Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains by Lucas Bessire - review by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Circling the Drain

Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains


Princeton University Press 255pp £22 order from our bookshop

Water covers three quarters of the planet and fills over 90 per cent of the biosphere. Yet we fight wars over it and fear that exploitable supplies will soon be depleted. Abundance, it seems, is there to be exhausted. Given the chance, people gorge until, in effect, they burst or empty the barrel. Water conservation is almost impossible to achieve. Consumption rates are uncontrollable, climate change irreversible and irrigation unavoidable. In the second half of the 20th century, the amount of land under irrigation increased from under 247 million acres to almost 644 million. Today, over 40 per cent of the world’s food is grown on irrigated land.

Some places, where desert encroaches and former riverbeds crack, are worse afflicted than others. Invisible water sources that moisten subterranean sand and gravel vanish or recede to ever more inaccessible depths. Owing to irrigators’ demands, the water table under the Sahara – where a vast freshwater sea lies buried – falls measurably year by year. Unchecked consumption in California, the Indian Punjab, the Murray–Darling river system in Australia and the Cochabamba valley in Bolivia has had similar effects on water tables. The vast Ogallala Aquifer underlies the North American prairie. But 150,000 pumps are sucking it dry. Since 2006, some communities in Kansas have been investing in pipelines to bring water from Canada.

In this book, Lucas Bessire explores the ‘front line of the global water crisis’, making use of the supposed ‘insights of return’. His memoir is of a journey ‘to rediscover my home’ by going in search of his roots in the high plains of Kansas. Aware that his

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