“Our struggle to control [water] has been behind the rise and fall of some of the greatest civilizations on Earth,” says geologist Iain Stewart. Some societies have successfully and sustainably adapted to water’s rhythms; others, like the ancient Khmer Empire of Angkor (Cambodia), epitomize societies that “conquered” water’s rhythms to suit their needs (and hubris).
The Khmer’s water system spanned over 1200 square kilometers and connected the natural lake (Tonle Sap) to the artificial reservoirs (barays) via a series of canals. The 12th century “temple-mountain” Angkor Wat was built as a spiritual home for the Hindu god Vishnu.
Scholars have speculated that the downfall of this elaborate water system and the commerce it generated led to the end of Angkor. While climate played a part, environmental issues caused by the Khmer themselves finally brought down the empire. By the 15th century, Angkor had outstripped its resources and tipped the movement of power toward Phnom Penh. Somehow, in their success, the Khmer empire had crossed the threshold from healthy adaptation to unsustainable expansionism, achieving the fate of all great civilizations whose mandate is to “conquer Nature”: collapse.
When a civilization seeks to “conquer” vs. coevolve with Nature cooperatively, the result is always collapse. The Khmer, like so many others before and after them, pursued a “rule over Nature” mandate embraced by most androcentric societies.
“Instead of adapting our development to the available water supply of a region we choose to force the water supply to “adapt” to our desired locations,” Malcolm McDowell tells us in the 2008 water documentary Blue Gold.
Today, we control water on a massive scale, interrupting the natural water cycle and taking water away from where it was to bring water to where it never was before. We’ve constructed over 50 thousand dams on the planet according to Helen Sarakinos, Dams Programs Manager of River Alliance of Wisconsin. Reservoirs around the world hold 10,000 cubic km of water; five times the water as all the rivers on Earth. Most of these great reservoirs lie in the northern hemisphere, and the extra weight has slightly changed how the Earth spins on its axis, speeding its rotation and shortening the day by 8 millionths of a second in the last 40 years.
Sustainable adaptation requires a paradigm shift; a shift resulting from the natural evolution – the heroic journey – of humankind with the planet. According to Richard Tarnas, author of The Passion of the Western Mind, this involves an “evolutionary imperative for the masculine to see through and overcome its hubris and one-sidedness: to own its unconscious shadow and choose to enter into a fundamentally new relationship of mutuality with the feminine in all its forms. The feminine then becomes not that which must be controlled, denied and exploited [like Nature], but rather fully acknowledged, respected and responded to for itself … not the objectified ‘other’; but rather source, goal, and immanent presence.”
This article and those that follow in this series is an excerpt from “Water Is…The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press, 2016) and “The Story of Water” essay that accompanies the fiction story “La natura dell’acqua—The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, 2016). Both books are available on Amazon, Kobo, and quality bookstores near you.
“Water Is…The Meaning of Water”: Part history, part science and part philosophy and spirituality, this biography of water combines personal journey with scientific discovery that explores water’s many identities and ultimately our own. Written by internationally published author, teacher and limnologist Nina Munteanu. Recommended by Margaret Atwood in The New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ for 2016.
“La natura dell’acqua—The Way of Water”: This bilingual short story and essay (English and Italian) is a vision of the near future that explores the implications of corruption and deception of companies and government together with conflicts over resources. Ecologist Nina Munteanu examines humanity in the face of climate change and our changing relationships with technology and nature.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.