Behind the big business of water

May 20, 2011: 5:00 AM ET

In his new book, The Big Thirst — The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, author Charles Fishman weaves a fascinating narrative about the most essential element on Earth.

By Kit R. Roane, contributor

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FORTUNE -- We don't tend to think about water until it rears up as a force of brutal destruction, as it did recently in Japan, or falls away, like the last trickle from a faucet, just when we need it most. But it is water's very ubiquity, its soft familiarity, its often invisible but constant rhythm through our daily lives, that allows us to be awash in it from our blood cells to our Slip 'N Slides, while thoughtlessly flushing 5.7 billion gallons of it away in American toilets every day.

In The Big Thirst — The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water (Free Press), noted business writer Charles Fishman takes us on water's surprisingly rugged and labyrinthine journey, showing how we carelessly abuse it, while depending on it to do everything from launch the space shuttle (which would break apart without a massive water pad's noise dampening abilities), to scrub clean the microcircuits that run most advanced electronic gadgets and toys.

Fishman's focus is how our lack of understanding about water (the most important ingredient in our lives) and our unwillingness to price its use accordingly means we will have to think even more creatively about it if we are to survive in the future.

But his is no polemic. In Fishman's capable hands, the story of water -- its essential nature, its intriguing path, its literal magnetism and sometimes playful charm -- comes alive, bringing us around to his point with delicate precision, while upending much of what we thought we knew about the slippery yet clingy substance that gives Earth its moniker as the "Blue Planet."

That name is probably a misnomer, since there isn't really so much water on Earth after all (not that we, shockingly, know precisely how much there is). Meanwhile, our view of outer space as "cold, dark and empty" is a little off as well, he says, considering that space is "pretty wet." The "massive glowing cloud of gas and dust" shining from the center of Orion's sword, for instance, is producing roughly the "equivalent of all the water on earth, sixty times a day."

The Big Thirst is full of such surprising facts, but it attacks more fundamental misunderstandings about water as well. Water is never used up or lost, just moved around and dirtied up. Nor is it ever contaminated to the point that it cannot be cleaned enough to drink again -- for a price. But that doesn't mean water will always be cheap, plentiful and clean, what we in the Western World have come to expect as a birthright.

Paying more for "purity"

Our disconnect from the mechanics of what brings water flowing 24/7 into our homes allows for some striking dichotomies. Americans squawk when their water utilities ask for even tiny rate increases to maintain sometimes centuries-old pipes, which currently leak out about one of every six gallons flowing through them. But, because of a misguided fear that our well-regulated tap water might be less pristine than water bottled by conglomerates like Pepsi (PEP) (Aquafina) and Danone (GPDNF) (Evian), these same American consumers gladly pay multiples far higher than what they spend on other resources, like gasoline, on a billion bottles of branded water a week. That, Fishman points out, is $21 billion a year "on water delivered in small crushable plastic bottles," or about what we grudgingly spend "on sustaining the entire water system of the country."

The Big ThirstNot that purity is everything anyway. In fact the "ultra-pure" water that IBM (IBM) concocts to clean its microchips is so pure that it is too toxic to drink. And the idea that branded water is any more healthful than tap, Fishman finds absurd. All of the Earth's water has already gone through a sort of natural toilet to tap process multiple times.

More importantly, bottled water could never save us if we lost our local water sources or if our municipal water systems were allowed to deteriorate. When water becomes scarce, watch out. A Fast Company investigative reporter who authored The Wal-Mart Effect, Fishman tours a few places where water abundance has become a water drought. He weaves a richly detailed tapestry of stories about embattled Australian irrigation farmers and brawling townsfolk confronting Australia's "Big Dry," and reveals a cross-section of India's people on a constant search for something remotely fresh to drink.

India's water situation is not just sad, Fishman argues, it is an economic calamity. Diarrhea caused by tainted water shaves off 2% of India's GDP (about $20 billion) every year, while the need to constantly fetch water from tankers or from sometimes putrid wells assures that a good portion of the population (particularly India's women) will remain uneducated and often illiterate. "Water poverty doesn't just mean your hands are dirty, or you can't wash your clothes, or you are often thirsty," notes Fishman. "Water poverty traps you in a primitive day-to-day-struggle. Water poverty is, quite literally, de-civilizing."

Crisis is closer than you think

For those who think it couldn't happen here, chew on this: In 1947, most major Indian cities had municipal water service as dependable as anything found in America. Now they can barely deliver an hour or two of usually unclean water to residents every day, while the mighty Yamuna River, revered by Indians as a god, flows "ink black," the "fermenting" river's shiny surface bubbling with methane like some creepy "dark ale."

Fishman points out that some American cities have already found themselves in dire straits, either through natural disaster (Galveston), overuse (Las Vegas), or bureaucratic bungling that should make even a bureaucrat's head spin (Atlanta). "Almost every community in the United States has water problems," explains Fishman. "The good news is, water problems can be solved, and the sooner we start thinking about them, the less expensive those problems are."

Fishman shows us how those running some cities and companies are trying to redefine their relationship with water, from a municipal "water czar" in Las Vegas, where 90% of all water used indoors is now recaptured and recycled, to a former Unilever executive who is returning accessible water and a good deal of dignity to the inhabitants of his little corner of India.

Their sometimes quixotic stories, as well as the often ingenious advances being made by a diverse group of companies -- from Australian wool washers and Las Vegas industrial launderers to major listed concerns like IBM, MGM Resorts, and Royal Caribbean cruise lines (which saves 330,000 gallons of water per cruise by simply using super chilled river rock instead of ice cubes on its buffet lines) -- shows how we might keep from going "directly from the golden age of water to the revenge of water."

Altruism isn't behind these transformations. The motivation is cost. We resist thinking of water like other commodities because it is basic and we don't want to price widows and orphans out of the ability to get it. But Fishman argues convincingly toward the end of The Big Thirst that we must begin to price water more closely to its real value if we are going to save it for future generations, including those widows and orphans.

He also shows that there are simple ways to keep the lifeline open while making companies more judicious with their consumption and causing consumers to think twice before leaving their sprinklers on in the middle of the day. "[I]f you had to pick one thing to fix about water, one thing that would help you fix everything else -- scarcity, unequal distribution, misuse, waste, skewed priorities, resistance to reuse shortsighted exploitation of natural water resources -- that one thing is price," concludes Fishman. "The right price changes how we see everything else about water."

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