Now As Then, Rivers Are Crucial to Our Prosperity

Monday, February 6, 2023

One of the first civilizations to arise after humankind left Africa was in a nearby region that is in present-day Iraq and parts of neighboring countries stretching to the Mediterranean Sea. It has been dubbed by chroniclers Mesopotamia, Greek for “the land between two rivers.” The Tigris and Euphrates valley was the setting for the biblical Garden of Eden and is aptly named the Fertile Crescent in history books today.

Nile River in Cairo Egypt

Rivers have been a tremendous boon and resource for humanity, offering drinking water, food, waste disposal, irrigation, fertilizer, and a medium for personal transportation, commerce, and recreation. Even in ancient times, many of these uses ended up in conflict and often required coordination to fully exploit, fostering the beginnings of government and its role in preserving the public trust. Later in history, the public trust attributes of rivers were adopted by Roman law and English law before coming to us.

Many of the world’s early civilizations were founded on the banks of great rivers—the Yellow River in present-day China, the Indus in India, the Nile in Africa, and the Mesopotamian culture that began about six thousand years ago and lasted for millennia. These cultures’ trajectories overlapped, there was intercourse even among distant lands, and many of the same inventions emerged in more than one of these and the other great civilizations that eventually arose on all the habitable continents.

The ancient Mesopotamians took full advantage of the two large streams flowing through their settlements. According to Amanda H. Podany, professor of ancient history at California State Polytechnic University, it was a region that was kind to human advancement, with predecessors of today’s goats, sheep, pigs, dogs, and cattle and wild seed crops like barley and wheat that were easy to harvest and, eventually, domesticate.

Over centuries, the hunter-gatherers who subsisted on these leavings developed agriculture, built one of the world’s first cities, Uruk, and created the first written language we know how to read, which is when we can really begin to know them and see in their problems, and opportunities for advancement, some of our key drivers today.

Known as Akkadian, this writing was inscribed on clay tablets—mud being the only abundant resource in the river valleys—and is a form of cuneiform. It was primarily used to keep track of business and governmental records, documenting the rise of bureaucracy and the administrative state. Included in these clay tablets are some of the first contracts and accounts of court decisions, and numerous property records, deeds, and other legal instruments. They knew the importance of these documents—they fired key tablets to ensure they would endure, and indeed a quarter million have been unearthed by archeologists.

Even more durable is stone. The Babylonian King Hammurabi, who created the first large-scale Mesopotamian empire in the 18th century BCE, had his famed legal code engraved on rock monoliths placed in vassal states, thus creating the predecessor to the Federal Register. According to the site, Hammurabi is also the father of government’s role in what we today call “promoting the general welfare,” through public works such as irrigation canals to help farmers by tapping water from the two rivers.

The Babylonians also used the abundant mud to perfect pottery, a huge advance that facilitated the storing and use of food and other substances. According to W. Bernard Carlson, professor of engineering at the University of Virginia, potters copied Akkadian scribes who fired their cuneiform tablets, devising in turn high-temperature kilns based on a new invention, charcoal made from trees, to melt glazes and make their wares more waterproof.

The advent of mass-produced pots by Mesopotamian artisans spawned an industrial revolution. Charcoal-fired kilns proved useful to smelt copper from ore, creating the first pure metal not found in nature. Copper was used as currency, for tools, for armor and weapons, and for jewelry. Ancient smiths eventually added arsenic to the smelting recipe to launch the Bronze Age and another leap forward in technology, enabling better tools for agriculture and weapons for warfare.

According to Cal State Poly’s Podany, evidence exists that arsenic was abandoned and replaced with tin in bronze-making because it had proved toxic in production—thus, in our view, becoming the first industrial process change as the result of an OSHA violation. Charcoal became critical to ancient societies for making not only pottery and bronze but eventually lead, iron, gold, and silver. The University of Wisconsin’s Gregory S. Aldrete says this need for high-temperature ovens accounts for much of the deforestation in the Mediterranean basin evident today.

But that’s not the end of the story. Mesopotamian artisans also developed the pottery wheel, which stores and releases rotational energy in a uniform manner, simplifying the manufacture of storage vessels and foodware. Engineers then used the potters’ invention of controlled motion around an axle to make the first chariots for warfare and carts for produce and raw materials.

Wheeled vehicles required real roads, creating another obligation of government in providing for defense and the general welfare. According to John. W. I. Lee of University of California, these incentives spawned the road system of the Persian Empire that supplanted Babylonia. These roads projected central control and facilitated tax collection, in addition to fostering commerce. The network was run on a cooperative federalism model not unlike the U.S. Interstate System, and with the same defense and economic justifications. In the end, the advent of wheeled vehicles and roads in ancient societies meant that people and goods could readily travel away from rivers, allowing humanity to expand into new lands.

And all these technological advancements occurred because a riparian society was rich in just one resource—mud.

This is all leading up to the fact that today we are as dependent on rivers as ever. Last fall, the Mississippi became unnavigable in certain areas due to a persistent drought in the Midwest. Thousands of barges carrying food and raw materials were stranded—at one point equivalent to 210,000 container trucks—putting pressure on markets when inflation is high and global grain markets are in stress due to the war in Ukraine. Some 60 percent of U.S. corn and soy exports begins its journey on the Mississippi.

In the West, the Colorado River, which serves one American in ten, is failing to meet the needs of cities and agriculture. The region is experiencing a 22-year-long drought—the worst in 12 centuries, New Scientist calculates—lowering dam-formed Lake Mead and Lake Powell to unprecedented levels and endangering hydropower generation. Meanwhile, downstream users are experiencing water shortfalls.

In Europe, what another alarming article in New Scientist terms a once-in-500-year drought is affecting riparian commerce. Water levels in the Rhine River, which transports 80 percent of Germany’s ship-borne goods, are dangerously low. At one point hydropower generation was down 20 percent across Europe, where electricity production is already stressed due to cutbacks on Russian gas.

According to Brown University environmental scientist Laurence C. Smith, writing in the New York Times, “Economic powerhouse rivers . . . are being sucked dry not only by climate change but by fast-growing cities and farming operations that need more water. Agriculture is the single largest consumer of fresh water, and global food demand is still rising.” Yet another water-shortage report in New Scientist says that England—a land with few major rivers or lakes—will need four billion liters of drinking water per day in additional capacity at the same time as it experiences the effects of climate change. Or as Brown’s Smith puts it, “There are no new rivers left to tap. We must learn to do more with less.”

It is not surprising that humanity’s engagement with rivers is today fertile ground for advancing environmental justice. Rivers offer the same amenities they always have, if they are clean and are accessible to local communities. In cities, riverside parks are great places to spend an afternoon picnicking, boating, playing sports, and fishing. This is especially so in rental neighborhoods, where parks offer valued living space. Sadly, EJ communities along riverfronts often don’t have this standard suite of recreation lands and, in fact, have large industrial plants, warehouses, and refineries. People need to be connected to the streams flowing through their communities, as they were in ancient times. Humans have always thrived on the offerings of local waterways.

“Throughout history, societies have grown and prospered along rivers,” as Smith puts it. “Today, nearly two-thirds of us live alongside them. The ways in which societies use rivers have changed drastically over time, giving rise to cities, powering the Industrial Revolution, and populating the world’s arid lands through massive dams and water diversion schemes, among other transitions. It’s time now to reimagine our relationship with rivers once again.”

This blog originally appeared in the Notice & Comment column in the January/February 2023 issue of The Environmental Forum and is republished with permission. Notice & Comment is the editors’ column and represents the signatory’s views.