Cover image for Pillar of sand : can the irrigation miracle last?
Pillar of sand : can the irrigation miracle last?
Postel, Sandra.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, [1999]

Physical Description:
xv, 313 pages : illustrations, maps ; 21 cm
General Note:
A worldwatch book.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
S618 .P67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



For 6,000 years, irrigation has ranked among the most powerful tools of human advancement. The story of settled agriculture, the growth of cities, and the rise of early empires is, to no small degree, a story of controlling water to make the land more prosperous and habitable. Pillar of Sand examines the history, challenges, and pitfalls of irrigated agriculture -- from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to twentieth-century India and the United States. By unmasking the risks faced by irrigation-based societies -- including water scarcity, soil salinization, and conflicts over rivers -- water specialist Sandra Postel connects the lessons of the past with the challenge of making irrigation thrive into the twenty-first century and beyond. Protecting rivers and vital ecosystems as the world aims to feed 8 billion people will require a doubling of water productivity -- getting twice as much benefit from each gallon removed from rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Pillar of Sand points the way toward managing the growing competition for scarce water. And it lays out a strategy for correcting a startling flaw of the modern irrigation age -- its failure to better the lives of the majority of the world's poorest farmers.

Author Notes

Sandra Postel lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she directs the Global Water Policy Project. She is a Pew Fellow in Conservation and the Environment and a senior fellow with Worldwatch Institute, where for six years she was vice president for research. Her previous book, Last Oasis, was the basis for a 1997 public television documentary.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Postel (director, Global Water Policy Project) offers an important book based on the question "Can contemporary irrigation-based societies hope to succeed when most major irrigation-based societies in history have ultimately succumbed?" The book is well documented and contains extensive sections on ancient irrigation-based societies, on contemporary irrigation-based societies that are rapidly approaching their physical limits, on the complex politics of water distribution, and on hopeful developments in irrigation and food production. The section on tapping fossil groundwater resources is especially sobering. The two chapters discussing the future of irrigation are very different from each other. "The Productivity Frontier" is a paean for more and improved irrigation techniques and crop varieties, with surprisingly little discussion of the social and environmental problems inherent in these extensions of the Green Revolution, while "Thinking Big about Small-Scale Irrigation" is a refreshing look at ways in which the scale of irrigation and agriculture can be decreased to create agricultural communities less dependant on governments and the politics of large irrigation projects. The wealth of documentation, the excellent nontechnical writing, and the judicious selection of examples commend this book to every library. All levels. J. R. Walker; Vassar College

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
1. New Light on an Old Debatep. 3
2. History Speaksp. 13
3. Irrigation's Modern Erap. 40
4. Running Outp. 65
5. A Faustian Bargainp. 91
6. Water Wars I: Farms Versus Cities and Naturep. 110
7. Water Wars II: Irrigation and the Politics of Scarcityp. 133
8. The Productivity Frontierp. 164
9. Thinking Big About Small-Scale Irrigationp. 201
10. The Players and the Rulesp. 228
11. Listening to Ozymandiasp. 254
Notesp. 265
Indexp. 303
About the Authorp. 313