Steven Solomon:

"Water" (2010)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Generally speaking, this book is an impressive achievement: a history of the world told from the viewpoint of water. Steven Solomon packs an incredible amount of information in 500 pages. Some pages contain enough trivia to spawn many other books. In fact, Solomon mentions facts that are often missing from prestigious history books specializing in those very facts, and in the context of Solomon's books they are just footnotes.

Water has always meant a lot to the human race: food (agriculture, fishing, livestock), transportation (rivers and seas), energy (waterwheels, dams), and of course the fundamental element that keeps us alive. The first great civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India) formed around great rivers (Tigris/Euphrates, Nile, Yellow River, Indus). Abundance of water has been a rarity for thousands of years but then became the norm in much of the planet. Because of our consuming habits and of population growth we may be approaching the day when this statement will not be true anymore. India and China look particularly vulnerable given the pace and the way that their economies are growing.

Solomon basically rewrote the history of human civilization, from Mesopotamia to modern times, from the viewpoint of water resources. The "river valley" civilizations and the civilizations of the Mediterranean obviously depended on water. Within each of them Solomon believes that "All power was imposed top-down through control of water". Solomon subscribes to Karl Wittfogel's theory that centralized authoritarian regimes are the inevitable consequence of large-scale irrigation agriculture: the problem of exploiting a river's power, i.e. of building precise and timely waterworks, can only be solved by mass labor, by the mobilization and coordination of thousands of people, which is only possible in societies organized around centralized planning and capable of imposing absolute discipline. The biggest river the greater the promise of wealth the stronger the "hydraulic state" has to be. The masses mobilized for waterworks can then be mobilized for other collective efforts, such as pyramids, temples and fortifications. A navigable river then provided the infrastructure for interacting with other communities, i.e. for both trade and warfare.

The Nile was the easiest of the rivers to tame: the flood season is highly predictable and even synchronized with the seasons for planting; the river is navigable in both directionss (float downriver and sail upriver); and the surrounding desert provides a natural protection from enemies. Solomon argues that the biggest crisis in the history of Egypt correspond with extended periods of low flood, such as the collapse of the Old Kingdom and the Hyksos invasion (a major event that caused Egypt to look beyond its borders both militarily and commercially). And Solomon argues that good and bad floods determined the fortunes of later rulers such as the Byzantines and the Fatimids.

Mesopotamia was a different kind of beast: the Tigris and Euphrates create a highly unpredictable rhythm of flooding and therefore required extensive waterworks. Nor did the region enjoy the natural protection of the desert: it was, on the contrary, a natural crossroads of peoples, prone to commerce and warfare. The rivers were easy to navigate only in one direction, downstream. Instead of the monolithic Egyptian kingdom, Mesopotamia split into a number of city states. Again, Solomon views the rise and fall of civilizations in this region as due to climatic changes (and to changes in the course of the rivers).

For each of the succeeding powers, whether the Assyrians or the Persians, Solomon emphasizes the hydraulic projects. Unfortunately, Solomon largely ignores the greatest land-based empire of the time, Persia. Apparently, its rapid rise and stunning civilization had nothing to do with water.

Solomon explains the mysterious collapse of the Indus Valley civilization with its "fragile hydrological environment" and to "destructive floods". Of course one has to wonder why it flourished there in the first place if the environment was so hostile. Solomon posits that something similar to the other river valley civilizations took place around 800 BC along the Ganges, which led to the rebirth of India's civilization. unpredictable rhythm and volume of monsoon rains Maurya and Gupta large-scale centralized waterworks He explains the fact that nobody (before the British brought the railway and the steamship) ruled over the whole of India with the fact that no system of waterways unites the subcontinent. And he explains the partitions of the subcontinent into Pakistan, India and Bangladesh after independence as a consequence of the three having separate hydrological regions (not completely true, as anybody who has visited the Sunderbans knows).

As for the Mediterranean Sea, there's an interesting story to be told that Solomon sketches here and there. Historical accidents layered the market economy (Phoenicians, Athens), democracy (Athens, Italian colonies) and the rule of law (Rome) on top of each other that Alexander's empire, the Roman Empire, the Italian seafaring republics (Venezia in particular), and, finally, after the pioneering colonization of the Iberian powers (Spain, Portugal), the multicontinental Western empires, namely Britain, France, Holland and the USA exported to the rest of the world.

Solomon barely touches on the relationship between democracy and seafaring culture and the relationship between free market and seafaring culture. But he does emphasize the contrast between centralized river civilizations and decentralized seafaring civilizations.

Solomon suggests that Macedonia came to rule the Greek cities because it managed to control access to the Black Sea, the breadbasket of Greece, although he is not convincing in his analysis of Alexander (who conquered a giant empire with virtually no navy).

Coming to Rome, Solomon notes that Rome's rise coincided with a boom in aqueduct building and its decline coincided with the end of aqueduct building.

The story gets a little confusing with China. First of all, Solomon neglects several of the ancient Chinese cultures, like the Lungshan. But even the story of the Yellow River civilization and how it merged with the Yangtze River civilization is not clear (at least from his viewpoint, from the viewpoint of water). He emphasizes the importance of connecting the two regions, and that the Grand Canal of 610 AD providing a fast, efficient and safe link between the two, triggered a major economic boom. He claims that the fortunes of this canal coincide with the fortunes of China, but little evidence is offered. He doesn't mention the third great river of China, the Xi (Western), which is most navigable of the three and links the delta cities (today's Guangzhou and Hong Kong) to the interior. Solomon mentions the Ling Chu/ Lingqu, the canal that connects that waterway with the Yangtze, but claims that the canal connects the waterways of the Yellow River to the waterways of the Yangtze, which i don't think is correct.

