Why I wrote a book about water

Source: Giulio Boccaletti, Pantheon Books, Penguin Random House

I wrote a book. It is a history of the relationship between society and water. Its scope is ambitious: a planetary story that begins when people first became sedentary, ten thousand years ago, and reaches the present. It is a story of people, a story of institutions. Above all, it is a story of ideas.

The book’s title — Water, A Biography — captures its central theme. A biography referred to an inert substance is possible because water, as we experience it, is entirely dependent on our social life. Floods matter because our urban homes are caught in them. Storms interfere with the smooth running of our productive life. Droughts threaten our ability to produce from our land. The story of water is really a story about us.

Had we persisted in our life as hunter gatherers — as human beings were for the better part of three hundred thousand years — water would have simply been another feature of a mobile landscape, one we could escape from. Ephemeral attachment to place made adjustment possible and migration ordinary. But sedentism changed that.

Once people decided to stand still in a world of moving water, nothing was ever the same. Water moves, it does work on timescales relevant to human society. It exercises agency over the same landscape that people inhabit. Floods, storms, and droughts demand collective action, they elicit a dynamic response, which in turn modifies the conditions for the flow of water, creating new challenges and novel risks. It is a dialectic process from which we cannot escape.

In early societies, farmers laboured to contain floods or mitigate droughts. Shifts in climate provoked migrations and the collapse of states. As societies became more complex, material conditions due to water invoked increasingly institutional responses. And because institutions intermediate our collective efforts, their evolution in time connected our efforts in the past to the present and the future, accreting the traces of how our relationship with water shapes our life.

The book reflects my belief, matured over two decades working on, writing of, and thinking about Earth’s environment, that the pursuit of water security is a powerful force that shapes institutions, intended — as economist Douglas North described them — as “the humanely devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction.”

The book describes the origins of civic republicanism and of modern coherent legal systems, for example, which emerged from antiquity to become dominant institutions around the world, and which carried within them the experience of societies adapted to a Mediterranean climate and to its peculiar water distribution.

It follows the story of territorial sovereignty, both in its republican and imperial forms, and its relationship to the economy of the water landscape into modernity. And the book tells the story of the 20th century, which some have defined the “American century,” but which might as well have been called the “hydraulic century,” given the extraordinary acceleration in water resource development that swept — and still sweeps — the world.

John Briscoe, a towering figure in the water sector, was fond of saying that “when it comes to water, we have ‘God-like technologies, Medieval institutions, and Palaeolithic emotions,’” using an aphorism borrowed from the biologist Edward O. Wilson. John always had an acute sense for the historical depth of the water story. That is the historical depth I tried to capture.

One reason for writing this book was my professional experience. By the time I began typing, I had been working on water issues for several years, advising governments and private companies on the challenges of water security. I worked in countries — from Jordan and Ethiopia, to India and South Africa — where both the public and the politicians were painfully aware of an impending, existential water crisis. I also worked in countries — Great Britain or the United States, for example — facing equally existential water crises, but which were playing out far away from the public eye. In all cases, I encountered a profound misunderstanding of what the nature of this “existential crisis” was.

Much of my work was economic. One of my most prominent projects had been a major global analysis of water security across the world, which I had led in collaboration with the World Economic Forum and the World Bank. The analysis earned headlines around the world, warning of an impending shortfall of 40 percent between the available, accessible supply of water and its global demand by 2030. It also described — country by country, basin by basin — the suite of technical interventions available to mitigate risks and provide water security to the population and their economy. The message was simple: the problem was urgent, the solution attainable.

I felt then, as I do now, that such a technocratic view of resource issues can be helpful in many ways. But it is also deeply reductive if placed out of context. Managing water entails far more than implementing a portfolio of solutions. It is about the rules a society gives itself to live together in a moving landscape. It is to address this latter, crucial point that I wrote the book: to place water back at the heart of the story of our institutions, of our living together as political beings, as Aristotle’s zoon politikon.

That is the nucleus of the story of water: a dialectic relationship between two agents — water, as an expression of Earth’s climate system, and people organized in sedentary societies — which compete and cooperate in shaping the landscape. The story of water is inextricable from that of the communities whose landscape it modifies. It is their biography that this book describes.

But there was also a deeper, personal reason for writing this book. Although it will not be evident to the reader, the book is a dialogue of sorts. No person shaped my thinking about water and sustainable development as much as John Briscoe did. In the years I knew him, he challenged my thinking well beyond what anyone else had done. The book is, in many ways, an open dialogue with him.

John Briscoe was born in South Africa in 1948. He spent his formative years as an engineer in the country’s Department for Water Resources. Apartheid sensitized him to social injustice, and a dual concern for water and people accompanied all his life. In the early seventies, he moved to the United States, where he pursued a doctorate in Environmental Engineering at the Harvard Water Program.

