Book chronicles human, water connection from nomadic to modern times

Book chronicles human, water connection from nomadic to modern times
January 25, 2023 Gary Wilson, Great Lakes Now

If you want to peg the date when humans began the trek to modernity facilitated by a relationship to water, start 10,000 years ago, says Giulio Boccaletti, author of Water: A Biography. That’s when nomads became settlers, began farming and their existence started to depend on rivers and streams.

The book continues through the millennia to modern times when America constructed the Hoover Dam and created the Tennessee Valley Authority which Boccaletti says “became a model for the world.”

Boccaletti is a scientist and an honorary research associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at University of Oxford. His considerable resume includes fellowships at Princeton and NASA plus executive positions at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company and the non-profit The Nature Conservancy.

Great Lakes Now’s Gary Wilson recently interviewed Boccaletti where he said in those post-nomadic years, the requirements of managing water were beyond any individual’s capability and they demanded development of collective action skills by humans.

He credited ancient Greece and the Roman Empire for developing institutions that still provide the platform for governance. In modern times Boccaletti describes the relationship between water management and development in China, Russia, the American west and more locations.

And, he has advice for elected officials and water managers in the Great Lakes region plus thoughts on the efficacy of diverting Great Lakes water to arid areas.

The interview was conducted by email, on the phone and was edited for length and clarity.

Great Lakes Now: It was 14,000 years ago that retreating glaciers created the Great Lakes and 10,000 ago that nomads started to become sedentary societies, that is, settling in a place. With that came farming and you wrote “the journey of modern man had begun and the distribution of water had defined its starting point.” Can you elaborate?

Giulio Boccaletti: Homo sapiens have been around for at least 200,000 years, so it was only late in our story that we made the transition to sedentism. While there are still societies around the world whose traditions predate that moment, most modern societies have their origin story rooted in that moment when we chose to stand still in a world of moving water.

As you rightly point out, the Great Lakes are what is left of the great ice sheets that covered North America during the last glacial maximum. It turns out that the transition to sedentism happened during a time of great change in water, on generational timescales. We know that sea levels only stabilized around 5,000 BCE, which means that for several thousands of years after those first communities became sedentary, we had to wrestle with a treacherous, moving environment. The challenge of managing water as it transforms the landscape ended up being amongst the most defining for the life of those early societies. It forced us to cooperate to transform the landscape around us in return. To secure water for when it was needed and protect us from the power of floods.

All these phenomena transcend the power of individuals. They require forms of collective action. That is when the development of political institutions began a journey in dialogue with the management of our water environment. And that is where the story of my book begins.

GLN: You go to great lengths in the book to chronicle how management and governance of water began millennia ago then evolved through the ages. You cite the role of ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the church and other states in the governance endeavor. What if anything remains of those early governance initiatives?

Water: A Biography. (Photo courtesy of Giulio Boccaletti)

GB: Quite a lot. I wrote the book to reveal that we are surrounded by layers of institutions and infrastructure that gradually accumulated over centuries and millennia, the product of our continuous relationship with water. It is not just that those past societies developed specific institutions of water governance, but rather that their political institutions developed as they wrestled with water.

All pre-modern societies were fundamentally agrarian. Agriculture was inextricably bound to wealth and power. Because the distribution of water is a crucial determinant of agricultural production, people’s relationship to it was an important ingredient in the development of political institutions. Athenian democracy, the ancient root of modern democracy, is an example of this. It was borne out of the relationship that Greek agrarian society had with water.

Relatively abundant rainfall in Attica (Athens), and the karstic landscape that caused its capillary distribution, supported wealthy farmers who could produce enough surplus to afford the equipment of the hoplites, the heavily armored infantrymen defenders of the polis during the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. Hoplite demands for political agency drove Solon’s and Cleisthenes’ reforms that created democracy, linking water distribution to power. A similar story can be told of the Roman republic or of Roman law, the foundation of all legal systems in the world. Those and other experiences were metabolized over the centuries into the institutions we know today.

GLN: When we think of use and management of water, there’s a tendency to see it as a technical question, you say. Such as, building a dam or reversing a river as Chicago did to send its waste elsewhere. But you say it’s not a technical question, but one of politics.  Why?

GB: Good question. Managing water is above all an act of sovereignty. It requires agreeing to what the landscape should look like, who lives where, who does what on it. It is, above all, about power.

