Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink



By Colin Woodard

Basic Books

300 pp., $26

The world's oceans are at risk.

It's becoming an all too common sight nowadays. On a Sunday walk along the ocean, or a nearby lake or river, the water ripples against the shore, bringing with it used hypodermic needles, trash, oil, even dead fish. It's a scene that repeats itself around the world.

In a book that seems to echo Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," a landmark work linking pesticides to adverse effects on wildlife, Colin Woodard takes us on a cautionary tale of the world's imperiled seas. He traveled nearly 100,000 miles to six continents to tell his story.

Woodard, a frequent contributor to The Christian Science Monitor and other publications, aptly mixes political and human folly with tragic outcomes near and far for waterways and the life in them.

For example, the Danube River he describes is a far cry from the Blue Danube that inspired Strauss. The great riverway meanders for 1,700 miles from Germany's Black Forest, through clean mountains and industrial towns, to a large delta in Tulcea, Romania. The Danube delta, which Woodard describes as "nature's ultimate insurance policy against pollution," at one time acted as a large filter that absorbed nutrients and toxins from the river before they reached the Black Sea. But former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu decided those wetlands were a waste of space and ordered that the delta be drained and planted with wheat, corn, and rice. The dikes constructed to clear areas for the crops disrupted the water balance and allowed sea water to get into the soil of the new fields, killing the crops.

After Ceausescu was overthrown, the new government protected the delta. But there was already considerable damage: 100,000 acres of fields and fish ponds were scattered throughout the area, and the delta no longer effectively combed out the river's pollution.

Woodard writes, "Without replenishment the delta will sink and erode, perhaps releasing a century of accumulated oil and toxins in the process." And that's only one of the multitude of insults heaped on that river.

From Eastern Europe, Woodard takes us on a whirlwind tour of the world's sick rivers and seas, along the way telling tales of lost livelihoods, polluted drinking supplies, meager tourism, and even deaths from pollution.

In most cases, the damage was man-made: tossing small bombs to bring fish to the surface, fishing to near-extinction, dumping trash or factory pollution into waters, allowing farm pesticides to run into rivers, and introducing non-native animals that kill local species. "Dead zones," or areas of the ocean where the oxygen has been choked off are becoming more commonplace. The best known dead zones are in the Atlantic Ocean near New York City and in the Gulf of Mexico.

The book contains extensive endnotes, but because of its detailed scientific nature, it could benefit from a glossary. The maps before each chapter are a great help in identifying the scope of the area we're reading about.

The only quibble this writer has with the book is the first chapter, "Dead Seas." Even though Woodard got the idea for the book while he was in Eastern Europe, the first chapter on that area has a disjointed feel about it. The second chapter, "Ocean Blues," would make a splendid and strong lead-in to the book. It begins with a look at Earth and its waters from space, then takes us underwater to see the basic elements of life in the oceans. It ends by telling us about the crisis we are facing.

A final chapter called "Sea Change" makes a few broad recommendations, but one gets a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness reading "Ocean's End": helplessness for causing the pollution and hopelessness for not knowing what to do about it. The book does, however, in its comprehensiveness, show us the magnitude of the problem and give us the motivation to act. And that's the first step.

*Lori Valigra is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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