Tracing Humanity’s Longtime Urge To Manage Moving Water

March 15, 2023

BookShelf: Tracing Humanity’s Longtime Urge To Manage Moving Water

“Water: A Biography”
By Giulio Boccaletti
Pantheon, $30.00

Reviewed by Gary Wilson

Ten thousand years ago — when nomads became sedentary, settled in a place and began farming — humanity’s relationship to water changed. In his new book, “Water: A Biography,” London-based scientist Giulio Boccaletti explains how, over millennia, formerly nomadic settlers and their successors needed to develop mechanisms — institutions — to manage their increasing dependence on moving water.

Water: A Biography book cover

From that starting point, Boccaletti, an honorary research associate at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, takes readers on a journey to modern times that chronicles the societal “collective management” of water.

Emerging societies “forged a social contract” with water and it became “the ultimate res publica — a public good, a moving, formless substance that defies private ownership, is hard to contain and requires collective management,” Boccaletti writes.

Among the stops on that trip is ancient Greece, which provided the cornerstone for democracy. Boccaletti says it also connected water distribution to political power.

Similarly, the book connects the Roman republic to water. Roman law is the “foundation of all legal systems in the world,” he writes.

“Those and other experiences were metabolized over the centuries into the institutions we know today,” Boccaletti points out.

Fast-forward to modernity and there are lengthy accounts of water and economic development in China, Europe, the American West and other locations.


Putting great rivers to work

Central to the story are people and political leaders.

In modern times, they include China’s Sun Yat-sen, who in the 1920s had a vision for the Yangtze River that decades later would become the Three Gorges Dam.

Russia’s Joseph Stalin, whom Boccaletti refers to as the “archetypical authoritarian dictator,” promoted heavy industrialization and agriculture collectivism, and adds that “development of water resources was central to both.”

In the United States, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who would, Boccaletti says, put the country’s great rivers to work to help spark an economic recovery.


‘The heart of the story of water on the planet

is a political answer to material conditions.’

                — “Water” author Giulio Boccaletti


For those political leaders, managing water was essentially a political venture versus one of engineering. That’s a thread that runs throughout the book. As Boccaletti explains, “the heart of the story of water on the planet is a political answer to material conditions.”

According to Boccaletti, that premise is perhaps best illustrated by an America on the cusp of becoming a superpower. It was that America that constructed the iconic Hoover Dam and used water to support economic development, providing a model that has been followed by much of the rest of the world — “for better or worse,” he adds.


Awash with historical detail

To be clear, “Water” is as much about history as it is about the element.

It contains multiple deep dives and elaborate detail about water and its development from millennia ago. For example, Boccaletti compares crop yields between the 25th and 18th centuries BCE in Mesopotamia. In the same context, he describes salinization and its impact on farming. Both are discussed in excruciating detail.

But as I turned the pages, I adapted to Boccaletti’s fixation on obscure historical minutiae and, while it was initially a bit much for me, it gradually started to make sense.

For those who want more detail, there are a combined 58 pages of notes and bibliography to peruse.

Given Boccaletti’s thoroughness, I was surprised that he never touched on the Great Lakes. As I approached the book, I selfishly was excited to see what he had to say about the region where I live. After all, the Great Lakes are home to 20 percent of Earth’s fresh surface water. But a quick check of the index showed nary a mention of them. [Editor’s Note: Reviewer Wilson later talked to Boccaletti about the Great Lakes in an interview for Great Lakes Now.]


Shattered illusions

This is a book in which the negatives described are vastly overwhelmed by positives, such as Boccaletti’s analysis and explanation of how the Tennessee Valley Authority became a model for economic development in the world. Or, how Italy’s hydropower investments resulted in what was described in the aftermath of World War II as an “Italian economic miracle” with success that “seemed to travel on its rivers.”

Tragically, Italy’s water-driven miracle faded in 1963, when a landslide caused the release of millions of cubic yards of water from a dam reservoir and 1,910 lives were lost.

The fallout from the tragedy was broader than Italy. “It was an international one contributing to seal the fate of the aggressive development of large dams driven by the West,” Boccaletti writes. “Peak water” and the infrastructure it required were over.

Boccaletti also writes about “one of the great illusions of modernity.” It is the belief that our “relentless” quest for an engineered water landscape in pursuit of economic development would provide “emancipation of society from the impacts of a variable climate.”


Boccaletti provides a heads-up for all of us to

check our egos at the door when it comes to our

relationship to water. Humans aren’t in charge.


With that, Boccaletti provides a heads-up for all of us to check our egos at the door when it comes to our relationship to water. Humans aren’t in charge.

Boccaletti’s “Water: A Biography” is a quasi-scholarly book written by a scholar for the public, writ large. Its depth of research and attention to detail will require the reader’s attention. It provides a much-needed platform for understanding water’s past and sets the table for comprehension of its uncertain future.

If you start it, stick with it and you will be rewarded.

Gary Wilson is a Chicago-based independent journalist who reports for Great Lakes Now, an initiative of Detroit Public Television.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 11. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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