Review: The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Posted: July 5, 2015 in Book Reviews, Livin' in the USA, Science Fiction
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The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, front cover(The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Knopf, 2015, 371 pp., $25.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Following his frightening yet entertaining corporate capitalism/GMO sci-fi-disaster novel, The Windup Girl (2009), Paolo Bacigalupi wrote a string of young adult books. He’s finally delivered another eco-disaster sci-fi novel, The Water Knife. I’ve been anticipating this book keenly, as it’s set mostly  in the city in which I grew up (Phoenix), and revolves around an unfolding ecological and socioeconomic disaster which I experience on a daily basis (drought, record heat, month after month, year after year).

Set primarily in a near-future Phoenix (roughly 20 to 40 years hence), Bacigalupi’s novel concerns the results of the ongoing (since the late ’90s) and worsening drought in the Southwest, the archaic allocation of water rights in the Colorado River basin, and the consequent wrangling among the various states in the basin over water.

In The Water Knife, the drought situation has gone far beyond the most pessimistic projections in climate change models, and as a result competition for water has soared as the supply has fallen. The water authorities in the various basin states are engaged in something akin to a cold (and sometimes hot) war, with closed borders between states, murderous paramilitary forces, hired thugs (“water knives”) who engage in torture and murder, and waves of Texas (“Merry Perry”) refugees landing in Arizona trying to find a way to  get to the promised lands of California, Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest.

The tightly written novel’s three central characters are Angel Velasquez (the “water knife,” who’s in the pay of the Nevada water authority’s corrupt boss, Catharine Case), Lucy Monroe (a journalist), and Maria (a teenage refugee from Texas living on the streets of Phoenix). Following rumors of a document assigning game-changing water rights, Case sends Angel to Phoenix, where he finds that everything has gone pear shaped  in the Nevada espionage ring in that city, including the head of the ring, Julio (a murderous sadist), and that mutilated bodies have begun turning up, apparently with some connection to the water rights document. At that point, while doing her job, Lucy stumbles into the picture and is sucked into succeeding events. Meanwhile, Maria is hustling to stay alive, and through that hustling meets one of the principles in the water rights document imbroglio, and is also sucked in.

Once the main characters are introduced, the point of view shifts between them chapter by chapter. The p.o.v. is close third person, so you get to know these characters well, and quickly. They’re all believable, and Bacigalupi does a fine job of developing their characters, particularly that of Angel, who’s initially loathsome but becomes increasingly sympathetic throughout the book.

Another noteworthy feature of The Water Knife is its social subtext, which strongly suggests that given the wrong circumstances almost anyone can be forced into doing things they find abhorrent. Toward the end of the book, Angel makes this point explicit, stating that (this is a paraphrase) “they can get to anyone,” forcing them to violate their own consciences.  The point of this is that it’s wrong to judge people who act under coercion, which is a point rarely if ever made in science fiction novels, or anywhere else.

A third point in The Water Knife‘s favor is that it does point to the seriousness of the drought situation in the U.S. Southwest.

But The Water Knife also has problems. One is that Bacigalupi has apparently never set foot in Phoenix, the novel’s main setting, and apparently didn’t even bother to speak with anyone who’s ever lived there. There are only two references in the entire book to local landmarks: a vague reference to the Central Arizona Project canal, and another vague reference to South Mountain–and Bacigalupi gets even that wrong. South Mountain (a hill that rises a thousand feet above the surrounding desert) is not “south of Phoenix.” It’s been a city park since the 1920s, Phoenix’s boundaries have extended to it since the 1960s or 1970s, the orange groves and flower farms along Baseline Road (a few blocks from the park’s northern boundary)  have long since given way to housing developments punctuated by the occasional Circle K, and Phoenix metro already extends well to the south of South Mountain.

Bacigalupi even refers to (again, a paraphrase)  “half the city burning,” which would be quite a scene given that at present Phoenix metro extends from south of Chandler north to New River (approximately 45 miles)  and from Apache Junction on the east to west of Buckeye (approximately 65 miles). Given that sprawl is the hallmark of Phoenix, with houses on spacious lots, and occasional open spaces, arroyos, and hills (that the locals optimistically call “mountains,” buttes,” and “peaks”), a fire engulfing half the city is all but impossible–something anyone even remotely familiar with Phoenix would know.

