History Through a Liquid Lens

This post is a review of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization by Steven Solomon (2010).

To start with, I have some general comments on the book itself, and then I'll delve into some of the issues it covers. It's a long book, so I've had to be a bit selective about what I cover, so if this review interests you, I encourage you to read it for yourself. Because the title is a little unwieldly, I'll be referring to the book simply as WTES in this post.

Overall, I thought it was really good, even as a general or economic history beyond the focus on water. Water touches on so many aspects of life, from drinking and agriculture, to sanitation, to transportation, and to industry and power generation that I doubt it was difficult for Steven Solomon to find material to write about. In fact, my main complaint about WTES would be that I found it to be longer than it needed to be, and repetitive in places. However, the repetition could be valuable if you just wanted to jump into a chapter of interest instead of reading straight through; it's written so that understanding one chapter does not really depend on having read earlier chapters. In spite of this flexibility, it does read as a cohesive volume, aided by strong chapter transitions.

As a Canadian, I noticed that this book doesn't have quite as much geographic coverage as Marq de Villier's Water: The Fate of our Most Precious Resource (2003). However, it is more recent/up-to-date. Both books are well-researched, so anyone interested in the topic of water resources would do well to read either—or both.

My favourite sections of this book were chapters 3 and 4 on water in ancient history and chapters 11 – 13 on the role of water in the rise of the United States. In some detailed sections below, I'll discuss what Steven Solomon had to say about these topics, as well as about the Hydraulic Hypothesis, the current strain on the Nile and Egypt, and some future prospects (Solomon is fairly optimistic, as am I).

The Hydraulic Hypothesis

The unifying concept that the author uses to analyze the role of water in shaping societies is known as the Hydraulic Hypothesis. One weakness of WTES is that the author doesn't consider alternative views or arguments against the hydraulic hypothesis, but his presentation of the theory is certainly fleshed-out nicely. In brief, the hydraulic hypothesis says that large-scale irrigation works that supported the land-based empires of the ancient world required a certain type of government—an absolute monarch/emperor supported by an elite caste of technocrats or priests—to implement, and that this exploitation of water resources also provided legitimacy to such governments. He writes that,

[These empires] were hierarchial, centralized, authoritarian states ruled by hereditary despots claiming godly kinship or mandate in alliance with an elite class of priests.


Once conscripted and organized for waterworks, the workforces were readily mobilized by the state to construct its other celebrated great monuments of hydraulic civilizations—pyramids, temples, palaces, elaborate walled cities, and other defensive fortifications like China's Great Wall.

In contrast, seafaring civilizations (such as Greece) had less of a centralizing tendency:

Seafaring culture itself further nurtured the evolution of a new model of society based on representative, liberal market democracy for vested citizens. In contrast to the centralized river irrigation and land-oriented hydraulic states in which the populace had few practical economic alternatives other than complying with the policy commands and heavy taxes of the central government, private sea merchants had the natural freedom to trade in harbors where taxes were lower for the services offered and their rights better safeguarded. Thus it was no coincidence that many of history's leading seafaring trading states were also its leading representative market democracies and shared lineage with the political economic traditions born in Athens.

In between the two extremes of irrigation-authoritarian-centralized and trade-democratic-market societies, the author places societies with rain-fed agriculture, such as feudal Europe, that had definite hierarchies but much less centralization of power to a single ruler.

However, for all of the types of societies discussed, Solomon says that effective use of the available water resources was both a sign and an enabling factor of a civilization on the rise:

Whether it was the irrigation canals of ancient Mesopotamia, the Grand Canal of imperial China, the waterwheels and steam engine of early industrial Europe, or the giant, multipurpose dams of the twentieth century, societies that rose to preeminence responded to the water challenge of their ages by exploiting their water resource potential in ways that invariably were more productive, larger in scale, and unleashed larger usable supplies than their slower-adapting rivals. In contrast, unmet water challenges, a failure to maintain waterworks structure, or simply being overtaken by more productive water management elsewhere was a common factor of many of history's declines and collapses.

History Shaped by Water

After covering the ancient empires along the Nile, Tigris & Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow Rivers, Solomon continues through history to the present day. WTES pays the most attention to the West and the Middle East, but China (especially the building of the Grand Canal) is also covered.

An aspect that I found interesting was the thread through history of seafaring/naval power and the advantages in conveys. The author traces a succession from Greece to Rome to Venice to the Iberian Peninsula to the Netherlands to England to the United States in the present day.

