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Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization Hardcover – January 5, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 77 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This sprawling text reconstructs the history of civilization in order to illuminate the importance of water in human development from the first civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and the Indus River Valley to the present. Solomon (The Confidence Game) advances a persuasive argument: the prosperity of nations and empires has depended on their access to water and their ability to harness water resources. The story he tells is familiar, but his emphasis on water is unique: he shows how the Nile's flood patterns determined political unity and dynastic collapses in Egypt. He suggests that the construction of China's Grand Canal made possible a sixth-century reunification that eluded the Roman Empire. Finally, he attributes America's rise to superpower status to such 20th-century water innovations as the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam. Solomon surveys the current state of the world's water resources by region, making a compelling case that the U.S. and other leading democracies have untapped strategic advantages that will only become more significant as water becomes scarcer. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Solomon’s unprecedented, all-encompassing, and resounding inquiry into the science and politics of water is predicated on two incontrovertible yet disregarded facts: water is essential to life and civilization. After elucidating water’s defining role in the planet’s climate and quantifying the earth’s limited supply of freshwater, Solomon describes in vivid detail the water technologies of the ancient river societies of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Assyria. On to Rome and its world-altering aqueducts and advanced sanitation, a crucial subject covered in depth when Solomon turns to nineteenth-century London, after telling the fascinating story of China’s bold and transforming waterworks. By the time Solomon reaches America and its water-powered industrialization, it becomes clear that the technological marvels of one era deliver the environmental challenges of the next. The triumphs of water harnessed, therefore, give way to accounts of water polluted and squandered. Solomon shares sobering revelations about the harsh disparities between the lives of those who have water and those who don’t, reports on the cruel consequences of today’s water scarcities, and assesses the potential for a nightmarish impending freshwater famine. Seeking to inspire us to place a higher value on water and establish wiser approaches to its use, Solomon has created a brilliantly discursive and compelling epic of humankind and earth’s most vital and precious resource. --Donna Seaman
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (January 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060548304
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060548308
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #140,096 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Water" should be included as a standard textbook in every high school. I think I learned more about history in this one book then in most of my college and grad courses combined and actually enjoyed it.

Solomon writes in an almost novel-like way through cavemen up to today and hints at some future trends as well. By using water as a combining thread throughout history, Solomon manages to make one civilization after another follow each other in a very logical, exciting and connected way.

Did you know that the first civilization to have flushing toilets started around 2700 BC in the Indus River Valley in India (Harappans)? Forget the decadent Romans. I was so flabbergasted and unbelieving that I had to Google it several times. Yup, it is true. So the USA got widely flushing toilets in the 18-1900s. Hmmmm, pretty cave Manish, aren't we?

"Water" is filled with fun bits of knowledge like this.

For suggestions for improvement, I would suggest adding a more detailed chapter on how water might affect us in the future. Sure, Solomon hints lightly that China and India are going into a near crisis mode as they run out of ground aquifers and river water as their glaciers melt. However, except for stating that the free market system in liberal democracies is shifting to better efficiency, he writes little of the USA's water future. Issues such as the Ogallala aquifer's future and its implications for the future USA and American river water, snow melt and huge reservoirs disappearing (which they are) seem to be lightly dealt with. Solomon ends on a seemingly very upbeat and perhaps blindly optimistic vision of the USA's water future while ignoring some very unsettled thoughts of some current US government hydrologists.

However, as a book describing civilization's past up till the present, it is in the class of Jared Diamond's classic "Collapse" and I highly recommend it. You will never be the same when you finish this book.
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Format: Hardcover
Though few people realize the significance of water, it's quickly becoming one of the most important issues of our day -- not just for governments but for people themselves in their daily lives. As a business journalist, I was fascinated by the way Solomon lets readers in on what is rarely discussed in the media. Robert Kennedy Jr. was right when he said that this book sheds new light on crucial challenges that water has created. Anyone who enjoyed "Cadillac Desert" will be even more interested in what Solomon has to say about the relentless struggle for economic and political power shaping our society.
You don't have to be a history buff to enjoy sections of the book that explain how water played a key role in shaping past civilizations -- and that's a part of history that readers will rarely discover anywhere else. If I have any criticism, it's that this section isn't even longer. Solomon tells an important and fascinating story that will lead readers to think about tomorrow's challenges every time they turn on the tap.

Don Ediger
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Format: Hardcover
Steven Solomon has done us all a great service. We take water for granted. If you read this book, you won't. Water is new oil and unless we pay attention to this issue the future is a dim, dry, place.
Don't presume this is a depressing book. It isn't. You will learn a remarkable history, have stories to tell at the dinner table, and you will leave the experience with some concrete ideas on how to change the future of water.
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Format: Hardcover
Steve Solomon's 500 page book is subtitled "The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization," and it's quite an impressive achievement.

[I sent a draft of this review to Steve, and he gave me quite a bit of informal feedback. I will be adding a summary of his responses in brackets below.]

Solomon tours the world, describing the role of water in civilizations past and present, and how their water management fits into his thesis, i.e., "societies that find the most innovative responses to the [modern water scarcity] crisis are most likely to come out as winners, while the others will fall behind" [p. 5].

This book is very helpful in helping us understand the similar and disparate ways that water has been used and managed across many cultures. I learned quite a bit about canals in England, the eastern US and China, for example.

The book is divided into four parts: Ancient History (from Ur to the Greeks to the Chinese to the Islamic conquest), the Ascendancy of the West (from early water wheels to voyages of discovery to the rise of steam power), the Modern Industrial Society (sanitation, canals and big infrastructure), and the Age of Scarcity (the new oil to the Middle East to Asian shortages to water politics in the West).

Here are a few notes that I took, more or less in order:

* Hammurabi's 53rd law said that the owner of badly-maintained dam (or levee) will pay the costs from flood damage, should the dam break.
* Solomon highlights a 2,500 year old water tunnel on Samos and 2,200 year old aqueduct/siphon to Pergamum (now near Bergama in Turkey) as marvels of engineering. I have visited these :)
* The Chinese character for politics is derived from characters that mean flood control.
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Format: Hardcover
What Solomon is trying to do in Water is admirable but he included too much, creating a rambling read that is twice as long as it needs to be. I bought the book thinking I would learn about the history of water development, which I did, but it required reading through a lot of material I wasn't expecting. Solomon chose to include topics where water plays a secondary role, such as transportation and naval military history. This causes the story to meander through history and starts to feel like the author showing off his knowledge. For instance, the explorations of Alexander the Great? Another is the Panama Canal, which I find fascinating, but does a shipping passage require its own chapter in a book titled Water? He is obviously a very knowledgeable researcher but in this case I think less would have been more.

The other excess is the writing style. Echoing another reviewer's comments, there really needs to be an effort at editing. The tendency for run-on sentences and excessive adverb use gets to be grating. There is also a level of commentary I didn't need, with offhand comments that range from unnecessary (I lost track of how many events "changed the course of history") to the grating (like a passing comment that the United States won World War II).

This book did achieve my original intent, telling the story of water development. The descriptions in regions such as Egypt, India, the US, and China enhanced my understanding and were interesting. This was a worthwhile book but I truly think the author could have doubled the value by halving the content.
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