Giulio Boccaletti’s Water: A Biography review: The life of water and how it shapes human civilisation

Understanding a moving force, society’s attempt to tame it through science and technology, and the impact on the environment

June 03, 2022 12:04 pm | Updated 12:04 pm IST

Giulio Boccaletti is a physicist and climate scientist. He is currently the Chief Strategy Officer and global ambassador for water, for Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s largest environmental organisations. His book, Water: a Biography, is a compelling account of the centrality of Earth’s climate controller, water, in shaping life in it and determining the course of human history. It is thanks to its presence in the atmosphere as water vapour, Boccaletti tells us, “that the planet is habitable.” The book is grand in scope. It melds cosmology, mythology, archaeology and history to bring home to the reader how human civilisation is shaped by water.

It was only relatively recently, around 5000 BCE, Boccaletti explains, that humans made the transition from the nomadic hunter-gatherer stage to a sedentary one as agriculturists growing grains, thanks to the availability of water. This in turn triggered urbanisation too. Water also served another no less important purpose. The rivers, canals and seas of the world provided the most efficient means of transporting large quantities of material of all kinds within and between countries. Globalisation today, as in ancient times, moves on water.

As “res publica — a public good,” water, Boccaletti contends, “defies private ownership, is hard to contain and requires public management.” He argues that “at its heart, therefore, the story of water is not technological but political” with people developing “institutions that required mediating individual desires and collective action in the face of water’s force.”

Migration crisis

Among the most interesting parts of Boccaletti’s book is an account of a highly globalised Mediterranean Bronze age of the second millennium BCE. The period saw a vast commercial and diplomatic network develop “between the territorial states of the eastern Mediterranean.” Among those that prospered were Assyria and Babylon in present day Iraq, Elam in Iran, Ugarit on the Syrian Coast, Hittites in Anatolia and ancient Egypt. The catastrophe that marked the end of this period of prosperity and regional integration,” Boccaletti postulates, “appears to have been a climate induced migration crisis,” something that is repeated to this day.

The growth of the ancient states of Greece and Rome is well covered by Boccaletti. He saw the development of “institutions to manage the consequences of a sedentary world of moving water for a society organised around the idea of individual freedom,” adding that the “constitutional settlements crystallized formal boundaries between individual liberty and public benefit, establishing the state as mediator between the two.”

Dams in China, America

China’s feats of hydraulic engineering from ancient and mediaeval times including the still-in-use 1770 km Grand Canal figure prominently in Boccaletti’s book.

However, the inspiration for large dams and hydroelectric projects through the 20th century came from the United States.

This led to the construction of massive dams around the world, among them the Aswan Dam in Egypt and the humongous Three Gorges Dam in China.

“Modern water infrastructure has replumbed the planet,” he writes, pointing out that technology enthusiasts celebrate the achievements, while environmentalists bemoan the impact.

Boccaletti’s book is well researched, drawing extensively on rare original records left in tablets, papyrus and archives — the last on the evolution of nation states in Europe and even on the climatic factors contributing to the rise of the Netherlands as a maritime and colonial power.

A quarter of the book comprises notes, an extensive bibliography and a comprehensive index. Together, these greatly enhance the reading experience of an exceptionally entertaining book.

It is a pity that such an engaging and illuminating work should ignore ancient and mediaeval India, with a rich water history of its own and water myths and legends to match those of Gilgamesh and Noah, both covered extensively by Boccaletti in his book.

Water: A Biography; Giulio Boccaletti, Penguin Random House, ₹410 (Kindle price).

The reviewer teaches public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bengaluru.

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