Water — The Review

Water — The Review

Steve Solomon’s 500 page book is subtitled “The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization,” and it’s quite an impressive achievement.

[I sent a draft of this review to Steve, and he gave me quite a bit of informal feedback. I will be adding a summary of his responses in brackets below.]

Solomon tours the world, describing the role of water in civilizations past and present, and how their water management fits into his thesis, i.e., “societies that find the most innovative responses to the [modern water scarcity] crisis are most likely to come out as winners, while the others will fall behind” [p. 5].

This book is very helpful in helping us understand the similar and disparate ways that water has been used and managed across many cultures. I learned quite a bit about canals in England, the eastern US and China, for example.

The book is divided into four parts: Ancient History (from Ur to the Greeks to the Chinese to the Islamic conquest), the Ascendancy of the West (from early water wheels to voyages of discovery to the rise of steam power), the Modern Industrial Society (sanitation, canals and big infrastructure), and the Age of Scarcity (the new oil to the Middle East to Asian shortages to water politics in the West).

Here are a few notes that I took, more or less in order:

  • Hammurabi’s 53rd law said that the owner of badly-maintained dam (or levee) will pay the costs from flood damage, should the dam break.
  • Solomon highlights a 2,500 year old water tunnel on Samos and 2,200 year old aqueduct/siphon to Pergamum (now near Bergama in Turkey) as marvels of engineering. I have visited these 🙂
  • The Chinese character for politics is derived from characters that mean flood control.
  • “Taoist engineers designed waterworks to allow water to flow away as easily as possible, exploiting the dynamics of the natural ecosystem… Confucians… believed that rivers had to be forced, through dikes, dams and other obstructive constructions, to do man’s bidding as defined by rulers and technocrats” [p. 101]. The Confucians ended up dominating both engineering and politics, as we see with Three Gorges and the Communist Party, respectively.
  • “Shari’aa” means “the way” or “the path to the watering place.”
  • “societies that passively live too long off old water engineering accomplishments are routinely overtaken by states and civilizations that find innovative ways to exploit water’s ever-evolving balance of changes and opportunities [p. 151]. Solomon uses the example of the Portuguese cutting Muslim middlemen out of trade with India.
  • Northern Europe’s population doubled between 700 and 1200 (to 70 million) because improved plow technology increased food yields (more food leads to more people). Civilization, technology and trade also expanded rapidly. [Steve was pleased that I noticed a point that many readers and scholars have missed, on how institutions for good governance arise and evolve.]
  • Political and economic development in Northern Europe was decentralized because small rivers flowed in many places, leading to stronger rights for individuals and property than those found in centralized hydraulic empires.
  • In the twentieth century water use increased by 9x and energy use increased by 13x. Our good life may be costly in terms of sustainability. Mining water, like mining energy, cannot continue indefinitely.
  • Politicians dithered and delayed spending money to rebuild London’s water and sewer system, until The Great Stink of 1858 caused them to face facts (the horrible smells into Parliament from the Thames).

Although I enjoyed the historical narrative in Water, I was less-compelled by Solomon’s thesis, that success and failure is determined by good water management. Yes, of course, good water management is necessary for continued success, but it is not sufficient.* Success and failure can come from many directions (poor leadership, for example). It would perhaps be more correct to claim that civilizations with good governance also manage water well.**

[Steve clarifies that causality runs both ways: good institutions also lead to good water management. I am happy to concede this point and also concede the he was trying to make it, except that the text was not as clear as we all might like. Although he holds that “good water management is a necessary condition for success” in managing a civil society, that is not true in places where water is to abundant to worry about waste yet not abundant enough to worry about floods. That said, good management can hardly hurt.]

This is not nit-picking as much as clarifying the difference between the causes and effects that drive development (per Adam Smith, Schumpeter, Schumacher, Sen and others) and failure/collapse (per Carson, the Limits to Growth, Diamond and the Mafia). The causes — as laid out by Nobel Laureate Douglas North — are good institutions. Hammurabi was an innovator in the rule of law, just as the English had the Magna Carta and America has the Bill of Rights. From these foundations came sound policies that included sound water management. (These policies were not always implemented as quickly as we’d like, but they were implemented more quickly when governance was better.)

I am pretty sure that Steve would agree with me on this (we chatted over a bottle of wine while I was in DC), but that agreement would not be obvious in the text, where the emphasis is more on “success here” and “failure there” than on the underlying causes. Such an explanation is WAY beyond the scope of a 500 page book, but a little humility on that account (i.e., this is a book on the history of water management) would reduce the numerous “yes but” moments when it seemed that the thesis was driving the narrative instead of letting events declare themselves.

In addition to this big point, I had a number of disagreements with the text. The claim of “a distinctive American system regarded government as an active agent to assist the private development of the nation’s resources” on page 321 would be contradicted twice: other governments clearly play that role, and plenty of natural resource development — with oil, mines, ranching and so on — has occurred without the assistance of the US government. The discussions of water in the western US and bottled water, for example, are not deeper that those I’ve seen in newspaper articles that lack depth, get niggling facts wrong,*** and miss some crucial analysis.***

[Steve suggests that “distinctive” does not mean unique, and that the US was not alone in using state power to advance business interests (ironically to a lessor degree than Europe sometimes). I agree, but I am more skeptical of claims that US government support for railroads was either necessary or useful.]

Bottom Line: I give this book FOUR STARS. It’s well-worth reading for its wonderful overview of water management around the world and throughout history. Water, indeed, has played a crucial role in our social, political and economic development. That said, our success and failures in water management result from our social, economic and political institutions (not the other way around). Good institutions will keep water in our taps.

* On page 269, for example, Solomon writes: “By the 1940s, America was exploiting its ample natural water resources in a more intensified and enlarged manner than any society on Earth — a reliable leading indicator and catalyst, in every age in history, of robust prosperity and civilization.” This generalized claim is clearly untrue, if we consider how the Soviets over-exploitation of their water resources did NOT lead to robust prosperity. The same goes for the Libyans, Saudis, Egyptians and Chinese, as they mismanage water for no durable benefit. [Steve and I disagree here. He claims that the Soviet society was prosperous for a time, even if such prosperity was not built on sustainable foundations. I claim that it was not prosperous, ever, given the contemporaneous and future costs of the Soviet model, as opposed to what would have happened should Russia had continued on its pre-Revolutionary path.]

** “It is not a coincidence that history’s poorest societies often have had the most difficult hydrological environments” [p. 374] is precisely backwards. Ask the Australians, Israelis or Singaporeans. [Yes, this is overstated. Steve is right that societies with poor water conditions face additional barriers to development and prosperity.]

*** Fact check: JW Powell was not head of the “new” USGS; he was the second director; global bottled water sales are not over $100 billion; the Colorado River Aqueduct didn’t start deliveries until 1941; etc. I got a laugh out of this sentence on page 341: “As the aquifer emptied and drought conditions prevailed on the surface [in the 1930s], the big farmers of the Central Valley turned reluctantly to the government for relief.” Reluctantly. Right. [Steve is right that I am perhaps nitpicking about the first and second points (the difference between what he said and fact — as best we can guess — is trivial), but the CRA point is annoying (and representative of a trend of misstatements in an area I have studied deeply). The fourth point about farmers and subsidies seems more propaganda than fact. Steve acknowledges that the farmers are not too consistent in complaining about government at the same time as they take money from the government, but he needed to — in my opinion — call them on that hypocrisy.]