Of course, technology matters, but it is a means to an end. The replumbing of the western U.S. in the first half of the 20th century was an extraordinary feat of engineering, but its intent was political: the economic development of 16 states that were politically important to the union. The root of the water story is political because it is about how we conduct life in our common home.

GLN: America emerged in the early 20th century at “the forefront of tackling water challenges all over the world,” you wrote, and said that it took on the most iconic water project of the century which culminated in the Hoover Dam. With the benefit of nearly a century of hindsight, was the aggressive hydrological venture of the U.S. a success over time?

GB: It is always tricky to use hindsight. You end up applying anachronistic values to choices that were made a long time ago.

We do not face the same problems that the U.S. faced in the early 20th century. I don’t mean just water problems. This was a different society, one in which a large fraction of the population was employed in agriculture. The U.S. first became a superpower by feeding Europe and forcing Britain to go into debt in exchange for supplies. The geopolitical role of agricultural production, which is inseparable from the transformation of its water landscape, has almost nothing to do with what we see today. Assessed on its own terms, the experience of the western U.S., which is more than Hoover Dam of course, was successful. Not only it supported an extraordinary period of economic development, but it also provided a model that much of the rest of the world followed, for better or for worse.

At the same time, if there is one consistent insight that emerges clearly from the story of water is that any solution to any problem is simply the beginning of the next problem. The western use of water is currently unsustainable, partly because its management and engineering were so successful that they supported growth to limits that have become unsustainable. So, the issue is not so much to critique the past as to find a way of solving a different problem differently.

GLN: Historically, water has been used to spur economic development and in America you say  “… it delivered a powerful platform for industrialization and wealth creation.” With an unsure water future looming because of climate change and drought, should we still see water as a tool for economic development? Or is it time to prioritize and champion a conservation ethic?

GB: First, there is a large part of the world that still does not enjoy the water security that most Americans and Europeans enjoy. I worked for years in Ethiopia. If it doesn’t rain for two seasons, twenty million people go hungry. And that has a lot to do with the absence of institutions and infrastructure to manage water resources. To be clear, water development is not a solution to all problems in economic development. No solution is going to be a silver bullet, and water resource development is no exception.

That said, there is no question that water institutions are a necessary if not sufficient platform for development. Second, as far as rich countries are concerned, today they enjoy extraordinarily high levels of water security, compared to those who lived only a hundred years ago. None of us wade through a river on the way to work, and almost all of us draw water from a tap sticking out of a wall instead of picking up a bucket and going to a stream. That is the gift of a hundred years of investment in infrastructure. The problem is that its success has made us blind to what is happening behind the wall and over the levees.

The climate system is changing, and its principal symptom is a change in the distribution of water in space and time. Ecosystems that once thrived are ever more under strain. We dimensioned our solutions for a different era and now we have failed to notice that cracks are beginning to appear. So yes, I think it is time for something different. Not just for a conservation ethic, but to renew attention to our relationship with a substance that has the power to transform our home.

GLN: Anticipating increased demand from water-needy regions, the eight states and two Canadian provinces that form the Great Lakes region entered into a compact in 2008 to prevent diversions. But it’s a young document that has known loopholes and has yet to be tested. Plus it’s a federal law that could be undone for political reasons. What’s your view on the efficacy of diverting water writ large, and specifically from the Great Lakes?

GB: Details matter here, but as a rule large scale infrastructural diversions are amongst the most expensive solutions to water problems. India has had a plan to build the Indian Rivers Interlinking project for years, to replumb the country with countless diversions and inter-basin transfers. Decades of discussion have led nowhere so far. Similar discussions have occasionally emerged between water-rich Scotland and the parched south of England. Again, nothing has come of it because it is unfeasible. Water is heavy and bulky. Moving it around in large quantities is expensive. What looks sensible on an engineering plan, rarely survives economic and political evaluation.

The truth is that many parts of the US—indeed many parts of the developed world that have already developed most of their water resources—will find themselves squeezed between growing demand and the deteriorating capacity of existing infrastructure to meet it. The first, most economic lever to address this problem is not augmenting supply with ever more extreme infrastructure projects but changing demand. Most of the water need is for agriculture. On farms, there are potentially vast reserves of efficiency and productivity in agricultural water use. The challenge is that tapping them requires changing what we grow and how we grow it. It requires changing what the landscape looks like and what communities living there do. And that is, above all, a political issue.

