On July 19, 2010, a Monday evening, water came crashing down the Yangtze River. Intense rain from the East Asian monsoon hit southwest China. Water poured from the sky. As Monday turned into Tuesday, the flood roared down: every second, seventy thousand cubic meters of water came through, equivalent to thirty Olympic-size swimming pools. In the past, water would have collected in the river, gushing between the rocky banks of three incised gorges in the middle of the mainstem above the city of Yichang. The swollen river would have then overwhelmed the embankments, flooding the plains downstream. Instead, that night the current gently slipped into a wide lake near the city of Chongqing, far above those three incised gorges, oozing out as the crest of the flood dissipated. Six hundred kilometers downstream, the water level in the reservoir rose by four meters, held back by twenty-eight million cubic meters of concrete. Nothing more happened. Three Gorges Dam had passed its first real test.
The plan to build the largest dam in the world had been green-lit in 1992, under Chinese premier Li Peng. The approval had not been without controversy. Li had trained as a hydroelectric engineer in the Soviet Union. He had pushed to get the project commissioned despite concerns for the relocation of one and a half million people, and for the loss of ecosystems and historical artifacts. Eventually, a majority of the National People’s Congress voted for the construction. Work began in 1994. Only nine years later the reservoir began filling, ahead of schedule and under budget.
The story of why and how this enormous piece of infrastructure came to be is a familiar one. The high modernist project of the twentieth century was to liberate society from a variable climate, to celebrate the final victory of man in his conquest of nature. Today, everyone operates under the illusion that water on the landscape is, or should be, nothing more than an inert backdrop on the stage of human events. That illusion is created because of the forty-five thousand structures taller than fifteen meters that dam the rivers of the world, a number that grows to millions if all barrages cluttering streams are counted. This enormous stock of infrastructure is capable of catching around 20 percent of the world’s annual runoff, the water that collects in rivers and streams across all lands. Modern water infrastructure has replumbed the planet. Three Gorges Dam is one of the latest additions to this vast stock, proof that this modern story of progress has yet to fully run its course. Technology enthusiasts celebrate its achievement, while environmentalists bemoan its impacts. Either way, it is the story of a technological emancipation from nature, in which science and engineering have given humanity, for better or for worse, full control over its own destiny.
This story is familiar. It is also wrong. The story of water is not technological, but political. The impact of water on society must be read through the scars left by a continuous cycle of adaptation. All communities relate to water over time through a process of action and reaction. A levee might protect people settled behind it. A dam might store water for those times when none comes from the sky. But as towns grow and farms expand, people forget why those structures were built in the first place. Society evolves and habituates to its newfound security. Institutions develop in the shadow of infrastructure designed to create an illusion of stability. Then one day, unexpectedly, the levee fails or the reservoir behind the dam goes dry. Loss follows, sometimes catastrophically. People are forced to reconsider their environment, which is no longer the inert scenery to their life. They learn, rebuild, expand, reaching a new level of security. Their institutions adjust, habits change. The cycle repeats.
Technological progress and people’s emancipation from nature are a secondary theme in this story. The effects of humanity’s ongoing relationship with water are not merely written in rivers. They are etched into the fabric of society, into the beliefs, behaviors, and systems that regulate everyday life. What is most engineered is not landscape, but political institutions.
The central argument of this book is that humanity’s attempts to organize society while surrounded by moving water led people to create institutions, which tied individuals together in mutual dependence as they tried to deal with their environment. From countless variations over centuries, the republic emerged as the most successful mechanism to mediate the modern concerns of individual freedom and collective benefit in the face of water’s overwhelming force. The argument is not strictly deterministic: water by itself could not have “determined” the form of political institutions. However, institutions did emerge, at least in part, so that society could express its agency over a changing environment. In that sense, the heart of the story of water on the planet is a political answer to material conditions. Seen through this lens, the roots of modern society’s relationship to water go far back in time. The story begins when, ten thousand years ago, humans took the crucial step of becoming sedentary. By then, Homo sapiens had already been around for three hundred thousand years, but from a fixed place of observation, the full force of water became overwhelming. Droughts interfered with food production. Storms disrupted people’s lives. Floods destroyed communities. Because of water’s force, individuals had limited power in controlling their environment. Rather, society as a whole had to learn how to exercise its own power.
Over the course of human history, life on the water landscape forged a social contract. Water is the ultimate res publica—a public good—a moving, formless substance that defies private ownership, is hard to contain, and requires collective management. People developed institutions that required mediating individual desires and collective action in the face of water’s force. Those institutions eventually became dominant across the modern world. Legal and political systems, the territorial nation-state, finance, a system of trade, all evolved over thousands of years, while communities tried to ensure they could survive—even harness—the force of water in service of a commonwealth. Without understanding where those ideas came from, and how their development related to water, it is impossible to make sense of why and how the landscape looks the way it does today.