As an example of the advantages that a strong navy can provide for a small trading state (against a powerful land empire based on irrigated agriculture), Solomon refers to the battle of Salamis (incidently, this battle is also the topic of the movie 300: Rise of an Empire):

Salamis also was one of the earliest dramatic examples of the asymmetrical advantages of naval power in enabling small, less-populous states in the age of sail to offset the balance-of-power advantage of much-larger, predominantly land-based rivals. ... Athens's turn to naval power at Salamis under Themistocles spurred a democratizing influence as well. It elevated the voice—eventually institutionalized in voting rights—of the large number of poor oarsmen required to man the galleys and diminished the relative influence of the traditional army, which was drawn more heavily from the aristocracy.

Throughout history, seafaring for trade and defense continued to empower countries to have influence out of proportion to their size:

the new fulcrum of European and world power in the age of oceanic sail shifted to two small maritime trading nations, the Dutch Republic and England. These states gave wider berth to private enterprise, market economy, religious and political liberty, and representative government than other European nations. During their primacy in the next two centuries, they became progenitors of modern capitalism and liberal democracy.

Geography Shaped by Water

WTES gives more ink to the United States than any other country. And that's fair, because the US covers some pretty diverse hydrological zones, and its success came in part from unifying them (the same can be said—and the author does—about China with the Yellow and Yangtze basins). Going from East to West, the US has the Atlantic Coast, the enormous Mississippi River system (separated from the coast by the Appalatians), and then semi-arid to arid regions in the West. So the US actually includes all three of the types of environmental conditions that shaped quite different societies in the previous chapters: irrigated agriculture, rain-fed agriculture, and coastal seafaring.

One of the big water stories in US history was the construction of the Erie Canal. This linked the Atlantic coast with the Mississippi River system (the East and West coasts would eventually be connected by water via a later canal, in Panama) by connecting the Hudson River to Lake Erie, from whence traffic could proceed to Chicago along the Great Lakes. Even if you're skeptical about how water shaped history, it certainly shaped American geography:

The transportation revolution ignited by the Erie Canal also shaped the urban hierarchy of the nation. As the main commercial gateway between the world and the the fertile, huge U.S. interior, New York became America's leading city.

Like Amsterdam earlier, New York City and Chicago became important transportation hubs and also important financial centres with their famous stock and commodity exchanges, respectively.

At this point in the book, the focus switches from water used for transportation, back to its use for irrigation and agriculture. With the ongoing drought in California, this part of the book is very relevant in my opinion.

I learned some concerning numbers about the Colorado River from WTES:

While competition for Colorado water intensified, the river's managers also made the awful discovery that the 1922 Colorado River Compact's baseline estimate of 17.5 million acre-feet per year had been much, much too optimistic. The eighteen-year streamflow data on which it had been measured covered an unusually wet period; by 1965 the Bureau of Reclamation knew that longer-term data suggested an average flow of only about 14 million acre-feet. Subtracting Mexico's 1.5 million and another 1.5 million for evaporation from the giant man-made storage lakes left only 11 million to be divided among states whose irrigation, hydroelectricity, and urban drinking water projects, when built to full capacity, depended upon receiving all the anticipated 15 million acre-feet. The government brokered compact simply promised more water than it could deliver.

The over-allocation of Colorado River flow illustrates the limits and shortfalls of political allocation of scarce water resources.

Interestingly, Solomon draws parallels between the US following the building of the Hoover Dam (and the many other dams its success inspired) and the ancient empires which were also based on irrigation:

One lasting impact of the giant, state-built dams everywhere was to help usher in an era of enlarged political and economic centralization with many similar characteristics, albeit in modified forms, to the irrigation-based river states of antiquity—strong government involvement in the economy, policies implemented by a cadre of technocratic engineering overseers and a large workforce of low wage laborers.

While the resources of the government could be used for hydraulic mega-projects that no one else had the capacity for, these mega-projects also have the potential for unintended consequences on an unprecedented scale. In addition to depletion of water resources, another unintended consequence of excessive irrigation is a build-up of salts in the soil:

Artificial irrigation also came with a terrible side effect that afflicted civilizations throughout history—salinization of the soil.

