Earlier this year I posted my'non-review' of Steven Solomon's book, Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization. It took me a while to get around to it but I finished it about a week ago and have been letting it 'settle' before penning this review.
Here is Solomon's rebuttal toThe Economist's review.
I have to admit that I was afraid that I would not be in the right frame of mind to read it and provide an objective review. As I alluded to in my earlier post I was nearing 'water wars burn-out' and thought that might color my review.
But I'm over that now and even reviewing some chapters for a friend's water book. Bring 'em on!
My brief assessment: read it! I enjoyed it and recommend it highly. It's well-written and well-documented: almost 100 pages (out of about 600) of notes, citations, and index. The book was reminiscent of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.
Now, the details.
Solomon's book has done what no recent water book has done, and that's provide a 'history of water', or more correctly, the role of water in world history. Some reviewers and commenters have said he spends too much time on the past and not enough time on the present and future, including more solutions. Well, duh....it's first and foremost a history book.
Sure, we've heard about the ancient Egyptians and the Nile, the Chinese and their amazing Grand Canal, the Romans and their aqueducts (some of which still function today), the Indus River civilization, the Europeans (especially the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English) , and the USA's own 'hydraulic civilization' in its West, etc. Solomon writes about all these things and more, viewing them through a watery lens (as The Economist's reviewer said). Fully 75% of the book is devoted to world history and water's important role in shaping it.
Solomon has been criticized for attributing too much historical significance to water. My take: that is what Solomon wanted to do. I suspect such criticism would be true of any author writing a history book that focuses on one item's role. Perhaps Solomon is guilty of assigning water too big a role in the fall of the Roman empire. Or maybe I missed something in Mr. Swartz's World History class. But then again, Mr. Swartz was hired to coach the varsity basketball team.
A few things I really enjoyed. The invention of the water wheel to do work (grinding grain). China's extraordinary Grand Canal, far bigger than I remembered, one China is trying to recreate today with its south-to-north water transfer. James Watt's improved steam engine (he greatly improved Thomas Newcomen's design) and its significance. The sanitary breakthrough. He gives the Erie Canal and DeWitt Clinton their due, something we seem to forget about in the USA. The canal linked the Atlantic with the Great Lakes and the Midwest and helped propel New York City past Philadelphia as the USA's major city. I grew up in New York, so you can bet we learned about the Erie Canal.
A few other things struck me. Despite his treatment of England's canal-building binge there was no mention of William Smith's role in it. Smith is credited with the first geologic map (see Simon Winchester's The Map That Changed the World) and he used his knowledge of geology to locate canals. When discussing the California gold rush Solomon missed a chance to introduce prior appropriation, now the basis for Western USA water law (he does introduce this concept later).
The last quarter of the book is devoted to the current situation ('The Age of Scarcity') and the water issues facing the world. This part starts off with the chapter 'Water: The New Oil." Ugh. Solomon then explains why water isn't the new oil, which is good. For one thing, as he points out, water is irreplaceable (at least as far as its life-sustaining properties are concerned), whereas oil is. The Seattle Times reviewer got it right: oil was the new water for the past 100 years or so; now, water's back, and it's reclaimed its rightful place. Also, unlike oil, the world's supply of water has been more or less constant lo these millions and millions of years, whereas oil started running out once someone figured out they could burn it. We are not running out of water, we are wasting, fouling, and mismanaging it.
The last part focuses heavily on the Middle East (including the Nile Basin) and Asia. Excessive groundwater pumping. Melting glaciers. Upstream water projects threatening downstream users. Egypt's dependence on the Nile. China's unrepentant 'hard-path' approach. It's here that the potential for conflict arises:
Consider what will happen in water-distressed, nuclear-armed, terrorist-besieged, overpopulated, heavily irrigation dependent and already politically unstable Pakistan when its single water lifeline, the Indus river, loses a third of its flow from the disappearance from its glacial water source.
He expects we'll be seeing water wars before this century concludes.
The very last chapter focuses on the new politics of water in the industrial democracies. Solomon believes we can meet the challenges facing us. He is a believer in 'soft-path' approaches and decries the USA's adherence to 'politically entrenched and outmoded practices.' He lauds the approach in Australia's Murray-Darling Basin.
And he does get the food-energy-water-climate nexus (ooops!).
We also need new approaches to foreign policy, ones that recognize the role of water in national agendas.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of the water Haves and Have-Nots and the gap needs to be closed.
I have the distinct impression that Solomon is optimistic that the USA will get its water act together. My opinion on that changes daily.
Solomon could have ended it there, but his Epilogue summarizes and ties it together. He notes that all of history's water breakthoughs have fallen into four traditional categories of use: domestic needs, economic production, power generation, and transportation or strategic advantage. But now, there is a fifth category:
...how to innovate new governing organizations and technical applications that make available sufficient supplies of freshwater for man's essential purposes in an environmentally sustainable manner and relieves the scarcity of an increasingly thirsty planet.
That is the grand challenge of the 21st century.
Excellent book. The historical aspect alone makes it worth reading and keeping. Yes, I did purchase my copy.
And Solomon does look like he and Larry David were separated at birth.
"Always drink upstream from the herd." -- Unknown