Some institutions, sometimes, can end up becoming the centre of a disciplinary universe. Such was the profile of the Harvard Water Program then. It was a century of water experience in the United States, synthesized at the height of the country’s technical confidence. The program was also an instrument of US soft power in Cold War geopolitics, a product of, amongst others, Harold Thomas’ work advising Pakistan on the hydrology of the Indus.

Exposure to theorists and practitioners at the frontline of public policy was undoubtedly formative. John would recall Wassily Leontief, the Nobel economist who would teach his economics seminar just after coming back from high-level meetings in Washington DC. It was a place where engineers, economists, and political scientists worked together into a melting pot of interdisciplinary ideas, aimed at the pursuit of water security. John emerged from the program a “thinking practitioner,” as he was fond of saying, looking to the real world for answers.

John’s first interests were at the intersection of water and public health in the community. During the mid-seventies his research brought him to the CRL, the Cholera Research Laboratory in Bangladesh. In characteristic fashion, he was a sharp critic of his host institution. CRL was the product of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization and of the policy of containment towards the Soviet Union. For John its permanent presence reflected the desires of an educated elite, more than local Bangladeshi needs.

Despite John’s misgivings about CRL, he spent two years working in the subdistrict of Matlab, a low-lying island in the Brahmaputra delta, along the banks of the Meghna River, fifty kilometres south-east of Dhaka, not far from Comilla. Matlab was a special place. Thanks to the efforts of CRL it was home to the most extensively documented and researched population in the world, in health and demographic terms.

The Meghna is part of the huge, braided Ganges-Brahmaputra delta. Because of its position, Matlab was inevitably and frequently flooded. John lived in a small village called Fatepur. The conditions of the village were particularly difficult, beset by endemic flooding. Malnutrition, no access to education, and the rapacious exploitation, by ruthless families of a semi-feudal society, kept most villagers in desperate poverty.

While he was in Fatepur, the Asian Development Bank considered financing a Matlab-wide project, the Meghna-Dhonagoda Irrigation Project. Fatepur was going to get its own embankment, to protect it from floods. Just like many other international observers, John was sceptical. It seemed like yet another opportunity to exploit the already impoverished population: a capital investment of that size would increase the wealth of land owners for sure, but he suspected it would generate limited benefits for the impoverished farmers. He was critical of the project and fearful of its approval. He left Fatepur as discussions raged on.

While John was in Bangladesh, the world of water was undergoing a revolution. The grand modernist project of the first half of the century, which had been driven by the transformative infrastructure of the American West, the American Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corp of Engineers, had largely run its course. Western nations and the Soviet Union had followed suit, developing most of their water security infrastructure along similar lines.

At the same time, the rise of newly independent states in a post-colonial world had elevated the question of economic growth and development to the foreground of the policy agenda. It was a complicated time. The west had discovered itself dependent on Middle Eastern oil at the time of Nasser’s pan-Arabism and of the non-aligned movement. Deng Xiaoping’s China was about to step on the world stage, decoupling its fate from what was soon to be a faltering Soviet project.

Water practitioners were caught between opposing views of the pursuit of water security as a source of social power. On one side was the development of water infrastructure seen as an inevitable expression of power by the planning, underwriting state. Karl Wittfogel, a former Marxist and sociologist, was the most extreme representative of this view. Contrary to Marx, Wittfogel believed the natural world was a central means of production for society, along capital and labour. He believed that social development was ecologically determined, a “dialectic of geographical location.”

With his 1957 book Oriental Despotism, Karl Wittfogel took his early work on Marx’ Asiatic mode of production to a novel extreme, introducing the idea of a hydraulic society, a totalitarian society whose economy depended on a managerial approach to “large-scale and government-directed water control.” As a work of scholarship, time was not kind to it. But Wittfogel successfully framed popular hydraulic determinism, highlighting the tight connection between large-scale water infrastructure and state power.

On the other side of the divide was the idea that water resources development was an emergent property of communities. For example, this was the time of Akhtar Hameed Khan, the prominent Pakistani social scientist, who had been running a rural development program in the district of Comilla in Bangladesh. The Comilla project was one of the most well-known development projects of the era, integrating cooperatives, local irrigation and flood infrastructure, local government, and agricultural training in a remarkably successful mix of built environment, civil society participation, and local governance.

To counter Wittfogel’s hydraulic hypothesis, social scientists unearthed many examples from around the world of large-scale, complex water management structures that arose bottom-up, without a powerful, managerial state. Famously, in Bali hugely complex irrigated terraces, developed as new settlements grew downstream of older ones. Coordinated water management across the vast system resulted from the fact that both upstream and downstream users benefited.

Maybe the definitive example came in 1974, when the sociologist Robert Netting wrote about Törbel, a village in the Valais canton in Switzerland. The village had a remarkable 13th century irrigation system, with complex governance, scheduling, and water rights. Yet no individual participant coordinated the whole and no villager knew the exact schedule in its entirety. Rather, it was the result of centuries of tinkering, a system that had grown without a plan and was kept in place by cooperation (incidentally, this example became the basis for Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Prize winning work on governing the commons.)

