Water Power

Mar 18, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Think of this: history's winners and losers have been determined by how well they handle their water.

In "Water," Steven Solomon traces the major turning points in world history to water innovation. People living in flooded river valleys had more food and learned how to store it. This led to food security and then prosperity through trade. Further mastery of water by way of new technologies, from barge and sailboat to mill and steam-engine, led to more prosperity and more trade, to the sanitary revolution of the 19th century and to the desalinization plants of today.

The book courses through water battles from Marc Antony and Octavian at the Battle of Actium to Nelson and Napoleon at Trafalgar; from water allocations devised by King Solomon to those advocated by ex-IMF head Michel Camdessus; from ancient water scientists such as Aristotle and Archimedes to early industrial-agers James Watt and Eli Whitney; and through environmentally oblivious leaders from Genghis Khan, who didn't understand water management, to George Bush, who in 2006 directed the dropping of 400 cases of illegal industrial discharges into wetlands his predecessors had protected under the Clean Water Act.

In covering personalities and events, Solomon suggests that societies that know how to take advantage of new ways of using water dominate their time, while those that fail to address water crises disintegrate. He cites with approval drip irrigation methods in Israel combined with shutting-down water subsidies, and as a counter-example, Saudi Arabian golf-course putting greens profligately maintained by tapping ancient, and rapidly declining, desert deep aquifers. He also suggests the dangers of concentrating water projects, noting for example, that the most gigantic water projects make inviting military and terrorist targets. For example, a bombing of Egypt's Aswan Dam could potentially create a tsunami of an order of magnitude greater than what took place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. According to Solomon, fear of what might happen in the course of a war to the High Dam was a factor in convincing Anwar Sadat to make peace with Israel.

Identifying water scarcity as the next inconvenient truth, Solomon makes arguments about water that are familiar from discussions about global warming and energy use. Water is precious and should be conserved, but conservation requires unpopular political decisions. There is always the hope of new technologies, like reverse osmotic devices for desalinization, but as with solar energy for power, these remain too costly to be widely practical, absent massive government subsidies.

Solomon suggests that the world should ultimately recognize access to clean, safe, fresh water as a basic human right, noting that its absence tends to produce famines, genocides, wars, disease, mass migrations, and ecological disasters. In the past, social and political tools to respond were often grossly inadequate to meet these demands. Today, the issue is not so much technological gaps, as a failure of will. Amsterdam and Venice provide contrasts in how to manage a watery world, as does India in and of itself, where large-scale projects funded by global international financial institutions have both made it possible to sustain vastly greater populations, while salinizing essential agriculture land. There is no water panacea. But there are many types of water cures.

While at the U.S State Department in the Clinton Administration, I witnessed first-hand the incapacity of the government of Haiti to provide reliable power and clean water to its people by failing to maintain a vital hydroelectric plant. By contrast, I saw an inexpensive dam and turbine placed in a strategically-located stream provide electrical power and irrigation for winter rice to a remote rural village in Laos, making them food sufficient, enabling them to make textiles with power looms, and freeing them from dependence on opium as a cash crop. This was transformative, and nearly instantaneous, water-induced change.

Yes, political leadership on water matters. A decade ago, Perrier chose to pay upstream landowners $230 per hectare per year to reforest water infiltration zones and thereby protect the quality of its mineral water sources. The private sector has an important role to play. But at just under $10 a gallon for corporate water ($2.49 per liter in the familiar green glass), we will need a less expensive, out of the bottle, approach, one that is global in scope, local in reach, and soon.