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RIVERS OF POWER: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World by Laurence C. Smith book review

RIVERS OF POWER: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World by Laurence C. Smith book review
10 Jul
by Laurence C. Smith • allen lane • £19.00 (hardback) 

The brilliant thing about a book on rivers is that it manages to be so much more than just a book on rivers. For rivers, it turns out, are the lifeblood of cities, the stage for countless skirmishes, and at times, a terribly destructive force. They are border-defining and border-crossing entities. In a world of nations not accustomed to sharing, their waters must be shared. It’s for this reason that Rivers of Power, a fairly lengthy book at 300 pages, manages to flow on so easily, never losing pace or purpose.

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Laurence, a professor of environmental studies at Brown University, starts his sweeping study with some of the world’s earliest societies. From the ancient Sumerians, whose experiments with stream irrigation enabled the proliferation of cities in Mesopotamia, to perhaps the most famous of all river cities – Cairo – he demonstrates that learning to tame waterways and bend them to the human will was the vital ingredient in the creation of large human settlements.

These early cities were entirely dependent on their rivers. Laurence points to research which suggests that the ‘First Dark Age’ of Ancient Egypt, which saw the break down of law and order, murder, looting and tomb robbing, coincided with a period of particularly low Nile flood levels, devastating carefully planned agricultural irrigation. Nevertheless, aside from these dark times, ingenious inventions largely ensured that people could live alongside and utilise their greatest resource. Canals, dikes, dams and lifting devices such as Archimedes screw, meant that food surpluses became possible, leading to a whole new system of tax, trade and the emergence of new professions. 

And so onto the New World, where Laurence contends that it was the aggressive pursuit of North America’s large inland rivers, that set into motion the idea and destiny of a single America. How different that land would be, he says, if rivers had not been so important to its conquerers. In fact, as Laurence goes on to show, how different everywhere would be if rivers did not flow exactly where they do. For it is rivers that have so commonly been used to demarcate land and carve nations, leading inevitably to the water wars that still exist – and are in fact becoming ever more likely – today.

No region or epoch is left out. In a chapter dedicated to war, Laurence highlights how Isis rose and fell along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and how the group used them, together with their hydropower and surrounding oil fields, to sustain the brief caliphate.

Always the story is bigger than the river itself. In another chapter on natural disasters, Laurence links the largely forgotten 1927 Mississippi River flood to the election of Herbert Hoover in the US, a move which he claims sowed the first seeds of discord between black voters and the Republican Party. 

Of course, our rivers today are far from the free-flowing life-givers we would wish them to be. In the second half of the book, Laurence largely focuses on the ills humans have dealt rivers, from the proliferation of gargantuan dams to the seemingly unstoppable tide of pollution and waste. So too are huge engineering projects fundamentally altering natural paths (China’s South to North Water Diversion project aims to divert 44.8 billion cubic metres of water per year from the Yangtze River in the south to the Yellow River Basin in arid northern China). 

Laurence sets out the environmental tolls of such projects, but it is not all bad news. ‘Sometimes we do learn from our mistakes,’ he writes. The penultimate two chapters are dedicated to new technologies, sensors and models that are helping to counteract the impact of our dangerous meddling, including new types of dam that still allow fish and sediment to flow, sustainable aquaculture practices and micro-hydropower facilities. 

It is an impressive thing to weave together so much information, and leave a book that does not feel dry. Far from it. The reader comes away from Rivers of Power drenched in facts and figures yes, but so too with an almost spiritual connection to the waterways that have always defined our lives. And, perhaps, an enhanced desire to protect them.

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