GLN: The Public Trust Doctrine traces its roots to Roman law and was affirmed in the U.S. in 1842. At a high level, it states that natural resources like water are held in trust for the people by the state. In the Great Lakes region the doctrine is cited to protect the Great Lakes including in Michigan. What’s the status of the Public Trust Doctrine, writ large?

GB: The Public Trust Doctrine in the U.S. has expanded from water issues, where it first arose in the 19th century, to become a broader environmental principle for natural resource stewardship. It is particularly popular in common law countries like India where there is, in fact, an established set of precedents.

But people in the United Kingdom have had far less success in arguing for public trust than in the U.S., which suggests that the straight line from the Magna Carta through the common law tradition to today is less straightforward than sometimes argued.

The interest in the Public Trust Doctrine is part of a broader movement to constitutionalize environmental issues, which has been growing internationally for a couple of decades.

I suspect we are only going to see these cases rise as people wrestle more and more with what it means to manage our common resources sustainably.

GLN: At its core, the U.S. economy has been focused on consumption perhaps best illustrated by the hyper-attention paid to economic growth as a measure of the health of the economy. That consumption includes water where if there is a shortage, the emphasis is on securing more versus consuming less. Are we hopelessly shackled to economic growth as a leading indicator or is there a better way to measure economic health? 

GB: It is a good point, although most economists would dispute that growth is the only measure we care about. We care about employment, about life expectancy and maternal mortality, and more. And while it may seem that we have plenty of wealth in developed countries, we have to remember that for the vast majority of people on the planet, economic growth—that is, creating greater wealth to extract more people from poverty—is still a central and legitimate policy objective.

The question is not whether we need growth, but what quality that growth should have, and how its benefits are distributed. And there, your point about securing more versus consuming less is central. Consuming less does not mean foregoing growth. In the case of water, it means increasing the productivity of water, the “crop per drop” as water managers would say. I think the debate about foregoing economic growth as the sole response to an extractive, damaging economy is a red herring. The central question is what kind of growth we need, and I don’t think the answer is shackled to destruction. We have options. However, we do have to choose them.

GLN: Drought and flooding have beset different parts of the world simultaneously.  Given the uncertainty, what’s your advice to the water policy managers and elected officials of the Great Lakes region, home to 20 percent of Earth’s fresh surface water?

GB: Above all, I would advise not to think of the Great Lakes as simply a large reservoir of water. They are so much more. They are a vast and complex ecosystem, a transport hub, a recreational asset, a source of real estate value, of identity, innovation, and more.

All these values and uses are what make the Great Lakes what they are, not just the fact that they hold a large amount of freshwater. Lake Tanganyika in Africa holds the same amount of water as all the Great Lakes combined. But you wouldn’t trade one for the other. In a sense, for both, volume is the least interesting thing about them.

This is another demonstration of my thesis: that our relationship with water is fundamentally political. The job of engineers is to find answers to questions. The job of politics is to frame the right question to capture the needs and imagination of its constituency. Choosing the right question to ask, that is where power resides. The challenge is not to figure out how to best use the Great Lakes to meet a growing demand for water. The challenge is to figure out what question you should ask of the Great Lakes.

GLN: In the book’s CODA, you mention the illusion “that argues that the gift of an engineered landscape is the emancipation of society from the impacts of a variable climate.” Can you explain?

GB: The climate system varies on all timescales, from weather that changes from one day to the next, to seasonal variability over months, to changes from one year to the next, to changes over multiple years, to changes that are secular in nature.

The modernist project of the twentieth century was to build storage and conveyance infrastructure that, no matter what the changes, would always deliver enough to ride out all but the most extreme droughts and to protect from most destructive floods. The objective was to deliver a static landscape, a water system that is simply a feature of the stage on which we live a life at the rhythm of industrialization and consumption. That was the emancipation we were seeking: an emancipation we believed permanent, a final emancipation from nature.

I wrote the book to show that such emancipation was an illusion. The infrastructure we built and that we depend on today was dimensioned on the statistics of the past. We now know that the past no longer offers a guide to the future. Droughts are already beginning to systematically exceed the capacity of our reservoirs, because they exceed our experience. Floods routinely overwhelm our security infrastructure, as has been on display recently in California. Today’s problems are the children of yesterday’s solutions—over 10,000 years of history that much has always been true. We solved yesterday’s water challenges with infrastructure, institutions and behaviors that are no longer sufficient for the future.

The dance with water that began when we first became sedentary continues. All we can do is decide what step to take next.

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Featured image: Photo courtesy of Giulio Boccaletti


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