By Simon Dowdeswell
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The Water Works

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Review of 'Water Inc', Varda Burstyn, Verso £12.99
Issue 296

Canadian Varda Burstyn is a political writer, cultural critic and environmentalist whose work has appeared in magazines, film, television, radio and academic journals. She has put this breadth and depth of knowledge to good use in this, her first work of fiction, an eco-thriller and some.

Canada has plenty of water; the US is running out. A cabal of American industrialists sets up a fait accompli project by planning the construction of a water pipeline from water-rich northern Quebec to the parched and scorched American Midwest.

The leader of the gang, egotistical industrialist William Greele, and business partner Colonel Nicholas Kamenev buy the agreement of self-serving Congressmen, state governors and nationalist Québécois.

Greele represents naked capitalism: to him politicians are a necessary evil. ‘Do it, or face my enmity,’ he says to a recalcitrant state governor. However, he never reckoned on the determination and tenacity of a group of committed eco-activists, computer hackers, honest police and those who eventually turn against the murderous project.

Claire Davidowicz of Eco-Justice USA catches the eye of Malcolm Macpherson, Kamenev’s trusted lieutenant, at an environmental talk one evening. This turns out to be an epiphanous moment for Macpherson. On the way back from a romantic night with Davidowicz, Macpherson ruminates on his situation travelling through Times Square, New York: ‘Gap, Disney, Sony, Coke. It’s Bladerunner, Ridley Scott’s post-apocalyptic Los Angeles minus the rain.’

Disillusioned and frustrated working with Kamenev, Macpherson and computer hacker friend Russell Jefferson risk their lives to help Davidowicz foil the project. Meanwhile Greele and his associates put the heat on Serge Lalonde, a minister in the Quebec government, to smooth the project through without public consultation. Word gets out through a leak to an investigative journalist and Lalonde, never entirely happy, battles with his own conscience. ‘What am I going to do?’ he screams at one point to a confidant.

Water Inc highlights the reality of how water is distributed unevenly between and within countries, and how many of those countries are water-stressed and unable to meet their needs in a sustainable way. Climate change, over-extraction and increasing population combine to demand caution. However, in the current political economy, weak transboundary regulation and blinkered thinking are the norm.

Burstyn’s story is not always seamless. However, this does not detract from the depth of environmental facts and current debates that are richly scattered throughout. It is these gems that make the book an education.

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