Book review – Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World

7-minute read

There is a vast, arterial power humming all around us, hiding in plain sight” (p. 320). With these words, geographer Laurence C. Smith concludes his engaging and impressive book on the environmental history of rivers. Touching on a multitude of topics, some of which I did not even know I cared about, I found my jaw dropping more than once.

Rivers of Power

Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World, written by Laurence C. Smith, published in Europe by Allen Lane in April 2020 (hardback, 364 pages)

For a big book on the environmental history of rivers, you expect some classical history, Brian-Fagan style. Rivers of Power does not disappoint and dishes out fascinating introductions to the ancient Harappan civilization in South Asia who mastered municipal plumbing two millennia before the ancient Romans, the early Mesopotamian cities that sprang up around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the importance to ancient Egypt of the Nile and its annual flooding.

But Smith ranges far wider – take his sections on more recent historical events that revolve around rivers. One of the decisive battles of the American Revolution was Washington’s nighttime crossing of the Delaware River which helped America win its war for independence with Britain. Or the sordid history of Britain’s opium wars in China, which relied heavily on shipping traffic up the Yangtze River and the opening of so-called treaty ports to force China to accept the importation of opium in exchange for goods the English wanted. These are both examples of historical episodes I knew little about, but for which Smith here provides context and background in a pleasingly compact manner.

Rivers can also influence human affairs in more roundabout ways and Rivers of Power includes some remarkable examples. The disastrous 1889 Johnstown flood changed the face of US law forever. When a neglected dam belonging to a gentlemen’s country club burst, it wiped this Pennsylvanian settlement off the map. When neither the club nor its millionaire members could be held responsible for the death and destruction caused by their negligence, the ensuing national uproar led to the introduction of strict liability laws, creating a culture of litigation that persists to this day. Similarly, Smith argues that the 1927 Mississippi flood changed the face of US politics for good. Herbert Hoover cleverly used the disaster for self-promotion, contributing to his victory in the next presidential election. But when he never made good on his promises to provide black sharecroppers with mortgage payments for land resettlement, it spelt the end of African American support for the Republican Party.

“Rivers can also influence human affairs in more roundabout ways […] The disastrous 1889 Johnstown flood […] created a culture of litigation that persists to this day.”

Smith possesses some serious writing chops and has contributed pieces to the Financial Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other major outlets. My jaw dropped more than once. The identity of the young German boy that historians now believe was saved from drowning and grew up to be an influential statesman? That reveal hit me like a bombshell. Some of the details of the aftermath of the Johnstown flood make for chilling reading. And the interview with a veteran of the Vietnam war, a war largely fought from riverboats in the Mekong delta, was particularly gripping.

And what of the topics I would otherwise snooze through? Normally, my eyes are likely to glaze over when you say “transboundary river treaty” or “mega-dam geopolitics”. Instead, I found myself reading with great interest about Laos’s unilateral decision to build dams in the Mekong River, or the current construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in one of the Nile’s two main tributaries and the political upset this is causing in Egypt. Smith also makes clear the immense scale at which we are now modifying landscapes. No longer content with simply building dams and canals, China, India, and several African countries are in the process of rerouting whole drainage basins in megaprojects known as interbasin transfers. Rivers of Power will teach you as much about historical events as it does about current affairs.

The above is but a sampling of the numerous interesting stories and studies that Smith covers here. In a book that wanders this widely, there will inevitably be sections that are of less interest. For me, it was the last chapter on riverfront redevelopment projects. Instead, I wanted to read more about Smith’s own hydrological research. For example, I was surprised at how brief his mention of the upcoming SWOT satellite mission was, given that he has been involved in conceiving and planning it for nearly two decades. Short for Surface Water and Ocean Topography, it will map the whole of the Earth’s surface waters in 3D. At the same time, it is testimony to the huge amount of research that Smith has put into this book that he is not choosing the easy option of writing mostly about the topics he knows intimately.

“Smith also makes clear the immense scale at which we are now modifying landscapes. [Several countries] are in the process of rerouting whole drainage basins in megaprojects known as interbasin transfers.”

Despite the chapters appearing long at the outset, they have been divided into shorter subheaded sections, so I never found the book wearing on me. Although no references or annotations are given in the text, the reference section at the back is organised according to the same subheaded structure, so finding sources and more information is fairly painless.

If I have to gripe about something, I feel that Smith is sometimes a bit too neutral in his reporting. Riverfront redevelopment is all fine and dandy but is a luxury for nations that have off-shored their heavy industry. Or take Egypt, which has single-handedly commandeered most of the Nile’s water discharge through the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement: “A new international agreement […] is badly needed. Yet any reduction in the total volume of water flowing downstream is potentially devastating for Egypt” (p. 155). To call Egypt not acknowledging upstream nations a “glaring omission” as Smith does here is putting it mildly, it strikes me as a scandalous example of overreach by a single nation.

Furthermore, a chapter dedicated to the effects of climate change on rivers would have been prudent – coverage of it is now scattered over different chapters. There is, for example, the shocking fact that half of the world’s glacier-fed rivers are past peak water (this refers to the highest discharge rate from glacier melt). Or the increased likelihood of more extreme floods thanks to the Clausius-Clapeyron relation (warm water holds more water vapour and will result in more rainfall – in effect increased temperatures accelerate the evaporation-precipitation cycle).

But these are minor complaints. Overall, Rivers of Power is bristling with fascinating and skilfully told riverine topics. Though meandering widely, it remains captivating throughout thanks to Smith’s excellent writing.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Rivers of Power

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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