The last drop. Solving the world’s water crisis (Smedley, 2023)

Chris Perry


Smedley, T. 2023. The last drop. Solving the world’s water crisis. MacMillan. ISBN 9781529058147, 410 p., 15£.


Chris Perry


To cite this review: Perry, C.  2023. Review of “The last drop. Solving the world’s water crisis", 2003, MacMillan, by Tim Smedley, Water Alternatives,


For anyone who doubts that water resources are overexpoited in much of the world, this is a must-read.  For anyone looking for examples to confirm their view that action is needed, this is also a must-read book.

For anyone looking for solutions, there is less here to help: the concluding section is titled “Try Harder”, which implies that we are on the right track.  The preceding 325 pages confirm that, almost everywhere, we are not.

The first 100 pages of this book are titled “Running out”. Examples from around the world—Belgium, India, China, Mexico, the US—all document an ongoing scenario of unsustainable rates of use leading to aquifer depletion, drying estuaries and reduced supplies to downstream users.  This is a valuable catalogue. Too many analysts refer to a “looming crisis” that we can avoid through a change of course. The truth is that neither changing course nor slowing down will solve the problem: we need to shift into reverse gear. The examples amply demonstrate this inconvenient truth.  Reversing existing patterns of use is politically far harder than swerving or slowing.

The next 25 pages focus on pollution, and again are a valuable catalogue of the impacts of our industrialised, densely populated lives on the ecosystems that are (were?) supported by the hydrological cycle.

Next in line for devastating and appropriate criticism is England: the privatisation of a natural monopoly; failure to regulate (ignorance, incompetence, both?); and take-over of the water companies by financial engineers.  All this is entirely consistent with what is unfolding right now in England, making many citizens quite angry.

Virtual water—the trade, especially in agricultural commodities that depend on large quantities of water to grow (a kilo of wheat requires evaporation of a tonne of water)—is next, with telling examples of how markets allow extreme scarcity in one place (in this case Saudi Arabia) to be “solved” by mining groundwater in a slightly less water scarce place (for the moment)—California—to grow fodder for cattle in Saudi. The story about asparagus is similar if less grotesque.

The book then moves on to “solutions”, including desalinisation and the examples of Singapore and Israel.  Though there are problems to be addressed (what to do with the brine), there is some appropriate optimism here, though because Smedley doesn’t routinely distinguish between agricultural demands (which are consumptive) and most other uses (which can be recycled), the limited scope for such technologies to solve the “big” water problems of aquifer and estuary depletion that are identified in the first section is not well addressed—thus in the index, the reader seeking clarification of “Water Consumption” is pointed to “Domestic water consumption rates”.  Domestic use, as the long sections on water treatment and reuse confirm, is NOT consumptive and this is a fundamental point. How much could water scarcity in SE England be ameliorated by fully treating sewage?  Quite a lot it would seem, though the problem and potential solution are not brought onto the same page.

Where I find least agreement with Smedley relates to the changes in land use (regenerative agriculture, rewilding, water harvesting) that are proposed as potential solutions. To clarify, I have no general objection to any of these activities, which have various benefits.  But their hydrological impact is really complicated. Stated simply, any intervention that increases use in the upstream areas of a water short basin MUST have some impact downstream, and that is likely to be negative. Certainly, if there is excess water at some times in the year, improved land management may alleviate flooding downstream and will certainly improve water availability later in the season in the upstream area.  Such activities will also tend to capture a much higher proportion of available water during a low rainfall year, substantially worsening the downstream situation. Such outcomes are location specific, and no doubt there are cases where everyone benefits—but the analysis must be done, and the analysis must capture the hydrological reality that river basins are integrating systems. What we observe at any point in a basin is the integral of everything that happened above that point. (As an aside, this was the original idea underpinning the “I” in IWRM—now lost in the explosion of add-ons.)

The misconception in these interventions is that water is treated as a local resource.  In times of scarcity it is not: my rainfall harvesting tank captures some of the water that someone else might have expected to receive downstream.  And in a drought, it may capture all of it.

One eye-catching “success” story is the Murray Darling Basin, with its complex system of water rights, trade, and interventions to save the downstream RAMSAR sites.  Smedley’s positive description (it’s in the “solutions” part of the book) is based on an interview with a MDB official who took early retirement, and is entirely at variance with the situation set out in Dead in the Water by Richard Beasley reviewed elsewhere on this website.

And then the final section ('Try Harder')—something of a let-down given the range of examples that Smedley has assembled from widely disparate sources. We are in a mess; we know it; things are getting worse, but it’s not apparent that there are generic solutions with wide applicability.  Maybe, and this is my own view, to draw a parallel with approaches to climate change, we are past the possibility of “mitigating” water scarcity and the collapse of some water systems: the challenge now is to “adapt”.

All that said, I recommend the book in terms of the examples quoted and the readable style.  Maybe someone else can figure out a better concluding chapter.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Tim Smedley
  • Year of publication: 2023
  • Publisher: MacMillan
  • Reviewer: Chris Perry
  • Subject: Water policy, Water management, Water crisis, Drought
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English