x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Don't mistake this for watered-down self promotion

There are many good reasons for writing a column: It helps pay the electricity bills and makes one irresistible to members of the opposite sex.

There are many good reasons for writing a column. It is a chance to air one's views and have a healthy dialogue with intelligent readers. It helps pay the electricity bills. And it makes you irresistible to members of the opposite sex. The best thing of all, though, is that it gives you a platform to plug your latest book. Some columnists do this in a sly way, slipping the sales pitch in somewhere near the end.

I think this is too risky. These days, with readers weaned on weblogs and Twitter, the danger is that they will lose heart after 40 words and turn to the sports pages. So let me say now before you wander off elsewhere: today the paperback edition of Take Me to the Source: In Search of Water is published in England. A thrilling read it is too, though I say so myself. Plugging a book is almost more important and time consuming than writing it in the first place. As the Nigerian author the "Master of Life", aka Sunday Okenwa Olisah, said of his own work some years ago: "Buy this for your friend; buy it for your brothers; buy it for your sisters; buy it for your relatives; buy it for your father; buy it for your mother; buy it for your master; buy it for your servant; buy it for your son/sons; buy it for your daughter/daughters; buy it for everybody." Very good it is too, although I am not here to plug his work.

As the title of my book suggests, it is about water. Who cares, you might ask, and what has the subject to do with either business or finance, which is where this column lives? Water may appear a dry subject, but most people's days begin with a shower and end with a glass of water by their bedside. It waters their gardens, cleans their cars and performs a thousand other thankless tasks. We only notice water when there is too much, it is polluted or absent. Maybe I need a good slogan: buy this book and save a pond, perhaps.

Few things are as crucial to life as water, maybe none, although a nice cup of tea comes close. According to the UN's own figures, more than one billion people do not have access to clean water. Meanwhile, the price of a litre of water in a Third World slum is often more than it is in Mayfair or Chelsea - and definitely more than Abu Dhabi, where many residents get it free. Inhabitants of countries with a lot of water do not like to pay too much for it - and think that neither should people in other countries, because they say it is a human right.

There are no blinding revelations in the book except perhaps this: unless people pay a realistic price for water, they will not value it. They will waste it. I don't believe the world is running out of water. Anyone who has flown over the oceans will notice that there are considerable quantities of it about. But the challenge is to get the water where it is needed, and make sure it is not carrying diseases.

Every day, dirty water kills 6,000 people - the equivalent of six jumbo jets - mainly children. The Indians, for example, might want to focus on bringing piped water to their cities - none of which has 24-hour running water - rather than putting a man on the moon. Living in a land where there is scant rainfall makes you doubly aware of the importance of water, not that you would notice that from the behaviour of many of the inhabitants of the UAE. We are so rich that we can waste the most important resource we have, washing our cars every day and watering the lawns in the midday sun, something that would send a hydrologist mad to see.

Earlier generations were wiser. The origins of Sharia law come from the concept of shared water. One meaning of the Arabic word Sharia is the clear, well-trodden path to water. The Quran is quite clear on the importance of water. Nobody was allowed to have a monopoly on water, while the Arabic spirit of hospitality extended to sharing the little water that was available. Nowadays, with the introduction of desalination plants, countries in the Gulf are using more and more of it. Just as speeding should be banned from the city streets, so should wasting water. Cities have died for lack of water. The spring at the Byzantine city of Mistras, in the Peloponnese, was unable to cope with demand, so the citizens moved elsewhere in the 19th century.

The Indian capital of Fatehpur Sikri, built by Akbar the Great in the 16th century, was abandoned soon after construction not because his followers were disillusioned or diseased, but simply because there was not enough water. The problem with writing a book is that people expect you to write another. As Colette, the French novelist, said: "Writing just leads to more writing". Of course I have no intention of writing another book. It's a long, tedious, laborious process and even when you think you have finished, some fool editor goes through it and you have to rewrite large chunks of it.

However, one must not admit this. If anybody asks, I tell them I am hard at work on another called Shishanomics. It's a grand sounding name and it floors most people. It floors me too: I am sure there must be something to say about the economics of smoking shisha, but I'm damned if I can think what it is. Maybe I can make a Shishanomics user-generated content website. Contributors can write the book for me, while I sit back with a pipe of grape or double apple, and wonder if there's water on the moon.