In reality, the problem of governing water transcended that divide in an awkward synthesis. In describing power, Max Weber had used the word “Macht,” at the root of the English word “might,” capturing the idea that power is what people have when they have the means to bend the will of others to deliver a goal. But in thinking about expressions of power through the control of water, it might be best to contemplate what the twentieth century has taught us: that power — as philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out — is not just about bending people’s otherwise independent will, but comes from the creation of a common will. Power does not exist despite the populations who are governed by it. It happens thanks to them.

John’s career navigated this dualism, embracing its productive tension. He recognized the centrality of communities’ agency in any development action, and knew all too well the importance of keeping reality on the ground as the indicator of success. But he also came to see the importance of a national project of water security, which transcended the community, and to appreciate the role of the state in serving it.

Twenty years after leaving Matlab, John was working as the Senior Water Advisor at the World Bank when he had the opportunity to return to Fatepur. Remembering the debates over the embankment, John wanted to see with his own eyes what had happened. To his amazement, the place had been transformed. Life-expectancy, nutrition, education — all key indicators of human development — had improved dramatically. John was far from naïve about the complexity of disentangling the causes of development. Bangladesh in the nineties was a different place from the mid-seventies.

But he was also fundamentally trusting — over theories and experts — of the perspectives and experiences of those living through conditions on the ground. When he asked the villagers what had happened, he claimed they looked at him “as if he was soft in the head.” It was the embankment, of course. According to them, without floods, and with regulated water for irrigation, the amount of food available to the population had improved dramatically. That had provided a stepping stone to improve life expectancy, for many families to send their children to school, starting a fly-wheel of development that created benefits for all. Rather than only favouring the richest, the embankment had increased prosperity for all.

John told this story often. It had convinced him that the ability of a society to harness its hydrology, to build a base of infrastructure and institutions that allowed it to manage the natural variability of water, was a foundational building block of the wealth of nations. The geography of water is more than an inert landscape, a stage on which the story unfolds. Water moves, it does work on timescales relevant to human society. It exercises agency over the same landscape people inhabit. Communities respond to it in what can be called—Hegel notwithstanding—a dialectic process.

At the end of August, 2014, John, by then a professor of practice at Harvard, was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel prize for work in water. He titled his laureate presentation “The power of water.” John argued, as he often did, that dealing with water was always local, provisional. Its definition depends on geography and on the expectations of those whose security is at stake.

But it was also always at the root of social progress. John was convinced that the success of nations was not just based on land, or borne out of entrepreneurship or innovation, or market institutions, or even precious mineral resources. All these mattered, of course. But he also believed that the web of infrastructure and institutions that ensured the water security of the population played a central role in economic development.

Giulio Boccaletti and John Briscoe in Stockholm. Source: G. Boccaletti

I saw John then. The occasion was happy one. He seemed in good form, surrounded by long-time friends. I invited him to attend a water conference I was to hold in Chicago that November and he accepted with enthusiasm. We corresponded a few times after that. But his health had begun deteriorating rapidly. In his last email, a few weeks before we were due to meet again, he told me he could not make it to Chicago after all. I learnt he had passed away as I was opening the proceedings that he was to keynote.

A month after John had passed, in early January 2015, I opened a file on my computer. I saved it simply with the name “water book” and I began writing. John was no longer going to be there to discuss his endless store of experiences, but I was determined to continue that conversation with him nonetheless, even if I could only imagine what he might have said. I began writing and finished in June of 2020, when my editor sent the manuscript off for publication.

I don’t know whether John would have agreed with the book I wrote. But I suspect he would have agreed with its basic thesis: that the dialectic relationship that ties society to water is shaped by the choices and decisions to manage water security over time, and that those choices and decisions matter because they shape the economic and political development of society. It has been true for ten thousand years. Contemporary societies are no different.

Of course, the most contemporary and urgent of questions is what will happen to those carefully developed institutions and technical solutions, to those layers of infrastructure and institutions, when the climate system suddenly, unexpectedly changes, transforming the water conditions of the planet.

Changes to climate are indeed happening. While they will no doubt be material, the stories I encountered in writing Water, A Biography show that what should be of paramount concern is the response of society. The delivery of water security is an exercise of power on the landscape and on the lives of those who live on it.

Climate change is not an existential issue just because of the damage it will do to things, people, ecosystems, and landscapes. It is dangerous because it will solicit a response from society. Modern state power is subsumed in a “dialectic of place.” How states will organize their resources to respond to this deeply political issue, how they will choose to exercise their power, how the political process will create a common understanding of what our water security should look like on a changing planet, will determine the future trajectory of humanity on Earth.

Water: A Biography, published by Pantheon Books, will be in bookstores on September 14, 2021.

Author, physicist, climate scientist. Expert on natural resource security issues. Environment executive. Legendary ocarina player - www.giulioboccaletti.com

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