03/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Water' by Steven Solomon: Water and State Power

I read Steve Solomon's new book on water over the Christmas break. I'm dazzled by Steve's mastery of an incredibly diverse set of facts, as the book presents basically an alternative history of the world, seen through the perspective of water issues. The flow of history, the rise and decline of empires rests, in this telling, on the ability of people and states to invent technologies that help defy the laws of gravity in order to control the flow of water, or allow man to travel and move goods on it. The book provides countless telling examples of people and states developing these technologies since the dawn of time. From the first technologies developed in Ancient Egypt to irrigate fields with water from the Nile, to the massive engineering marvel that is the Hoover Dam one can't help but be impressed by the inventiveness of man. I was similarly impressed by the evident dynamism of the US in the book's description of the development of major water related infrastructure -- the building of the Erie Canal, for instance, or the major western dams that came to tame the Colorado and Columbia rivers with impressive economic benefits. This fantastic sense of vision and possibility, both within the public and private sphere, spearheaded the emergence of the American economy as the dominant global economy in the last century; one is hard pressed to think of any current public infrastructure project in the US today of even remotely comparable dimension. The current zeitgeist's glorification of the private sector should not obscure the fact that only public authorities have the incentives, legitimacy and access to capital for such massive projects.

A Malthusian message of sorts emerges in the book's last section, which adopts a more pessimistic tone to argue that the increasing scarcity of water will emerge as a dominant global theme for the 21st century. Water shortages may well prove a major source of instability in the Middle East, as Solomon fears. Water issues may add to the present dysfunctionalities of the state of California. Necessity is the mother of invention, though, and I suspect that technological solutions will emerge to stave off disaster, as long as prices come to reflect scarcity levels. The book seems too pessimistic about the potential of desalinization, for instance, not least be cause of its huge progress in recent years.

The issue, it seems to me, is the likely political implications of dealing with these emerging scarcities. The historical lesson the book recounts again and again is that each successive technological breakthrough in the collective management of water has been the growth of the central state and its power. This is, of course, the original insight of Wittfogel related by the book in its early chapters -- states develop extractive and bureaucratic capacities in order to organize and impose irrigation technology on their societies, and then can use those capacities for other political and economic objectives. But this process is not limited to water and Asia -- the provision of any collective public good strengthens the state and central authority. The more technologically demanding that provision, the more only an advanced state can ensure it. Some states will fail to do so, of course, and when they do, collapse and chaos will result -- I agree with Steve's view that the current regime in Egypt is as good a candidate for this failure as any other. Nonetheless, I would predict that a number of other states will see their power and authority dramatically enhanced over the next hundred years, by their need and ability to take on the continued and ever more complex provision of an adequate volume of water for society's needs. And the more a central political actor literally has its hand on the only faucet available, the more powerful it will inevitably be. The issue is not whether power will be centralized to solve these technological dilemmas, but what kind of authority structures will emerge to do so, and with what relationship to society. How democratic will they be? What will be the scope for international cooperation? What kinds of partnerships with the private sector will be developed by states to provide these technological fixes? And so on. If Steve is right, we are either on the cusp of a civilizational collapse... or on the dawn of some major new state building in the next century.