Part I of this book follows the dialectic relationship between the water landscape and human society from the neolithic to classical antiquity, showing how it contributed to shaping statehood. Part II then shows how—over a thousand years—antiquity was metabolized by European nations into the modern state. The legal legacy of Rome, classical republicanism, political liberalism, the sirens of utopianism, all mixed to inspire institutions, from the American Republic to the British Empire, which set the stage for the twentieth century. Part III describes how the power of the modern state and the force of industrial capitalism led to the most radical transformation of landscape in history. Its success was so complete as to make society’s relationship with water invisible, hidden under the fabric of modern life, and sowing the seeds of the dangerous illusion that governs the present. Part IV, the last one, describes how, below the visible surface of a society that believes itself separated from nature, the undercurrents of water’s agency still flow as powerful as ever.
Such a millennial story is not just an account of events and physical constructions. It is a story of ideas. In fact, it is impossible to explain the former without the latter. Three Gorges Dam, for example, was first the product of Dr. Sun’s dream. Sun Yat-sen is often referred to as the father of the Chinese nation. He was a character of extraordinary complexity, a voracious intellect, a lifelong radical, a charismatic leader. Dr. Sun’s life exposed him to a broad spectrum of cultures, tracing a path from his birth in a village in Guangdong, to his early schooling in an Anglican college in the kingdom of Hawaii, to his training as a medical doctor in Hong Kong in the 1880s. Along the way, he converted to Christianity. He was a physician, but his gift was revolution.
Dr. Sun was inspired by the profound transformations of the end of the nineteenth century, caught between British imperial aspirations and the utopianism of a modern, industrial society mesmerized by the echoes of classical republicanism. He sought to first reform and then overthrow the reactionary Qing regime in China. During years of exile and failed revolts, his anti-reactionary fervor grew. Like many modern revolutionaries he was intimately familiar with the history of Western political thought. He embraced ideals of emancipation and justice, admiring the French, American, and British constitutional settlements, even while resenting the policies those powers pursued. After the revolution of 1911, the Qing finally overthrown, Dr. Sun became the president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of China. The opportunity to make his dreams a reality had arrived.
Alas, China’s first modern republic quickly descended into chaos, as the old military elites turned to dictatorship. Unable to realize his utopian vision for the future, Dr. Sun moved to the French concession in Shanghai and wrote about it instead. International Development of China was his blueprint for the country’s economic rebirth. His point of reference was America. Sun Yat-sen proposed to “make capitalism create socialism in China so that these two economic forces of human evolution will work side by side in future civilization.” His political philosophy required transforming the water resources of China. He compared the potential of the Yellow River to that of the Mississippi, imagining a delta designed to mimic the jetties of New Orleans. He imagined improving existing canals and embankments, constructing new waterways, hydropower, and irrigated agriculture. Then, he imagined a dam in the middle of the mainstem of the Yangtze, at three incised gorges, to “form locks to enable crafts to ascend the river as well as to generate water power.” It was 1920.
Dr. Sun was not an engineer, but the interpreter of ideas that stretched as far back as human history. His was the dream of a utopian and a revolutionary. The Three Gorges Dam that stopped the flood in 2010 was not about catching up to the latest technology. The dam was the product of a society that had long chosen to tame the environment on an unprecedented scale. It was the product of a hundred-year- old dream steeped in republican values, one which spoke of commonwealth and progress, of rights of individuals and national aspirations, and which had crystallized long before the modern multipurpose dam had become a common feature of the landscape.
Dr. Sun’s dream gave the idea of Three Gorges Dam the strength to persist through time, through Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, through Mao Zedong’s era, through Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, to, finally, Li Peng’s premiership. Once built, the dam seemed to prove that those living downstream could sleep soundly in the knowledge that something powerful watched over them. The significance of that security was in its political intent. Its engineering had become an instrument of the state in creating an illusion of final emancipation from nature in service of a commonwealth. The question is what happens when—not if—the illusion of emancipation is shattered.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, humanity has become a force on the planet so powerful that some have renamed this era “the Anthropocene.” But that has not heralded the conquest of nature. Far from it. The profound modifications inflicted on the planet have tightened, not severed people’s relationship with water. The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is having a measurable impact on the energy balance of the planet, modifying Earth’s water cycle. The extraordinary rainfall of 2010 on the Yangtze basin was a harbinger of much more to come. Changes in the climate system will eventually shatter the illusion of any final emancipation from nature. When they do, what will be concerning, above all, will not be the flaws they expose in the engineered landscape, but the societal response they stimulate.
The success of a republic in managing the tension between individual liberty and collective action rests on fragile and unstable foundations. By destabilizing those foundations, the water events of the twenty-first century could have profound political consequences. What compromises people will be willing to make in order to achieve further security in a newly uncertain world—what sacrifices to individual liberty they will endure and what choices they will make in the pursuit of a collective benefit—will determine whether the unstable balance between freedom and commonwealth can be preserved. That is, above all, what is of fundamental importance to everybody’s future.
The questions posed by having to manage the power of water on the planet are not primarily technical, scientific, or even aesthetic. They are fundamentally questions about power, about who gets to decide what happens in everyone’s home. The answer is often found in the minds of radical dreamers. Dr. Sun’s dream a hundred years ago led to the Three Gorges Dam. Similar dreams created the modern world. To imagine what kind of future current dreams might bring, it is crucial to understand humanity’s relationship to water, the most powerful agent of the climate system on Earth. For that, the combined story of people and water—a biography of water—matters a great deal.