Replenish (Postel, 2017)

Larry A. Swatuk


Postel, S. 2017. Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. Island Press ISBN 9781610917902 (hardback) 9781642830101 (paperback)/ ISBN 9781610917919 (epub)/ ISBN 9780190864095, 336p., US$26.


Larry A. Swatuk

School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, University of Waterloo & Institute for Water Studies, University of the Western Cape ;

To cite this review: Swatuk, L. 2021. Review of "Replenish", Island Press, 2017, by Sandra Postel, Water Alternatives,



In Replenish, Sandra Postel gives us our marching orders. By ‘us’, I mean not just water scholars and activists, but all of us unreflective, over-consuming, resource-grabbing humans who continue to hold fast to the high-modern paradigm of ‘use it or lose it’. Through twelve highly readable chapters, Postel shows us, in turns, the folly of our ways and what some of us are doing to change course. Her message is rather straightforward: despite all the problems, now is not the time to despair; get organized and get active. Should we ‘choose to write a new water story’, she says (p. 245) – for make no mistake, most of our problems are human-made resulting from a particular set of choices – we, as a society, can ‘build resilience – the ability to cope with disturbance while continuing to function… [R]eplenishing the world’s natural flow of water is among the best ways to build that resilience’ (p. 235).

Following an initial chapter where she describes the resource and the challenges as they have emerged across time and space, each subsequent chapter is framed around a specific demand. Chapter Two (‘Back to Life’) illustrates the high politics underlying water resource governance and management. While the principal focus is on the Colorado River, Postel travels the world in support of the fact that not only conflict but also cooperation is possible where shared waters are concerned. This chapter introduces an array of stakeholders found throughout the book: not-for-profit and other civil society organizations; technological innovators and purveyors of capital; various levels of government; private sector actors especially farmers; and concerned citizens. As with the other chapters she shows how significant gains are possible but often tenuous. Using the Colorado River delta as a harbinger not only of the health of the water but of the society arrayed around its use, she states ‘how much life returns, and ultimately lives on, is now largely in human hands’ (p. 42).

In Chapter Three she counsels that we must ‘put watersheds to work’. Again, drawing case studies from different continents, Postel argues in support of afforestation as a viable nature-based solution to seasonal downstream problems of drought and flood. Chapter Four makes a compelling case that, in the context of climate-induced risk and uncertainty, we would be wise to ‘make room for floods’. Chapter Five (‘Bank it for a Dry Day’) sets looming regional food insecurity against both land/water grabbing (the less desirable option) and groundwater recharge (the more desirable option). Importantly, she points out that ‘moving toward sustainable groundwater is as much about incentives and governance as it is about hydrology and technology’ (p. 102).

Chapter Six (‘Fill the Earth’) centres on soil moisture/green water and ‘more crop per drop’, and argues that soil health is as important as adequate water where crop production is concerned. Chapter Seven focuses on urban water use and management and illustrates the great strides being made around the world in support of what one might say is ‘making more of the water we already have’: fixing leaking pipes, reusing wastewater, refilling aquifers with stormwater, greening the city. She shows us time and again how water shortage is more a consequence of poor governance and management than it is about biophysical limits. In this chapter, she devotes a significant amount of space to what we now call ‘remunicipalization’, though she doesn’t use the term here. Chapter Eight (‘Clean it Up’) investigates possibilities for reducing nitrogen loading through, for example, on-site wastewater treatment for household use and the development of artificial wetlands. Chapter Nine (‘Close the Loop’) looks at ‘sewer mining’, and showcases numerous examples from a city such as Windhoek, Namibia that has been treating ‘blackwater’ to potable level since 1968 to the Salinas Valley in California where wastewater is reused in agriculture. The potential for wastewater is significant: ‘Today, Israel reuses over 85 percent of its municipal wastewater, and the recycled water meets nearly half of the nation’s irrigation demands’ (p. 181).

Chapter Ten (‘Let it Flow’) focuses partly on dam removal and what many call the ‘rewilding’ of rivers, but more specifically on ensuring ‘environmental flows’ (p. 195) that provide water for both human needs and a healthy ecosystem. As with the other chapters, innovation features centrally, such as variable rate irrigation (VRI) systems and water markets. Postel is not blind to the barriers of change, however, quoting one individual involved with VRI: ‘the technology is ahead of the support capacity. It’s all about helping farmers make better choices’ (p. 209).

Chapter Eleven (‘Rescue Desert Rivers’) focuses largely on water law and Chapter Twelve (‘Share’) highlights the potential that exists for collective action. While ‘stewardship’ sounds like a non-controversial term, she says that working in support of ‘replenishment’ often looks like ‘one step forward and two steps back’ (p. 244). In the end she counsels all of us to adopt a water ethic: ‘using less whenever we can and sharing what we have’ (p. 241).

For the committed and seasoned water scholar/activist there is nothing new in this book; Postel traverses a well-known landscape. The author chooses to be hopeful and this is to be applauded. She neither ignores nor downplays the difficulty of changing course, highlighting time and again the necessity for coming together as creative coalitions to fight in support of common interests and beliefs. This book is essential reading for students who are new to the topic, who sense its seriousness and are looking for the inspiration necessary to get organized and get active.

Additional Info

  • Authors: Sandra Postel
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Reviewer: Larry A. Swatuk
  • Subject: Water governance
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English