As Brian Fagan shows, every human society on every continent has been shaped by its relationship to a resource which is both “capricious and powerful, far more masterful than the humans and animals that depend on it”.
In his preface, Fagan writes: “History teaches us that the societies that last longest are those that treat water with respect, as an elixir of life, a gift from the gods. We seem to have forgotten this compelling lesson.”
Water has become the object of commodification, he warns, and requires re-evaluation as a treasure that demands respect. “Salvation,” he repeatedly tells us, lies in returning to tradition, simplicity and reverence for water as a divine gift — and consuming less of it.
Even if Fagan’s prose is occasionally overwrought and his tone alarmist, it’s hard to disagree with his thesis that, even though we cannot live without it, “of all the resources that we rely on for survival in today’s world, water is the least appreciated and certainly the most misunderstood”.
Still, Fagan’s self-indulgence is hard to bear, at times. For example, telling us how “as I dunked my salt-encrusted head under a garden faucet after an afternoon sail,” thoughts of water as “a merciful gift from God… resonated in my mind.”
Yes, Fagan is an American, if you had not already guessed, which is why he writes “faucet”, not “tap”. But if he lets his exuberance for his subject get the better of him, his credentials are sound, having taught at the University of California Santa Barbara for 36 years.
The recurring problem of tone, however, is one of the book’s flaws. Positive examples of pagan water-worship are contrasted with reproaches for anything Fagan regards as arrogance. The critical difference between cultures with well-managed water and those with self-inflicted shortages, Fagan claims, arises from perceptions: people that see water as a gift of the gods, like traditional Balinese farmers, do not run out of it. Surely though, we don’t need to imbue water with West Coast American mythical qualities to understand the need to conserve it?
Whether or not water has “profound sacred qualities”, Fagan rightly notes that it figures large in many holy and special places. Fresh water’s evocation of serenity — contrasting with the seas’ inherent untameability — has been commemorated through the ages by magnificent shrines: “the soft murmuring of a sacred spring at Delphi in Greece, the reflecting pools of India’s Taj Mahal, riffling streams in the gardens at Granada, Spain, the reservoirs that surround Angkor Wat in Cambodia, symbolising the primordial waters of the universe, the font for holy water in Christian cathedrals”.
At its best, Fagan’s sweeping narrative moves effortlessly across time and place, from ancient Greece and Rome to China, where emperors marshalled armies of labourers in a centuries-long struggle to tame powerful rivers.
Fagan also serves up some rich anecdotes and historical episodes, showing how pre-industrial people properly appreciated water, people like the San hunters of the Kalahari who see the whole world — from the seemingly dry earth to practically every plant — as a sometimes grudging source of the life-giving substance.
And Fagan demonstrates how water administration has frequently played a key role in social change too. For the Marakwet people of Kenya farming using irrigation from rivers was the key to men finding a wife.
“When water comes home it is a marriage,” one of their sayings goes. “Whoever has a channel has a wife.”
The Assyrian monarchs were even more ruthlessly pragmatic: they conquered territory and used slaves because they lacked the manpower to dig canals and citadel walls themselves.
Lack of water, on the other hand, has not just ended lives but whole civilisations and Fagan sees forewarnings for our own. Recent fieldwork at Angkor Wat shows that “monsoon failures and drought drastically affected the Khmer Empire and may even have contributed to its collapse”.
Similarly, the Maya civilisation disappeared in the 10th century AD because of prolonged droughts, whereas the Andeans on the Peruvian coast survived through careful water management. Inca engineers ingeniously supplied Macchu Picchu with water, at an altitude 2,000 feet above the neighbouring river. If the anthropology is interesting, though, Fagan’s descriptions of essentially similar irrigation systems are less so. Frankly, there is a great deal of repetition.
But when did Man start taking water for granted? According to Fagan, “we can lay [blame] at the feet of the classical Greeks, who were maestros of water management, and the Romans, who used aqueducts to fill public baths and to flush nearby communal toilets, the Starbucks of the day where people conducted a great deal of their (non-personal hygiene) business”.
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, human ingenuity had made water flow even in the most arid landscapes. It lost its mysteriousness and became something to be exploited and channelled for use by the masses with (too) little regard for sustainability.
Such a blasé attitude is understandable in countries like Ireland where the rain sometimes never seems to stop falling and where most of the population lives close to the most plentiful substance on the planet, covering 75% of Earth’s surface.
Yet if we believe the predictions of some pundits, with the earth’s population approaching nine billion, its scarcity in some parts of the world will soon spark more violence than wars for land and oil combined.
This could be unduly pessimistic. The world’s current problems have more to do with uneven distribution and uneconomical usage than with absolute shortage. As with energy, sustain-ability is possible if we switch from fossil water drawn from aquifers to renewable sources, developing energy-efficient desalination technology such as that pioneered in Israel.
Fagan, for one, believes human ingenuity will rise to the challenge through improved storage, and drought-resistant, higher-yield crops, as well as greater conservation — and his irritating “reverence”. Fagan also makes a plaintive (but scarcely novel) demand for “long-term thinking... decisive political leadership and… a reordering of financial priorities”.
Supplying intriguing historical background, Elixir well illustrates water’s role in contemporary environmental issues, but does it need to be so long?
Fagan prompts an appreciation of water’s centrality to civilisation and of human ingenuity but this is, ironically, a dry book, under-edited and frequently sluggish. Most readers will prefer their water wetter.