Contemporary Crises Shaped by Water

One country that is in a very difficult situation related to its water resources is Egypt. The Aswan High Dam was built to control flooding on the Nile and generate electricity. Along with all its benefits, though, it has increased the loss of Nile water to evaporation, and has trapped silt that formerly replenished the soil during the annual floods. At the same time, Egypt's population has grown immensely. Thus, while it was historically the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, it now needs to import grain. This illustrates an important point to keep in mind: when you hear about water shortages, they rarely show up as people dying of thirst (because drinking is the most valuable use for water) but rather as constraints on agriculture or industry.

Note that importing goods that take a lot of water to produce (such as grain) is considered a way (known as virtual water) to make up for a shortage in domestic water resources.

Egypt is one of the places where water scarcity has a risk of erupting into conflict, because

nearly every drop of [the Nile] originates outside Egypt's borders, while the well-being of Egyptian society depends upon consuming a vastly disproportionate share of the Nile basin's water.

And as the author says:

It seems unrealistic that Egypt can long maintain its historical hegemony over the waters of the Nile at the expense of widespread poverty, malnutrition, humanitarian crises, and oppressive, dysfunctional government among a fast-growing population of several hundred million Africans upriver.

Upriver, countries like Ethiopia are looking to develop their economies, which implies a likely increase in their water usage. Additionally, rich arid countries from the Arabian Peninsula have been buying land in the upriver portion of the Nile basin to farm for their food needs.

WTES was published before the turmoil of the Arab Spring hit Egypt, so it was interesting to see how some of the trends the author discussed have played out in the past few years. In the graph below, it can be seen that the price of wheat futures doubled in the year prior to the uprising in Tahrir Square. For a water-stressed (and therefore food-stressed) country such as Egypt, it is easy to conceive how this kind of added pressure on household budgets could be a contributing factor to widespread discontent.

Wheat prices and unrest in Egypt

(This graph comes from Wolfram|Alpha and may be subject to their copyright).

Future Opportunities Shaped by Water

In the face of water challenges, Solomon sees opportunities. After all, historically, being on the leading edge of overcoming a water challenge brought great advantages (e.g. advances in long-distance oceanic sailing and navigation made in Portugal during the start of the Age of Exploration).

One especially encouraging trend discussed in WTES is the vast improvement in how industry uses water. Since I work for a company that specializes in industrial wastewater treatment (but, the views expressed in this post are entirely my own) I have a front row seat for these developments.

The headline scarcity crises among the world's demographically stressed, water poor overshadows one tantalizing, emerging trend in the relatively water-wealthy, industrial democracies—an unprecedented, sharp productivity gain in the use of existing freshwater supplies.

In the US, Solomon mentions a 25% reduction in total water withdrawals by American industry between 1985 and 2000. I looked into some open data available for Canada which shows a marked decline in water withdrawals for manufacturing from 2005 – 2009.

However, it is so far a different story for agriculture, which is often shielded from the price signals that prompt conservation in industry:

By far, man's most egregious waste of water came from the distortions caused by the chronic underpricing of water for irrigation.

Steven Solomon suggests using market-based measures to promote sustainable use of water resources. He describes a program for trading water rights in Australia, among other things, but for this post I'll describe an initiative in the US that I've come across (which I don't believe was in place when WTES was published). In Pennsylvania and other states that drain into the highly-impacted Chesapeake Bay, the option to "trade" (in the form of credits) reductions in nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) run-off or discharges has been introduced. For example, a wastewater treatment plant could proactively undertake upgrades that generate credits (by reducing nitrogen or phosphorus levels entering the river) that they can then sell to offset some of the costs of the upgrades. Facilities that exceed their permit limits or increase their discharges may be required to purchase credits; in effect, they end up sponsoring reductions elsewhere. Here are some links about nutrient credit trading in the Chesapeake basin.

I'll conclude this post with Steven Solomon's optimistic outlook:

The winning responses to the world's water crisis are most likely to emerge fitfully out of a messy, muddling-through process of competitive winnowing and trial and error experimentation with diverse technologies, scales and modes of organization, as each locality and nation seeks to find solutions tailored to meet its particular conditions. ... Historically, Western democracies' market economies have excelled at innovating and creating growth in just this sort of environment—indeed it is one of their main claims to fame.

As you may be able to tell from the length of this post, water is a subject that I'm passionate about. I have some related posts planned for the future, so stay tuned:

  • A couple of posts on water topics in New Brunswick
  • The Aral Sea is one place where water has been epically mismanaged; I wrote an essay on it in university that I might dust off and share parts of
  • A review of an academic article on the Hydraulic Hypothesis
  • And many other reviews, reflections, etc., I expect