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Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? (Environmental Alert Series) Paperback – July 17, 1999


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Product Details

  • Series: Environmental Alert Series
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (July 17, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393319377
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393319378
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.4 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,280,183 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

[A] lucid and authoritative account of humanity's dwindling supply of fresh water. -- E.O. Wilson

About the Author

Sandra Postel lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she directs the Global Water Policy Project. She is a Pew Fellow in Conservation and the Environment and a former vice president for research at the Worldwatch Institute. Her previous book, Last Oasis, now appears in eight languages and was the basis for a PBS television documentary.

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Customer Reviews

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See all 7 customer reviews
I found it a very educational book.
Water researcher
Over time, irrigation often led to the buildup of salt in the soil -- salinization, which eventually transformed excellent cropland into infertile wasteland.
Richard Reese (author of Sustainable or Bust)
I'm an agronomist and I read this book here in Brazil.
Dalton C. Rocha

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Friederike Knabe VINE VOICE on August 23, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Sandra Postel goes well beyond a simple answer to the question posed by her subtitle 'Can the Irrigation Miracle last?' This book is an important resource for anybody trying to understand why water scarcity is such a major and escalating problem at the dawn of this century. Rather than adding to the generalist debate of the economists on water as a commodity or the projection into future problems presented by policy analysts and environmentalists, Postel analyzes particular examples in the past to explain the present and to make recommendations for the future.
Postel opens by reviewing major early societies in history, from Mesopotamia to Babylon, Egypt to ancient China, showing how they developed into major civilizations and why they fell. Yes, fell. Almost all great irrigation-based civilizations (Egypt being a rare exception) collapsed as a result of reallocation and overuse of water resources resulting in salinization, silting, soil degradation, etc.
Have we learned any lessons form the past? Postel argues that it does not seem so. She gives a factual account of a wide range of irrigation systems of the modern era, comparing methodologies and results to those in the past. The development of huge irrigation areas in India (Punjab), China and the US have either already demonstrated a repeat of the old mistakes or will do so in the near future. The groundwater tables are overused without being replenished and aquifers are tapped that have little chance to recover even in the long term. She describes two kinds of water wars: farms versus cities and nature and irrigation versus water scarcity. Water is reallocated and shifted from one use to another, but in some way, we are all living downstream from somebody else.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By DAVID-LEONARD WILLIS on March 4, 2004
Format: Paperback
The expansion of irrigation world wide has made a major contribution to increased food production, but for many years the World Watch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute have called attention to the danger of falling water tables and rivers that no longer reach the sea. Although China increased grain production from 90m tons in 1950 to 392 million tons in 1998, this was achieved at the price of rapidly falling water tables with the result that consumption exceeded production in four of the last five years; very soon China will be importing 30 - 50 million tons of grain annually, putting pressure on world grain prices. As wheat requires 1000 tons of water to produce one ton of wheat, the key challenges are: "how can we meet growing human needs for irrigation water without destroying the health of rivers, lakes and other aquatic systems? How can we grow enough food in a sustainable manner?" History tells us that most irrigation-based civilizations fail. The question we must address is "Will our civilization be different?"
Settled agriculture started 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia but around 4,000 BC enterprising Sumerian farmers in the Fertile Crescent - present day Iraq - diverted water from the Euphrates to prevent crops withering before harvest. Irrigation allowed farmers to grow an extra crop and produce surpluses leading to an expanding population and a flourishing civilization but also bringing soil degradation from salt left by evaporation. By the 16th century the Fertile Crescent, was little more than a salty wasteland. 20% of the irrigated land today suffers from salt build up; land lost offsets increased productivity from expanding irrigation.
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Format: Paperback
Pillar of Sand, by Sandra Postel, is spellbinding book about everyone's favorite subject, irrigation. It discusses the history of irrigation, the numerous serious problems, and the theoretical solutions -- many of which seem to be economically or politically impossible. The general health of irrigated agriculture is worrisome, and so is its future. Feeding ten billion a few decades from now is not going to be a piece of cake.

The benefits of irrigation enabled the development of many civilizations, and the drawbacks of irrigation then destroyed many of them. Today, 17 percent of the world's cropland is irrigated, and it produces 40 percent of our food. This amazing productivity has thrown gasoline on the flames of human reproduction, resulting in explosive population growth, which is never a good thing.

From the very beginning, irrigation seemed to be a fountain of bad karma. From the flooded fields sprouted a bumper crop of mighty emperors, vast palaces, powerful armies, multitudes of slaves, contagious diseases, the loss of freedom, and a pitiable way of life, isolated from wild nature. It was a high-powered form of agriculture, but the magic was mixed with serious defects. Sudden shifts in precipitation or temperature could make an entire civilization vulnerable to famine. The levees, canals, and dams required continuous maintenance by large numbers of hard-working grunts. The infrastructure also provided excellent targets for malevolent invaders, and vengeful enemies.

Over time, irrigation often led to the buildup of salt in the soil -- salinization, which eventually transformed excellent cropland into infertile wasteland.
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