China has one-fifth the amount of water that we do per person. It’s very badly polluted. While they’re on this breakneck path for growth, if they don’t get control of their water resource problem they’re not going to be able to achieve the growth that they need.
What happens to – so that’s going to affect whether China becomes a great superpower or becomes unstable, perhaps, even.
Tavis: Is there an irony for you, sad, albeit, but an irony for you given that we very well may in the future be fighting over water?
Solomon: It would be tragic. Look, we are 70 percent water, like the Earth itself.
Tavis: Our bodies.
Solomon: Our bodies itself, the Earth. We are water, and if there’s anything that people ought to cooperate on it is water, and there is a Turkish proverb, I think, that says, “When one man drinks while the other can only watch, doomsday follows.”
So I think hopefully this can become the basis, instead of wars, for peace, but right now it looks difficult period.
Tavis: If every American took seriously the public awareness campaigns that we see – reduce, reuse, recycle, cut consumption – if every one of us who are Americans took that seriously and to the letter of the recommendation did everything that we are advised to do where water consumption is concerned, what kind of impact would that really have?
Solomon: I think it would have a very large impact on our water productivity. We do need to, however, apply the rules across the board on the pollution side to the unregulated businesses, which are agriculture and some industries, because they are very large water users themselves.
But we could probably – I would think that we could get a significant increase in our GDP, because when you release water resources, free water resources, we could build new power plants. Some of them can be hopefully clean-burning, which also uses – is very water-intensive.
The industries, for example, a little computer chip, a semiconductor computer chip, uses something on the order of 2,000 gallons of water to make a single little chip. So you could produce more things and therefore more GDP. Obviously, you can grow more food as well.
I can’t give you a number because I don’t think anybody’s worked out the numbers, but there have been studies done, for example, in the state of California just on the – I think we could save something like 20 to 30 percent and probably not have to build peripheral canals and spend all those billions of dollars that are being discussed out here.
Tavis: You mentioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier in this conversation and the fact that she has moved this up on her priority list. What ought water policy where we are concerned – that is to say the US of A, what ought water policy look like going forward, beyond this Earth Day?
Solomon: They are looking very closely; they understand that it affects – right across the Obama administration’s agenda. Food security is really very high on everybody’s chart because of what we discussed, that countries fail when they can’t feed themselves.
The aid package that we gave to Pakistan, for example, $7.5 billion over five years, the largest portion of that and the most urgent portion is focused directly on trying to rebuild their irrigation systems, their storage, their hydropower, so that they can maintain enough economic vitality.
The same thing is true for the human right to have enough water just for the billion people across the planet, which is also very good will as well for the United States.
Tavis: I’ve got 30 seconds to go here. As we sit here now, as we sit here on Earth Day 2010, are you hopeful? Or put another way, is there, for all we’ve talked about in this conversation, is there reason to believe?
Solomon: Yes, I’m cautiously hopeful. I believe that market solutions, if we can let the market play here, the market can do, with some environmental concerns taken care of around that, I think we can do a lot to solve our water problems.
But we will have to address the environmental issues first and say that we need water for the ecosystems and everybody else is going to have to get together as stakeholders and figure out how we come together to try to share it.
Tavis: His name is Steven Solomon. His new book is called “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization,” out now on this Earth Day 2010. Steven Solomon, good to have you on the program.
Solomon: Thank you.

Tavis: Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm