Review of “Take Me To The Source: In Search of Water” and “The Blue Death” – TLS, 2008

Apologies for the hiatus. This is my submitted copy rather than the review as it appeared in the TLS. I re read most of Rupert Wright’s book a few years ago. This was the first time I came across the concept of water charges, which seemed to strike everyone else in Ireland as something completely out of this world in late 2013. I greatly preferred Wright to Morris and found his debunking of the “the world’s next war will be over” idea (I nearly typed meme!) convincing.

Take me to the source: In search of water. Rupert Wright

The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster and the Water We Drink. Dr Robert D Morris

Thales of Miletus, the earliest identifiable philosopher and scientist (in a fairly loose sense of both terms) held that “everything is water.” That this is the first philosophical and first scientific statement is no accident; water is central to human existence. In the West, however, the words of Jake Gittes in “Chinatown” are apt – “I turned on the faucet, it came out hot and cold, I didn’t think there was a thing to it. “Rupert Wright, who has previously written books about life in the Languedoc region, begins his discursive, digressive, suitably elusive book with the sudden cessation of water supply in his French home. When he bought the place, the fact that it came with its own water supply was another romantic touch. Only when it stopped did he realise that there was indeed “a thing to it.”

Wright has written an entertaining tour of the world of water, if such a tautology is possible in a world that is mainly water. From the gigantic excavation of a third water supply tunnel for New York, happening almost invisibly to passers-by in Midtown Manhattan, to asommelier instructing bored Parisians in the appreciation of spring and mineral water, to the hunger-striking Bishop of Barra in Brazil trying to stop the damming of the São Francisco River, humanity’s relationship with water is by turns inspiring, absurd, and tragic.

Water policy is steadfastly unsexy. All over the world, Wright notices, oil ministers are Harvard-educated, Rolex-wearing, Armani-clad; water ministers wear cheap suits and use their mobile phones to tell the time. Wright is no reflex contrarian, but his scepticism about some of the received wisdom about water and water policy is bracing. One truism of bien pensant opinion he  seems wearied by is the wars of the coming century will be a fought over water, a notion he imagines Flaubert consigning to a contemporary Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues. Only one war, he writes, has ever definitively been fought over water – “more have been fought over salt.” Water has been a tool of war rather than a cause of war, and the need for water drives co-operation as much as competition (Europe’s oldest law court the Tribunal de las Aguas de la Vega de Valencia, consists of eight magistrates who have convened every Thursday at midday since the Tenth Century to ensure the fair distribution of Turia River water.)

Wright is much more interested in how writers and artists have described and depicted water. Poetry flows throughout. He is particularly enraptured by the single flowing sentence that is Bloom’s reflection on water in Ulysses. That dry systemiser Stephen Dedalus disliked bathing and suspects ‘aquacities of thought and language’; hydrophilic Bloom boils the kettle and embarks on an epic sentence of reverie and connection about water. Three other texts especially inspire Wright – John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”, Roger Deakin’s “Waterlog” and Charles Sprawson’s “Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero” and he has something of the ruminative charm of Deakin and the digressive erudition of Sprawson.

No mention of Ulysses in Dr Robert D. Morris’ “The Blue Death” (Morris, incidentally, uses his professional title on the book’s cover.) While Rupert Wright does not gloss over the lethality of water-borne infections and the mass misery and death that can be caused by consuming water, Morris, a public health physician and water researcher, focuses exclusively on water-borne threats. Water, as a substance itself, is not centre stage – indeed is hardly mentioned. An aside that “safe water is not an end, but a process, an ongoing struggle in which improvement is always possible and often necessary. Purity, it turns out, is fleeting” is the closest we come to the philosophical reflections of Wright.

He begins with the tale of John Snow and the Broad Street pump. Snow is to epidemiologists what Indiana Jones is to archaeologists, and Morris lays of the suspense a little thick: “Snow felt he was finally closing in on the proof that might muffle his critics. The ground itself would need to shake to divert his attention from the task at hand. He would soon discover that an epidemiological earthquake like no other had its epicenter on the north side of the Thames.” We move on to the battles over cholera of Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur (“like seasoned gunfighters, they would meet in the streets of Alexandria with test tubes blazing until only one man was standing.”)

The tone shifts suddenly halfway through. Morris is no longer describing the heroic age of epidemiology and public health, but is centre stage. A meta-analysis he performs linking  long-term consumption of chlorinated water with cancer earns him the suspicion of the water treatment industry and, it seems from his own account, the Environmental Protection Agency. Again we are reminded that water is “unsexy” – public attention, for Big Water, means bad news. Outbreaks of cryptosporidium in Milwaukee in 1993 and E. coli 0157:H7 in Canada in 2000 illustrate the weaknesses of water processing systems that have changed little in a hundred years. Morris is no neutral in these matters, and closes the book with an eight point plan for ensuring safe water (step 7, by the way, involves the universal use of point-of-use filtration for drinking water.)

Wright writes ruminatively, philosophically, sub specie aeternis,, while Morris is the researcher in the arena of current controversy and impatient with the slow pace of change. Wright is amusedly tolerant of bottled water and its attendant absurdities; Morris is angered by a fad whereby more water is used to produce the bottle than goes inside. Both aim to reveal the truth about the ubiquitous and invisible substance that we are learning not to take quite so much for granted – water is everywhere, water is eternal, water is indestructible, and water is scarce, fleeting, and fragile.

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