Review | Rivers of Power

G.T. Dempsey


Laurence C. Smith Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World (New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2020), pp. 356   ISBN: 9780316412001  $29
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 Rivers are more than mere channels of water.  That’s a commonplace.  We are all aware, at least subconsciously, of how rivers shape the surface of our planet and of their roles in human history.  But if you want to truly comprehend their power, in both the natural and geopolitical spheres and the force they project on our personal lives, read this book.  While written – and written very well, indeed – for the general reader, this book is not a synthesis of other peoples’ books.  The author, long a luminary of the geography department at UCLA, now is the John Atwater and Diana Nelson University Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University. His book is a scientist’s evaluative analysis of both scientific findings and ongoing research – as evidenced by the bibliography of some twenty pages listing the scientific and historical papers published in peer-reviewed learned journals underlying each section of the book.

     Rivers unite people (the subject of chapter 1).  Our world’s four earliest civilizations, each thousands of years B.C., all ‘formed along wide, flat river valleys, having fertile silt soils but scanty rainfall’:  the floodplains of the Nile river in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the Indus valley of South Asia, and the Yangtze and Yellow rivers in China.  Irrigation was crucial to converting these floodplains into productive agricultural land; ingenious human inventions like canals, dikes, dams, and water-lifting devices resulted in food surpluses, and the trading and taxing of these surpluses led to the emergence of social classes and cities.  In this management of rivers at the dawn of history, we find the origins of science and rational thought, of engineering, and of law.  The Nile’s annual flood history from before 3100 B.C., gives us, etched into stone, ‘humanity’s longest written scientific data record.’

     Rivers divide peoples (chapter 2).   In South America ‘nearly half of all national borders are defined by rivers.’  The pattern is repeated globally.  The author’s own Global Subnational River-Borders (GSRB) study revealed that nearly a quarter of the world’s interior state (provincial) borders are also rivers.  We Americans are all too aware of the tensions such river borders can bring; the Rio Grande marks nearly two-thirds of our border with Mexico and we have turned it into ‘a caged strip of concrete and steel.’  The sharing of rivers can lead to water wars.  Conflicts over the upstream damming of rivers are all too common – even the truly saintly Nelson Mandela felt compelled to order a deadly attack on Lesotho over the construction of a dam.  Similar potential conflicts are incubating in Ethiopia (the Blue Nile) and China (the Mekong).  To prevent wars, hundreds of transboundary river-sharing agreements have been negotiated, and the United Nations has produced a Watercourses Convention.

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     Rivers can be strategic in war (chapter 3).  At the peak of their power in late 2014, the jihadists of ISIS controlled more than 100,000 square kilometers of ‘captured river towns and cities strung like pearls along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, together with their dams, hydropower, and surrounding oil wells and farmland.’  They held billions of dollars in revenue.  In our own Civil War, it was the Union’s seizure of the entire Mississippi, splitting the Confederacy, which sealed the Confederates’ eventual doom.  More happily, Washington’s daring crossing of the Delaware river and the surprise victories at Trenton and Princeton reversed the momentum of our Revolutionary War.

     Rivers flood and the flooding is recurrent (chapter 4).    Floods are expected and anticipable all over the world, and, still, they can be hugely destructive.  In 2017, the United States suffered sixteen ‘megadisasters’ (defined as $1 billion or more in damage), ten of these were floods.  Countless smaller floods cause, cumulatively, additional billions of dollars in damage, beyond the loss of lives (two-thirds of the world’s population live near large rivers).  Floods can also cause a change in political realities.  The disastrous Mississippi Flood of 1927 upended hundreds of thousands of lives.  But it was the virtual enslavement of black refugees, their enforced (and unpaid) labor on relief work, and the indifference of the Federal government to this racist abuse which began the transformative shift of Afro-American political allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic party.

     Rivers are engineered by societies to meet their needs (chapter 5).  From antiquity, we humans have built bridges, diverted rivers, and constructed dams.  In Greece, two Mycenaean bridges are still standing after some three thousand years, and Roman aqueducts remain familiar sights.  In this last century, river engineering projects took on massive scale.  The State Water Project in California built 700 miles of infrastructure to move water from north to south, ‘an expansive network of reservoirs, hydropower dams, power-generating stations, aqueducts, tunnels, and pumping stations that circulate water south for two thirds of the length of California.’  This will be dwarfed by China’s South-to-North Water Diversion Project.

     Rivers are polluted (chapter 6).  ‘The Ganges, the world’s most revered sacred river, is so polluted with fecal coliform bacteria and chemical effluents’ that it endangers the lives of the millions of pilgrims who bathe in it.  For many decades now, governments have been confronting this pollution.  It is salutary to remember that it was President Nixon who established the Environmental Protection Agency, in reaction to such chemical pollution horrors as the Love Canal near Niagara Falls (would that today’s Republican Party would react similarly).  Still, there remain commonly overlooked sources of river pollution, such as the microbeads from skin-care creams and gels which are ‘a particularly pernicious form of a broader epidemic of microplastic pollution of the world’s rivers, oceans, and…even our treated drinking water.’  

     Rivers are, first of all, for fish (chapter 7).  The need to restore rivers to a more natural state, one which enables salmon to spawn and other species to survive, is being met through dam removals (as of 2019, nearly 1600 dams have been torn down in the United States), new dam designs that lmpound less water and sediment, and micro hydropower facilities.

     Rivers shape the earth’s surface (chapter 8).  Our understanding of this long-recognized phenomenon has been greatly enhanced through NASA’s Landsat satellite mapping (in progress since the late 1960s).  The author, in describing the balance of forces between a river’s gravitational energy and the amount of energy needed to move sediment, a progression seeking to achieve the equilibrium state of a ‘graded river,’ comments that ‘the idea that a river strives for some higher purpose by modifying itself and its local environment is…almost evocatively human….’

     Rivers promote human well-being (chapter 9).  In 2008, for the first time in human history, more people on Earth lived in cities than in rural areas.  Around the globe, governments are increasingly aware of the beneficent affect of rivers on the mental well-being of those who live alongside them, and, consequently, modern urban planning – from London to Hamburg to Shanghai to Los Angeles – is all about public commons and greenspace and public access to rivers.

     Throughout, the significance of each subject is well illustrated through both historical and contemporary events and compellingly substantiated by scientific findings, featuring, frequently, the author’s own research projects.  By necessity, the historical passages are summary, but, speaking as an historian, I was impressed by the accuracy of these accounts (there are very very few details I would quibble with).  Engaging, informative, magisterial in its coverage, intimidating in the scope of its command of the material, there’s no end to the good things to be said about this book.  I have cited the quality of Smith’s writing.  Here, the Introduction – with its evocative accounting of the Earth’s origins and the birth of rivers and their role in our planet’s ‘destructive construction project’ – reads like a prose poem.

Disclaimers: A review copy of this book was received from the publisher.  The editor of Geography Realm, Caitlin Dempsey, has known Laurence Smith since he was a professor at UCLA. This site contains affiliate links to products. When you buy something through our retail links, we earn an affiliate commission. 

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.