Anyway, his water-based theory does not explain why China was eventually overrun by "barbarians" coming from barren steppes with no knowledge of water technology. One of these tribes, the Mongols, went on to create the largest empire on Earth, with virtually no knowledge of navigation or irrigation. Solomon argues that China turned inland, never invaded the world that it could have, and never had an industrial revolution because of the existence of the Grand Canal, that made seafaring irrelevant. The navy became a luxury, not a necessity. In his opinion Europe split into many small states because it had no unifying waterway comparable to the Grand Canal that would allow a central power to dominate the whole continent.

Turning to Islam, Solomon notes how Islam ruled over lands with a chronic scarcity of freshwater. (Sidenote: it is a bit annoying to always read that Mohammed was a "prophet" in books published in the USA: Mohammed was at best a warrior and at worst a bandit, and is considered a prophet by a minority of superstitious people). Solomon reads the rise and fall of Islamic civilization strictly as a story of water management: Islam defeated Byzantium and Persia because of (respectively) a century of low Nile floods and the decaying of the irrigation system in Mesopotamia; Islam then declined itself when the new Muslim rulers (the Turks from Central Asia and the Fatimid in Egypt) proved incapable of maintaining the same irrigation systems in Mesopotamia and Egypt (even causing famine in the latter).

As for Europe, Solomon points out that its geography of small navigable rivers contributed to an economy of scattered markets. In northern Europe there was no need for a centralized bureaucratic state to control large water projects like in China, and therefore geography helped northern Europe evolve democracy.

If this part sounds interesting enough, what comes next is breathtaking. The pace of the book accelerates further when it starts dealing with what must be Solomon's specialty: the industrial revolution in Britain and then in the USA. Here the amount of facts, data, stories, trivia, etc is truly shocking. Doublechecking all the sentences is almost impossible. There are a few dubious passages (Solomon credits Eli Whitney with inventing a machine tool to produce interchangeable parts, which is controversial at best), but in general these are well-known facts simply given a different twist to show how important the control and exploitation of water was to turn first Britain and then the USA into world superpowers.

Basically, this is three books in one: a history of human civilization from the point of view of water resources; an analysis of the industrial revolution as driven by water; and finally the chapters that deal with today's water problems. This last section is the one that most resembles the work of a journalist. By comparison, it proceeds at a much more relaxed pace.

Solomon points out that the 20th century was a century of "unprecedented freshwater abundance" (i guess he's referring to the Western world, because of course millions of people died of starvation in China, India, Africa and Latin America during that century). He then warns that "freshwater usage has grown two times faster than population". Going region by region, Solomon shows that the regions with the bigger water problems tend to be the ones that also have the bigger political problems: the Arab world. Most of North Africa and the Middle East does not have enough rivers and lakes. Those countries that do depend on others (85% of Egypt's water comes down the Nile from Ethiopia, Iraq's rivers Euphrates and Tigris are born in Turkey) and rapid population growth is increasing (not decreasing) the amount of water they need. This is obviously a recipe for domestic and international disaster. The Arabian peninsula is rich in oil but poor in water. Surprisingly, the only Arab country that has invested early in using oil to create new sources of freshwater is Libya, whose mad dictator Qaddafi actually invested in a bold project to tap into underground water, the "Great Manmade River". The Indus river is to much of Pakistan what the Nile is to Egypt, and Pakistan has the same problem of skyrocketing population and dependence on another country (China controls Tibet where the Indus is born). The water-richest continent is America, both south and north. South America has 28% of the world's renewable water and only 6% of the world's population, North America has respectively 18% and 8%. Another place that has surplus water is Russia. On the other hand, a water catastrophe is looming on the emerging powers of China (20% of the world's population, 7% of its freshwater) and India (17% and 4% respectively). Poor sanitation and industrial pollution compound the problems of the developing world: 650 million Indians cannot drink their tap water and 700 millions lack toilets. China's obsession with controlling Tibet becomes more obvious is one focuses on the fact that Tibet, besides gold, has the sources of all the major Chinese and Indian rivers. The West suddenly looks well positioned to weather the coming water crisis. The rest of the world needs to find solutions to the coming scarcity of the most important of all natural resources.

There are two drawbacks to this otherwise excellent book. First and foremost, i found it truly annoying to read about "pounds" and "miles" and the likes. In 2013 you don't know how to use the metric system? What the heck is a pound? and how does it relate to a ton? This recurs throughout the book and makes it almost impossible to compare data with scholarly books of this planet (that use the metric system). In the third section this becomes incredibly annoying. Sentences like "To produce a single pound of wheat requires half a ton of water" become ubiquitous. Doing the math to convert from the metric system used by scientists into this odd system of measurement would require an entire team working for months. I have to be skeptic about all of these sentences.

Second, i find it a bit disrespectful (again, this is 2013) to change foreign names: not only Christopher Columbus (whose real name was Cristoforo Colombo) but even Bartholomew Diaz (Bartolomeu Dias)? I couldn't help laughing. So an Italian should turn William Shakespeare into Guglielmo Scespiro? Funny. But not scholarly.

Finally, precisely because of the dizzying amount of information, it would help to split sentences in two or three paragraphs. Sometimes i had to read over again two or three times before absorbing the full meaning of a sentence, and many of those longer sentences contain some of the most intriguing thoughts.

The pound-miles problem may alienate 95% of the world's population (and make the other 5% doubt about the scholarly level of the research). The difficult-text problem may alienate the casual readers who, instead, should find an incredible amount of interesting data here.

If a future edition removes all the gallons, miles, feet, etc from this book, it will rank among the classics of historian research in the early 21st century.