A noun followed by a colon and a claim to greatness—whether Coal: A Human History or Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, it's a formula with proven publishing legs. As these smartly packaged microhistories train their writers' full powers of research and analysis on undervalued or overlooked topics, they can, in skilled hands, elevate humble subjects to glorious heights—and argue convincingly for their importance on the world stage. However, as deployed in Steven Solomon's exhaustive new Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, the strategy of the close read runs afoul of one simple problem: Has water's primacy in civilization's pyramid of needs ever been in dispute?
Water, writes Solomon, is earth's "indispensable resource," and how societies manage it is "one of the central motive forces of history." That's hardly a controversial claim, and it leaves Solomon opting for the macro over the micro lens to make his case. The scope of his investigation encompasses everything from transoceanic shipping to irrigation. To articulate water's place at the fulcrum of human history, he traces the ancient, medieval, and modern histories of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus, and Yellow rivers. He dips his oar into the history of agriculture, depicting the invention of large-scale, irrigated farming as the moment that set civilization on its course. He charts the history of Greco-Roman naval warfare, Portuguese seafaring, and the trade routes of the Levant. He laments the "meager freshwater patrimony" of Islamic society. He assesses the importance of the Rialto Bridge to Venetian commerce of the Middle Ages. By the time I got to the invention of the waterwheel I was exhausted—and I was only on page 167.
Solomon, whose previous book, The Confidence Game (1995), predicted the implosion of global financial markets, has some undeniable research chops. Water is chock-full of curious minutiae: Did you know that, according to world-water expert Peter Gleick, the global redistribution of water through dams, reservoirs, and canals had resulted, by the end of the twentieth century, in "a small but measurable change in the wobble of the earth as it spins"? For much of the first part of the book Solomon seems able only to itemize world history, hewing to an outline heavy on great men and great works. The narrative picks up occasionally with swashbuckling tales of such adventures as Vasco da Gama's bloody circuit of the Indian Ocean, but it's not until the story moves to the Americas, and the monumental hydro-engineering projects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that Solomon really starts to stretch out and allow the reader to take a breath.
Whether because of Solomon's personal passion or simply the availability of richer source material, the book gains momentum with vignettes outlining John Wesley Powell's late-nineteenth-century attempts to irrigate the arid West and William Mulholland's notorious redirection of the Owens River in the early 1900s to spur the expansion of the Los Angeles Valley. Characters come into focus, and for the first time, the social, political, and economic elements of his history interlock. He's still capable of bloodless moments, as when, in discussing the construction of Egypt's massive Lake Nasser reservoir and Aswan Dam, he writes coolly that the project "submerged land and ancient monuments and displaced over 100,000 inhabitants of southern Egypt and Sudan's Nubia as it filled." And his story remains stunningly, if unsurprisingly, Euro-centric. But such frustrations serve all the better to set up the thesis he, mystifyingly, waits until the final pages to reveal.
In Solomon's telling, the history of water thus far has been the history of a commodity—it is something to be harnessed through technology to serve the common good. Thus dams provide energy; dikes protect from floods. But unless humankind can turn away from such "hard path" solutions and acknowledge the catastrophic long-term effects of such anthropocentric interventions in the natural world, we're doomed.
"Water is overtaking oil as the world's scarcest critical natural resource," he writes, and until the world can embrace radical new strategies for managing it, we are looking at a century of ever-worsening disparity, conflict, and privation. His assessment of the contemporary clash between economic modernization and environmental stewardship is sobering. Here, the sheer recitation of facts adds up to a stirring indictment of the failures of modernity, as across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East well upon well runs dry from overpumping, grandiose water-management plans are botched, and river upon river is rendered a toxic stew of pesticides, fertilizer runoff, industrial pollutants, and urban sewage.
Access to adequate freshwater should be a human right, he maintains. And our only hope in securing that right lies in "soft path" solutions: small-scale, decentralized water-management strategies that work with the course of nature. Such ideas are gaining traction in the industrialized West—dams are being decommissioned in favor of wetlands restoration; "toilet to tap" wastewater-purification projects are losing their stigma. Solomon lays out the case for this change with a stirring show of moral conscience. It's just a shame the reader has to wait so long in his sprawling narrative to discover the conviction that would have lent compelling structure and bite to the body of the book.
Martha Bayne is a writer and editor based in Chicago.