Review: Water — Facts, issues, problems and solutions
David Leaman
Leaman Geophysics, GPO Box 320, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia
ISBN 978-0-9581199-4-8

Available in Tasmania only at The Green Shop, 83 Harrington St, Hobart, and the Green Room, 174 Charles St. Launceston. Normally $40 but offered by The Greens at the special price of $25.

Water problems

This is not an easy book — but then water isn’t an easy thing to understand. In fact, it’s downright weird. As the author, geologist and hydrologist David Leaman says, if you want to understand how liquids behave, never use water as a guide.

In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus marvel at its qualities:

Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level… the independence of its units… its climatic and commercial significance…the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including millions of tons of the most precious metals… its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density… its secrecy in springs and latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and exemplified by the well by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate, saturation of air, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its composition… its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist, cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants…

The behaviour of this odd liquid determines life on earth. We rarely notice its arcane workings unless there is either too much of it or, more so lately, too little. Usually it is just taken for granted and Leaman has written this book to jolt us out of a potentially fatal complacency.

And, like all tellers of inconvenient truths, he has been attacked for it by those who want to continue with the untrammelled exploitation of this most fundamental of all resources and by myopic politicians who can see no further than the next election.

The trouble with current debates about water is split vision. On the one hand we have the economy, a sacrosanct entity invoked whenever awkward questions are asked about what we’re doing to the world; and on the other we have the environment, which is over there somewhere in a special little box in the political mind, quite distinct from the economy. The economy is definitely not in the environment, but the environment can be in the economy whenever it can be dug up, chopped down or sold off in plastic bottles.

But water underlies everything, including the economy. Our world is a vast, self-adjusting hydrostatic machine, and through our profligacy and waste we have intervened so massively in its workings that we risk throwing it completely out of balance. Unless we learn to husband water far more carefully, there won’t be an economy any more.

That is Leaman’s ultimate message and that is why anyone who cares about the way the world is going ought to make the effort to read this difficult book.

It’s difficult because the subject is so extraordinarily complex. The idea of the hydrological cycle can be easily grasped – the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed long ago that everything flows – but its consequences are not only unpredictable but seem to defy logic without the understanding this book brings. It’s replete with graphs, tables and maps; it covers land use, power generation, forestry practices, engineering, the politics of privatisation, pollution, erosion, to name just a few of the fundamental questions raised by water and how we use and abuse it. And it can’t all be done in layman’s language.

Leaman has limited the scope of the book largely to Tasmania, which is not noted in the public mind as suffering much of a problem with water. But our island in fact suffers from almost all the problems driving the catastrophe now unfolding on the mainland of Australia and, given its small size, Tasmania is an ideal case study because of its geological and hydrological variety. He calls it the Australian canary, warning us of dangers before they are visible to our coarser senses.

Earlier editions of this book – this is the third – had the subtitle ‘Facts, issues and problems’; this one adds ‘solutions’. But those solutions won’t come about unless we can get our political and business leaders to get their eyes off the bottom line and take the plunge.

Buy this book, read and understand it, and then you’ll have what you need to give them the kick in the pants they need.