Saturday, May 15, 2010
"Water: The Epic Strugge for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" by Steven Solomon
First of all, my work in Asia is in the Water business, and I considered it a huge advantage to keep myself not only informed but extremely well read on future projections and the latest in water technology, so I decided every now and then, I'd get a 'Water' book. This is my first. And it's a doozy.
You may remember the "Ascent of Money" was effectively the story of money, going back to the ancient times, well Steven Solomon's "Water" is essentially the exact same scope and timeline, but focusing on water. And it's actually worth it for anyone to keep up on this subject, but I would advise against a novice jumping into this book. While the historical accounts (in amazing detail) of the Chinese innovation, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and eventually, the Steam Engine in Britain, which led to the Industrial Revolution, are amazing,...there's just so much information in here, at times it feels like you're studying for a Final exam. But give the author credit for taking on such an amazing task.
Make no mistake, this is not just a timeline of 'scientific developments'; what Solomon set out to do with this book is draw connections between the development of water technology, as well as the natural waterways/lakes/oceans, and political power. And that's where the real 'Aha' moments come from.
For example, in China, few foreigners (like myself) recognize that the Grand Canal (constructed est. 600AD) which spans from Hangzhou to Shanghai all the way north to Beijing, was actually the start of high volume Chinese communication, transport and trade, and was part of the reason the Chinese were so confident that they didn't need much from outsiders--shutting out foreign contact for hundreds of years thereafter.
In Egypt, the great Nile river, has always been the lifeblood of the country, used for irrigation systems, and eventually power generation (early turbine technology). Amazingly, the transport along the Nile was aided by an incredible bidirectional water flow, which meant traders and merchants could traverse North and South on this amazing highway, with relative ease. They had a very similar system to the Chinese, but naturally.
The point is this, to travel 100 miles by foot was often exhausting and dangerous and tediously slow, while getting on a raft and cruising upriver was much more pleasant in almost every way. This huge efficiency improvement shaped much of the worlds development, even up until the 19th century, when in the United States, investors and governors where pushing for very ambitious Canals for the very same reason. In fact, one of America's great shining moments was the opening of the Panama Canal, a monumental feat of engineering, joining the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, such that trade routes could now pass straight through to Asia from Europe (and vice-versa), with America collecting the toll on every ship.
But there was a turning point, and it goes back to the very first wooden 'turbines' in China, and Egypt. We, as a species, have always thought of water as free. You look to the Ocean, and all you see is vast horizons of it. It is everywhere, it pours down from the sky, and gushes down from the mountaintops. The human body is mostly water. So basically this planet, and everything on it, is chock full of water. We've basically treated water as a resource--a commodity of infinite supply--that we can do anything we want with. However, when we started building dams, for Hydroelectric power, we changed something: we started to divert and displace massive volumes of water. It seemed like the Hydroelectric dam would give us everything we ever wanted--free power, using naturally rushing waters to spin huge turbines and store electric power--but it did something else. It changed the environment. We now have incidents in India and China where rivers do not reach the oceans, as they once did. At the same time, our global population is booming, we're expected to hit 9 billion brothers and sisters by 2050. These two elements should have us on the edge of our seats.
And what of the next 40 years until then? More so than Oil ever did, what we are doing now with water will shape future alliances, and wars. Those who have the most resources, and the least population, will be freed of this challenge, and rise to the top in terms of development, power and wealth.
Understand that, unlike Oil, which has been fought over for ages, we cannot live without water. We cannot live without drinking it, and we cannot live without planting crops and irrigating the land. For our cheeseburgers, the farm animals must first be fed and be given plenty of water to drink. These indisputable facts are what is leading to not just power struggles, but wars. Even the most docile and peaceloving nations, without access to drinking water, must negotiate to get it, or must fight for it.
Of course, I'm an optimist so I'll end on a positive note: in developed countries, citizens use about 30 times the amount of water used in developing countries. That's our opportunity. Those in developed countries, in the same way we aspire to give great amounts of money to charities, shall aspire to not only cut down on their own consumption, but donate water/water credits to developing countries. Walking the soft path towards a harmonious existence not only with our brothers and sisters, but also with this planet, is the key to redemption. That's the message. We have 40 years to practice it.
Follow this author on Twitter@SnSolomon