Beyond Bacigalupi’s vague references, there’s nothing. No references to local landmarks, geographical features, roads, the canal system within the city, suburbs. Nothing. The “Phoenix” that’s the setting for The Water Knife bears essentially no relation to the real Phoenix. It’s simply Bacigalupi’s invention set in the same geographical area with the name “Phoenix” slapped on it. I found this intensely irritating, though readers not familiar with the place probably wouldn’t even notice.

A more serious problem is the novel’s gross oversimplification of the reasons for and the nature of the water crisis in the Southwest. Yes, The Water Knife is a novel, and Bacigalupi does mention in the book’s afterword that he engages in “confabulation.” But the scenario he paints is seriously misleading nonetheless. The Water Knife presents the current and worsening water shortages in Arizona and the rest of the Southwest as if they were entirely the result of climate change and urban overuse of water. This is simply wrong. The problem is primarily due to the nature of water use here.

In Arizona, for instance, agriculture uses 70% of the water, the mines another 5%, and cities 25%. (In California, agriculture uses 80% of the water.) Everything else pales in comparison with agricultural use, and a great deal of water used in agriculture is squandered on water-intensive crops that are outright crazy to grow in this region: cotton, alfalfa (for cattle feed), pecans and other nuts, and even irrigated pasture (again for feeding cattle). The same holds for other agricultural areas of the Southwest.

Why do farmers grow these crops here? Two reasons: 1) Because farmers pay almost nothing for water, the crops are profitable; 2) In some cases, if they don’t use their full allocation of water they lose the rights. As long as the antiquated legal system that allows farmers to mine water (pump it) from the water table for the cost of electricity and that allocates surface water on an archaic first-come-first-served basis continues to exist, this problem will persist. That’s the bad news. The good news is that these are human-made legal problems and that there are human-made remedies for them. But good luck on this broken system being fixed anytime soon.

As for the drought reaching the level implied in The Water Knife, it’s very unlikely. Bacigalupi outlines a scenario in which there’s apparently been almost no rain for years on end, and in which saguaros (essentially spiny, very tough skinned water balloons) burst into flame (!) during fires. We’re currently 16 years into a drought, and precipitation here in Tucson has been about 15% lower than average during those years. By mid-century (the period in which The Water Knife is set), worst-case projections have the amount of precipitation in Arizona falling to 50% of the amount that fell in the latter half of the 20th century. That translates to four inches per year in Phoenix (down from eight inches) and six inches per year in Tucson (down from twelve). That’s not much water, but it’s a hell of a lot more than none.

So, The Water Knife‘s positing that the Salt and Verde rivers will dry up is very probably wrong. And the implied pessimism about there being nothing that can be done to prevent urban catastrophe is also very probably wrong. The water is there–eliminating agricultural misuse in itself could solve the cities’ water supply problem–and there are steps that could be taken in Phoenix to hugely reduce water waste. (The Phoenix area has over 200 golf courses; there’s a network of canals running through the city that allows residents to flood their yards–to grow grass–on a weekly basis; there are dozens of “communities” throughout the metro area that surround artificial “lakes”; and one suburb, Fountain Hills, even takes its name from a massive, towering fountain that’s a monument to hubris and waste.)

As a result, per capita water use in Phoenix is about 185 gallons per day, and  in the rich, right-wing Scottsdale suburb about 220 gallons per day. In contrast, in Tucson (one-fifth the size of Phoenix metro) per capita consumption is only 130 gallons per day, and Tucson has barely begun to get serious about water conservation. So, there are solutions to the upcoming water crunch in Arizona.

What’s likely to happen? There will probably be no major revisions to the allocation of water rights. There are too many entrenched interests and the political system is too broken (under the iron control of the rich and their corporations) for this to happen, short of a revolution.

Instead, Phoenix and its suburbs will have to make a real effort to conserve water. Agricultural use will decline. And some farmers will become very rich as they sell their water rights to cities, with urban residents (among them yours truly) getting financially hosed in the process. There will be major ecological impacts from the drought, but the cities are unlikely to dry up and blow away.

The two good things about The Water Knife‘s treatment of the drought and water use crises in Arizona and the Southwest are that it does alert readers to the seriousness of the problems, and that it repeatedly and favorably mentions what’s probably the best primer on Southwest water use issues: Cadillac Desert.

Don’t look to The Water Knife for information on the looming megadrought or water use problems. But do look to it for a very well told story with well drawn characters and an unusual and spot-on social and economic subtext.

Recommended.

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon, author of  Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia, grew up in Phoenix, has lived in Tucson for decades, and has been  concerned about water use and misuse in the West for a very long time.

Free Radicals front cover

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