The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis -

BBC Two, Fri­day Oc­to­ber 10, 9pm

IR­RI­GA­TION AGE sounds like one of the guest pub­li­ca­tions lam­pooned ev­ery week on Have I Got News to You.

How­ever, back in 1893, ir­ri­ga­tion and the de­vel­op­ment of wa­ter re­sources of a rapidly grow­ing USA was one of the key is­sues for the young coun­try. And the ed­i­tor of Ir­ri­ga­tion Age, one William Ellsworth Smythe, was the loud­est and strong­est ad­vo­cate of the the­ory that mass ir­ri­ga­tion was the great hope for “the con­quest of arid Amer­ica”.

His foe, in a con­fer­ence in Los An­ge­les whose stakes were lit­er­ally the fu­ture of the Amer­i­can land­scape, was John Wes­ley Pow­ell, a man whose haz­ardous jour­ney along the length of the Colorado river had taught him that over-set­tling and over-use of the coun­try’s wa­ter re­sources could spell dis­as­ter.

Smythe seemed to have won the day in LA, and the ir­ri­ga­tion of the Colorado Basin, cul­mi­nat­ing in the construction of the mon­u­men­tal Hoover Dam in the 1930s, brought agri­cul­ture and abun­dance to the desert.

In the first episode of this am­bi­tious, if con­fus­ingly ti­tled pro­gramme, Si­mon Schama, one of Bri­tain’s most em­i­nent and cer­tainly most vis­i­ble his­to­ri­ans, ex­am­ined the forces which built Amer­ica and which will shape its fu­ture, at a time when the most pow­er­ful na­tion in the world is pre­par­ing to elect its next leader.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, while the US is dis­tracted by fi­nan­cial tur­moil and the war on ter­ror, it may be ig­nor­ing its great­est chal­lenge — the rapid evap­o­ra­tion of its most pre­cious re­source — wa­ter.

Schama ex­plained that the pi­o­neer­ing spirit of Amer­ica had been pow­ered by the mas­sive op­ti­mism of its leaders, notably 19th cen­tury pres­i­dent An­drew Jack­son.

But farm­ing on an in­dus­trial scale in the Mid-West quickly turned Ok­la­homa into a dust bowl, as wind­storms blew away the top­soil in the 1930s. Mean­while, para­dox­i­cally, the wa­ters of the Colorado River made what was for­merly desert into Amer­ica’s bread bas­ket, and made cities like Las Ve­gas, fea­si­ble.

Yet — and here is the fu­ture part — as oil di­min­ishes, corn is be­ing grown to man­u­fac­ture bio-fu­els. Yet to grow corn you need wa­ter and the wa­ter, said Schama, was dis­ap­pear­ing fast. Even more omi­nously, the cities of the West have been threat­en­ing to di­vert wa­ter to use on wa­ter fea­tures and golf cour­ses — threat­en­ing the very agri­cul­ture which brings food to their su­per­mar­kets.

Be­lat­edly, Amer­ica is wak­ing up to the fact that the re­sources which have fu­elled the world’s great­est econ­omy are frag­ile and fi­nite and, like its sup- ply of credit, could dry up overnight. Could we be en­ter­ing a new world of food short­ages?

Thirty years ago, Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter, who presided at a time of fuel short­ages, warned that Amer­ica was go­ing to have to learn how to con­serve its re­sources. Amer­ica was not ready to lis­ten and he was trounced by Ron­ald Rea­gan whose phi­los­o­phy was sim­i­lar to that of Jack­son’s — that the land would al­ways pro­vide. The nine-year drought that has af­flicted the west­ern United States would sug­gest that Amer­i­can re­source­ful­ness will be tested as much as its re­sources in the com­ing decade. Sig­nif­i­cantly, said Schama, both candidates in the com­ing elec­tion were preach­ing cau­tion and con­ser­va­tion.

If we learned that wa­ter was short, the Amer­i­can land­scape, filmed beau­ti­fully, seemed end­less — and the gnarled sur­vivors of the Great De­pres­sion spoke with pain and wis­dom of their tri­als.

So will it all come back to haunt us? Eight years of Ge­orge W Bush’s ob­ses­sion with an un­winnable war on ter­ror and de­nial of the fact of global warm­ing, has taken Amer­ica’s eye off the ball. It re­mains to be seen whether Barack Obama (or the other guy) will have the strength to rein in the ram­pant con­sumerism of their coun­try.

Si­mon Schama asks if the US is ig­nor­ing the fact that its wa­ter is evap­o­rat­ing

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