Flows of history

Frederick Goodall, Overflow of the Nile

Rivers of Power – How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilisations, and Shapes Our World

Laurence C Smith, Allen Lane, 356 pages, £20

Geography can be history, and history geography – and sometimes the most obvious things are overlooked. Rivers of Power seeks to make us see beneath the surfaces of arterial waters, and consider them as carriers of civilisation and arbiters of destinies.

Rivers are elemental, and ambivalent. They are frontiers and highways, destroyers and fertilisers, fishing grounds and spiritual metaphors, power-givers and flushers of poisons. They are the veins of terrains, which like our veins carry oxygen or pathogens, and extinction when they fail. They inspired Babylonian and Roman legal codes, outlining ideas about access, drainage, fishing, irrigation, maintenance, navigation, pollution and sharing that still course through 21st century jurisprudence. We may never step in the same river twice, but at least we have some notion of riverine rights and responsibilities.

This enthusiastic, occasionally gushing, author opens his hymn to hydrology ancient and modern with a descent into a ninth century Nilometer, a great pit with a notched marble column now under concrete in central Cairo – but once a confidential key to understanding the flow and volume of the river, whose silts allowed sowing, whose droughts could mean death. The predictability the river offered allowed philosophy and pyramids – and authoritarian government, and downstream dependence. In some countries, reservoir and river levels are still state secrets.

Before Egypt, there had been Mesopotamia, powered by Tigris and Euphrates. As the Epic of Gilgamesh ruminates,

Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood, / The mayfly floating on the water

About the same time, Harappans were overflowing along the Indus. Before either, people had been planting rice and writing in the Yangtze and Yellow basins. Mycenaean bridges still straddle some Peleponnesian streams. Mystical Greeks ferried their dead over the Styx, Vikings sent theirs over the Gjöll, Hindus drifted theirs down the Ganges, and Celts tossed votive swords into the Thames. Even for so experienced an author, rivers can seem sentient – as if they ‘strive’, and have a ‘will’.

Humanity’s romans-fleuves have often been Tales from the Riverbank. 63% of the world’s population lives within 20 miles of a major river, and the vast majority of ‘coastal’ cities are really river-delta conurbations. From Akkad to the ISIS Caliphate, Noah to Yu the Great, the Rubicon to the Mekong, the Compleat Angler to the Lewis-Clark expedition, a river usually runs through it. Vitruvius devoted a whole volume of De Architectura to the management of water, a concern still current 1,800 years afterwards to Alexander Pope, who extolled the ‘obedient rivers’ of aristocratic estates – and even more now, when too often in recent years these once well-behaved waterways have decanted devastation onto English towns.

Some of the earliest scientific speculations concerned the origins of the Nile, and Ecclesiastes 1:7 famously ponders the enigma, ‘All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.’ It was not until Pierre Perrault’s 1674 On the Origin of Springs that the principles of precipitation were established.

It has only been very recently that we have begun to understand the extent and health of the earth’s waters, thanks to cloud-computing, satellite and remote-sensing technologies, many deployed and developed by the admirably hands-on, legs-in Professor Smith. Composite imaging shows a worrying picture of appearances, disappearances and transformations as humans with titanic earth-moving powers bridge, canalise, culvert, dam, divert, drain, drink and poison irreplaceable aqua vitae. Dead zones, toxic blooms and transgender fish fan out into the oceans from debouchments. Water shortages and sullying bring huge suffering, environmental cataclysm, and often violent unrest. Even the sainted war over water, like Nelson Mandela when he sent troops to take a Lesotho dam. China wants Tibet mostly for water. Ethiopia’s plans for the Nile’s headwaters could mean another Egyptian eclipse. Water is also bitterly contested within countries – Los Angeles’ 1913 water-grab of the Owens River inspired Roman Polanski’s brilliantly seamy Chinatown.

Not all planned dams will be built, and Professor Smith hopes better understanding of how they function and wildlife’s requirements may mitigate effects – timed releases to mimic natural cycles, allowing sediment to pass through, and run-of-river dams to avoid the need for reservoirs. Some schemes could even bring benefits. Africa’s Transaqua project could help replenish Lake Chad, where too many desperate ex-fishermen are taking Islamist bait. Elsewhere, dams are being removed as outdated liabilities, and rivers allowed to revert, with huge benefits for humans and wildlife.

Closeness to running water reduces stress hormones and allows nature-needing people to reconnect with the elements. The author is greatly inspired by urban redevelopments which open up waterfronts, advances in data-gathering and microhydropower, and increasing awareness of rivers’ centrality to culture, ecology and economics. But his salient lesson is his simplest – we need to get outside, and fall in love with rivers for ourselves.

This review first appeared in The Spectator in April 2020, and is reproduced with permission

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