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'The Water Knife' Previews A Future Drought Scenario

Rich Kissee, operations manager for the Santa Margarita Water District, stands on the edge of a water runoff reservoir in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.
Chris Carlson/AP
Rich Kissee, operations manager for the Santa Margarita Water District, stands on the edge of a water runoff reservoir in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.
Chris Carlson/AP

As I write this, California remains deep in its fourth year of drought.

One hundred percent of the state of Nevada is in drought — with 40 percent in the extreme drought category. Over to the southeast, 93 percent of Arizona's territory is in some form of drought. Even Washington state, far to the north, finds all of its territory in drought and 32 percent of its land in extreme doubt.

If there is one aspect of climate change almost all scientists working in the field agree on, it's that droughts, particularly in the drier regions of the planet, are likely to become more frequent and more pronounced. This means that abundant reserves of fresh water, the most basic requirement for civilization, is likely to become all the more scarce and all the more valuable.

But what will it mean to move from the world we know now, with sprawling cities stretching across the desert southwest, into that future world were water perhaps becomes its own kind of gold? What will that new world look like? What will it feel like to live in its day-to-day realities?

The Water Knife

by Paolo Bacigalupi

Hardcover, 371 pages |

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One way to answer these questions is to explore the possibilities via fiction. As we march slowly but relentlessly into a climate-changed future, many writers have taken up the challenge by feeling out the limits of its contours. The genre is called "cli-fi." At its worst, cli-fi is simply "collapse porn" replete with repeating narratives of the post-apocalypse.

At its best, however, thoughtful authors try to understand how our complex multitiered global civilization may respond to the challenges of a changing planet. Writer Paolo Bacigalupi lives on the "at-its-best" side of cli-fi. In his 2009 novel The Windup Girl, he explores life in a Bangkok holding back the floodwaters. It is a world where genetic engineering lives side by side with treadle-powered computers. This creative envisioning of technologies advancing, while societies struggle to hold back the tides of global warming, is on display again in his new book The Water Knife.

While The Wind Up Girl inhabited the domains of a drowning city, The Water Knife explores the other side of the long emergency. Set in the parched Southwest of a near future, Bacigalupi imagines how the fight for water rights has morphed into a tenuous netherworld of legal battles — and gun battles. The federal government has little power left to govern the region. Texas has effectively ceased to exist in the aftermath of repeated hurricanes and endless drought, as Texan refugees stream across the landscape looking for better lives. The southwestern states have been left mostly to fend for themselves, restricting travel across their borders and becoming locked into semi-clandestine conflicts over who controls the water flowing through overburdened rivers.

Much of the story takes place in a dying version of Phoenix. The Water Knife of the title is an operative of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (i.e. Las Vegas) named Angel. His job is both to serve legal papers denying water rights to Las Vegas' competitors and to bring violence down on those refusing to comply. In Angel's world, water is life and each state understands that legal actions are the least of the tools at their disposal. The book opens with Las Vegas protecting its own water supply via a thin legal disguise and the destruction of a neighboring city's water treatment plant.

The plot then follows Angel into Phoenix. There he unpacks a nest of conspiracies centering around the discovery and sale of water rights that go so far back, and reach so high, that even the brutally efficient state of California (the "Calies") has brought in its operatives.

But the most compelling actor in the story is the city of Phoenix — and its scaling remains. As Bacigalupi writes:

"The only difference between Phoenix and a dozen dying cities in Texas and Alabama and every coastal city around the world was that Phoenix had taken hits not just from climate change and dust storms and fires and droughts but also from a competing city."

This insight is one of the things that makes Bacigalupi's novel so interesting. It would be easy to make massive hurricanes or ice-sheet break-ups the dramatic center of a story about climate change. Instead, The Water Knife asks questions about the mutations of human institutions under the pressure of global warming: local and national governments; corporations; the media. And rather than simply paint a Mad Max post-collapse landscape, Bacigalupi asks what happens to people and their institutions under this new kind of pressure.

In some places, The Water Knife does succumb to the tropes it is trying to avoid. The action sequences can be overbearing and some scenes are difficult to bear. But, ultimately, the book succeeds by allowing us to explore a single richly imagined climate future.

Hopefully, the only place it will ever exist is in our imaginations.


Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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