In the coming decades, water could become one of the world’s most precious natural resources. In this Globalist Interview, Brian Fagan, author of Elixir, provides a historical overview of humans’ complex relationship with water — and explains why the world’s future depends on conserving this very finite resource.
What does your new book, Elixir, cover?
My remit was for a history of the changing human
relationship with water since the beginning of farming up to the Industrial
Revolution. This was the moment, starting about 250 years ago, when we began
deep pumping of water, and many of the rules changed.
What are the general themes of the book?
There are three themes. The first is gravity — water
flows downhill, from a higher point to a lower one. The second is the close
relationship in many human societies between ritual and water, well documented
from many periods of history. The third is technology versus sustainability —
our ability to live within our hydrological means.
Why do you think of the history of water in broad stages?
I argue that we have gone through three loosely defined
"ages" of our relationship with water. The first is the longest and
oldest, and persists in some places into modern times — the notion that water
is scarce and something to treat with reverence.
The second stage began in some places about 2,000 years
ago, when societies like the Romans began to treat water as a mere commodity.
Today, we live in a third stage, where we are finally realizing that water is a
finite resource, something precious to be conserved. Indeed, our survival
depends on conservation.
When did people first manage water supplies?
For hundreds of thousands of years, people lived with water
supplies by coming to them, something the Australian Aborigines do to this day.
Hunting societies are mobile, whereas farmers tend to be sedentary, to live in
one place for long periods of time.
This was when farming communities began to move water from
streams, rivers and lakes, to their fields, using simple narrow furrows and
dams to trap water from sudden rainstorms. Furrow irrigation began in Jordan at
least 10,000 years ago.
Is furrow irrigation effective?
It’s extremely effective for small-scale subsistence
farming. In fact, there are people in Kenya, like the Marakwet and Pokot, who
still use furrows to bring water from rivers down to their fields. Their
agriculture is basically self-sustaining, the maintenance and decisions about
water allocation being made by family, kin groups and communities.
When did larger-scale irrigation first begin?
In Mesopotamia and Egypt at least 5,000 years ago. The
original irrigation systems, even those used by cities, were based on village
field systems, with control of water allocation belonging at the village level.
The city rulers were interested in taxing yield, not details of farming.
This was relatively simple irrigation agriculture. When
did irrigation begin on a much larger scale?
Contrary to popular belief, most Ancient Egyptian
irrigation agriculture was very simple for at least 2,000 years, based on
simple gravity canals and the annual Nile flood. The Assyrians of northern
Mesopotamia were probably the first large-scale irrigators, who developed water
works on a large scale using prisoners of war and slaves during the first
Later irrigation works in Iraq were also on a large,
impersonal scale, which led to widespread problems with salinization.
You write about qanats. What exactly are they?
Qanats were among the most significant inventions of
ancient hydrologists. They are basically a way of tapping ground water by
tunneling into the delta fans of streams, then allowing the ground water to
flow down slope to irrigation fields where the water emerges above ground.
Qanats are dangerous to build but were extremely
effective, some of them extending over several kilometers. As late as the
1950s, much of Tehran’s water supplies came from qanats. These ingenious
devices spread widely through the Mediterranean world into North Africa, Yemen
and Spain. A version of them based on the same principle is found in southern
You devote considerable space to Asian water management
and an entire chapter to the Chinese. What was different in these parts of the
Indian water engineers, like those in Sri Lanka, were
maestros of reservoirs and water storage, using wells and reservoirs in such
ancient cities as Harappa in Pakistan. The Buddhist city of Anuradhapura in Sri
Lanka boasted of enormous reservoirs that irrigated large tracts of land.
Chinese water engineers often thought on a large scale,
as did the Khmer rulers, who lived in great enters set in huge seasonally
flooded landscapes surrounded by reservoirs. The Chinese emperors often
deployed 1,000 workers at a time to build canals in the drought stricken Yellow
River valley of the north, but almost invariably without success.
Even today, the Chinese think of water management on a
large scale with their ambitious schemes for north/south canals to bring water
from the tropical south to the arid north. The ecological consequences of these
great schemes have not really been thought through.
What about aqueducts? Weren’t they important for the
Greeks and Romans?
Aqueducts began at least as early as the Assyrians, but
it was the Greeks who first built them on a large scale for cities like Athens
and Syracuse. In fact, they were among the best of all ancient water engineers.
The Romans were great copiers and adopted aqueducts on a
large scale, often carrying water long distances not only for domestic supplies
but mainly to supply public baths. Such facilities were important centers for
commercial, political and social affairs. Even the wastewater was used to wash
out the public toilets set nearby.
Aqueducts flowed permanently, which led, inevitably, to
an assumption that water was a readily available commodity to which people were
entitled. Our sense of entitlement to cheap water goes back at least to the
You describe Islamic water engineers as among history’s
They inherited thousands of years of expertise at water
management in arid and semi-arid lands and then adapted it to different regions
of their empire. There was nothing that Islamic farmers did not know about extracting
water from such environments and, of course, Islamic gardens like those at
Granada in Spain are famous — symbolic representations of paradise.
What about the Maya and Inca?
They were just as expert as people in the Old World, if
sometimes even more so. I describe how the Ancient Maya conserved water and
distributed it, using their great pyramids as water catchments.
Perhaps the most adept of all were the Inca of the Andes
in South America, who were blessed with an abundance of water. Recent
hydrological research has puzzled out the details of how they used gravity to
provide water at such places as Machu Picchu high in the mountains.
How did the Industrial Revolution change everything?
The term "revolution" is misleading, as the
technological developments behind it came to pass over several centuries. In
the end, both steam power, then fossil fuels produced technologies that could
pump water supplies from very deep below the earth which hitherto had been
inaccessible to water wheels and other technologies.
The long-term consequences have been disastrous, for we
are depleting aquifers and ground water in many parts of the world with
The longer-term future for rising global populations,
insatiable demand for more food, and huge cities is downright scary — as many
authors have laid out. The promiscuous pumping of deep water has changed all
the dynamics of water and our relationships with it.
What’s the big lesson from history?
That we need to treat the world’s finite water supplies —
and they are indeed finite — with deep respect. And in the long term, for all
our vaunted technologies, many of the solutions and pathways to sustainability
lie in making conservation an integral part of everyone’s lives. And that is
very hard to achieve.
What do you hope Elixir will achieve?
I’ve tried to write a definitive history of human
relationships with water that will be around for a while, as a source of
information and encouragement. Judging from initial feedback, it’s achieving that
goal. In many ways, it’s the culmination of over ten years of writing books
about ancient climate change and human societies of all kinds.
And finally, what’s your next book?
On a very different subject. Beyond the Blue Horizon
looks at ways in which people have decoded the mysteries of the world’s oceans.
Not galleons and warships, but traditional craft and ancient ways of finding
one’s way across the ocean. Again, it’s a book with a lot of ritual in it and
is also based on my personal experience as a small boat sailor. It has turned
out to be a fascinating subject and is due to come out in mid-2012.