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Stop Being Such a Water Hog

brian fagan

Many years ago, I walked with three San hunters across southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert on a searingly hot day. My companions moved effortlessly, apparently without fatigue or thirst. I paused frequently to swig from my water bottle. We came to a dry streambed, which one of the men examined. He dug into the sand with his wooden digging stick. A foot below the surface, water appeared. We drank greedily and I allowed the water to flow sensuously over my sweating face. My relationship to water has never been the same since.

I’d forgotten this experience until I started researching the history of humans and water more than three years ago while writing my just-published book “Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind.” For decades, I’d lived with all the water I wanted, running from a faucet, available day and night, summer and winter. Like most everyone in California, I developed an unconscious feeling of entitlement, that fresh drinking water was my right. This entitlement extends to water for irrigation agriculture, which consumed about 80 percent of California’s water supplies, often for thirsty crops. Loud screams of protest from farmers erupt every time water allocations are cut back. The smarter among them are looking for ways to conserve water rather than demanding extra supplies. These are the wise ones, for water shortages are here to stay.

I started reading about the Australian Aborigines and the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a time in the distant past peopled by mythic beings with supernatural powers. They created the landscape and hunted and foraged like humans. In western Australia the Wagyl, a sacred serpent, meandered over arid lands creating lakes and waterways. Chants, mythic songs and oral traditions still guide the Aborigines from water hole to spring, to water sources invisible to the naked eye. Complex and profoundly personal relationships link Aborigines and their water supplies.

The gravity of ancient canals

Years after my experience in the Kalahari, I realized once more there was far more to water than just pumping it into reservoirs and freeing it from faucets. I learned about gravity and furrow canals, used as early as 10,000 years ago, when farmers extended the natural flow of streams to their fields via carefully graded, narrow canals made with digging sticks and stone hoes. I unearthed the mysteries of the ingenious Iranian qanat . This remarkable device penetrates alluvial fans at the bases of hillside streams. A carefully graded tunnel, complete with ventilation shafts, reaches groundwater upslope and carries it downslope into carefully irrigated fields. The qanat’s long tunnels harvested groundwater so effectively that they once provided most of Tehran’s drinking water.

An archaeologist friend in East Africa introduced me to the Marakwet farmers of northwestern Kenya, who still water their fields with carefully created canals, little wider than a plow furrow, that tap rivers far upslope. The Marakwet have been self-sustaining for centuries, using technologies that have changed little since the beginning of farming about 10,000 years ago.

I’d always thought of the history of water in terms of vast irrigation works, presided over by pharaohs or remote lords, created by armies of commoners under the whip. In reality, 4,500 years ago both the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and the Egyptians were expert irrigation farmers, and the management of their water systems resided almost entirely in humble villages rather than in cities and palaces. The state was interested in crop yields and taxes in kind, not in the details of irrigation. Rulers of the past needed grain for their armies, food to store in their granaries and distribute in drought years. They believed their fortunes depended on bountiful floods provided by capricious rivers controlled by powerful supernatural beings. It was no coincidence that Mayan lords in Central America, the intermediaries between the people and the spiritual world, presided over elaborate water rituals. When the rains failed and the crops withered in the fields, the lords’ power could evaporate in short order — and it did.

Water, a wild animal

While researching my book, the experiences of the Egyptians, the Maya and the Romans set me thinking about entitlement. Certainly, an endless flow of water links every part of our existence. Our forebears realized this and never took it for granted. They knew their lives, their sustenance and bodily health depended on this erratic and indifferent substance. Water is oblivious to human needs, moving between drought and flood. Lakes dry up, rivers change course without warning, sudden inundations sweep away centuries of irrigation works. Despite all our efforts to master it, water governs itself and often defies capture. Small wonder the Romans thought of water as a wild animal, only subject to human law when controlled in aqueduct or canal. The unpredictable moods of water lay in the hands of gods, goddesses and temperamental water nymphs. The Koran states that “with water we made all living things.” The Arabic word for water, ma‘, occurs 60 times in its pages. To Muslims, water is a merciful gift from God.

Today, few people in the American West think of water as a gift from God. Nor do most farmers or serious gardeners, who are well aware of the ravages of prolonged droughts. For the most part, however, we’ve been lucky, for the well-documented, century-long California droughts of a thousand years ago have not returned. They occurred when only a few hundred thousand people, mainly hunters, lived here. Now there are millions of us, and so far we have escaped the bullet.

A parched future

Tree rings tell us that the past 700 years or so have been relatively wet by Western standards, but, in a world that has been warming steadily since 1860, one wonders how much longer wetter years will continue. Computer models of mountain snowpack suggests that decades of water shortages lie in the medium- and long-term future. I have an uncomfortable feeling that we are sleepwalking into a hydrological crisis, while many of us assume that ample water will always be there, at our fingertips. It will not.

We face a future, perhaps within as little as a half-century, when demands for water from inexorable population increases will far exceed available supplies, despite our vaunted technologies and efforts at conservation. Inevitably, the forces of the marketplace will come in to play, not just those of higher prices imposed by governments and local authorities to reduce consumption. One can imagine a future where water in some places will be as expensive as oil.

History tells us that our forebears never assumed that water was in unlimited supply. For the most part, they treated their supplies with care and respect, knowing there was a fine line between satiety and thirst, between good crops and plants that withered in the fields. They knew their water supplies were finite. Judging from the current heated political rhetoric, much of it driven by outmoded ideologies of perpetual expansion, many of us assume our entitlement is a right, not a privilege. It is not, for we will never be able to add to the world’s finite water supplies, which truly are a gift of the Earth.


Brian Fagan is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of numerous general books on ancient climate change, including “The Little Ice Age, the Long Summer, and The Great Warming.” His most recent book is “Elixir: A History of Humankind and Water” (Bloomsbury Press).

Photo: Brian Fagan. Credit: Lesley Newhart


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