Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Water by Steven Solomon (204)

Solomon, Steven. Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. New York: Harper, 2010.

Steven Solomon’s Water is an epic history of civilization from its roots to modern time. Solomon’s thesis is that inventively mastered their water resources have risen and those that have outpaced their available water or innovations have declined. There are lessons in this history for us who live in an age where some nations already experience serious water scarcity and even relatively water rich nations are squandering their natural fortune.

The book generally follows sequences of technology, geography, and politics. In technology, it moves through waters many uses from irrigation to transportation, energy and sanitation. The geographic motion of the book is from east to west, starting the early innovations of Asia, sliding to Europe, then jumping the Atlantic to North America. The political trend begins with ancient, totalitarian hydraulic societies and moves on to gradually democratizing nations and the splintered, competitive, yet surprisingly workable and cooperative, market-oriented Western republics.

In the final chapters of the book, Solomon deals with the threat of water scarcity. Some parts of the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, are already facing water shortages. Those fortunate enough to have other sources of wealth, like oil, are importing virtual water, especially in the form of food. Control of water resources is becoming a matter of international diplomacy, national security, and possible war in much the way oil was in the last century. This is especially true in the arid, populous Middle East and South Asia. Many of the water poor live in lands that are highly populated, arid, unstable politically, and have long-standing enmities with neighboring countries.

Relatively water rich nations, like the United States, have problems, too. Much of it stems from using water inefficiently and for less productive activities. This is especially problematic in the dry western states, where long-standing, vested interests have sought to protect their subsidized access to water while others, sometimes more efficient and high value users, pay great premiums for the limited remaining available water. This isn’t strictly a western problem; eastern cities are also droughts, growing populations, industrialization, intensive agriculture, and aging infrastructure that strain their water resources.

While the problems are serious, Solomon seems hopeful that, as in the past, we may be able to develop technological, organizational, and political solutions to these issues. He objectively discusses national and international efforts to solve the looming water crisis. He seems to have more faith that workable solutions well arise in the more water rich, democratic West, where a combination of government regulation, free markets, substantial local control, and varied regional solutions are giving rise to innovation.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
The Ancient Engineers by L. Sprague de Camp
Canals and Their Architecture by Robert Harris
Dreams of Iron and Steel by Deborah Cadbury
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
The Great Stink by Clare Clark
Steam by Andrea Sutcliffe
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose
The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark
Water by Marq de Villiers
When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce