“How the Earth Changed History: Water”

purple haze waterBBC’s “How the Earth Changed History: Water” is a fascinating and insightful look at water’s role in shaping human history. Narrated by geologist Iain Stewart.

Visiting spectacular locations in Iceland, the Middle East and India,  Stewart shows how control over water has been central to human existence. He takes a precarious flight in a motorized paraglider to experience the cycle of freshwater that we depend on, discovers how villagers in the foothills of the Himalayas have built a living bridge to cope with the monsoon, and visits Egypt to reveal the secret of the pharaohs’ success and Angkor, the site of the ancient Khmer empire.

Ruthless Reviews gives this summary:

Though the forces that shape the Earth are familiar, the way they interplay shifts inexorably. In the introductory chapter, the fate of all life is linked to water, which is always in motion; this is made clear as Stewart examines rock carvings of crocodiles – in the middle of the Sahara Desert. The water cycle moves the relatively small amount of drinkable water useful for human activity from sea to wind to mountains and rainfall, rivers and lakes, and back to the sea. This cycle was notoriously difficult to understand and control for prehistoric man. History is defined by hardship, demonstrated as the last ice age precipitated a drought lasting centuries in the fertile crescent. The hunter-gatherers there adapted by fashioning stone tools to become more efficient hunters, and then invented the sickle, sparking the agricultural revolution. Growing crops necessitated a ready water supply, beginning mankind’s connection to water, namely rivers, that brought a predictable source. This in turn drove the development of an organized society, as only a high degree of organization can deal with water shortages.

The Nile River valley benefited from the river rich in volcanic minerals originating in Ethiopia, and business, taxation, and societal hierarchy were driven by the water. The Garamantians established an advanced nation in the Sahara desert through the cunning use of deep boreholes that were the first use of groundwater. One civilization after another is examined for their methods of adapting to volatile water supplies, and often their failure to continue that adaptation and outstrip their resources in lean times. This includes a fascinating section on how the British empire’s failure to manage India’s water supply provided the spark for the resistance movement. This is not only a look at the past, but at our very near future, considering the increasing global tension over the water supply that will eventually lead to the next world war.

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