Water has had monumental importance in the development of human civilizations. Throughout history, the future of human communities has been determined by the capacity to insure and control a steady freshwater supply (Solomon 13). The degree to which they managed to find and make use of freshwater determined whether they would rise to become powerful and rich or they would linger in a state of underdevelopment. The greatest civilizations of the world managed to develop because they found ways to ensure a steady supply of freshwater, but also to control the water so as to avoid being destroyed by its raw force. On the other hand, peoples who did not have access to water, or did not manage to control it, were extremely limited in their possibilities of development. Because water is both a crucial resource and a threat for human survival, the capacity to access, control and regulate sources of freshwater governed the development of the world’s most important civilizations, but also forced both water-rich and water-challenged peoples to find ingenuous solutions to the problem.
Access to freshwater sources justifies and explains the emergence of histories’ most advanced civilizations, but also, the underdevelopment of areas where water was absent or hard to acquire. About 5,000 years ago, an agricultural revolution took place when ancient societies developed ways to control water through irrigation. The Mesopotamian civilization developed when farmers moved from hillside to the floodplains in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, which had the advantage of uninterrupted water supply and a renewable source of fertile silt. As Solomon shows, “farm communities that mastered the techniques of irrigation ultimately produced grain surpluses that were stored as reserves for bad seasons when the floods were excessive or inadequate” (20). These food surpluses led to population increase, the development of civilization markers, such as large cities, taxation systems, arts and writing, among others (20).
On the other hand, the Maya civilization developed in an area which was not friendly for the development of agriculture. Although rain-fed, the Yucatán peninsula represented a great challenge for the Mayans due to its poor soils and seasonal freshwater supplies. However, the Mayans developed an ingenuous engineering system which allowed them to construct a strong civilization, despite the fragile water foundations (Solomon 56). They built irrigation canals, raised hillside terraces and carved underground cisterns. However, the Mayan engineering solutions were short-lived and their failure led to the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Solomon explains in this respect that this downfall was to a great extent caused by “several interrelated depletions that undermined its water resource engineering (56). The diminished availability of stored underground water as a result of environmental damage due to intensive farming, caused famine, wars and instability throughout the region.
More advanced hydraulic societies developed along important river courses. In Egypt, the Nile provided the most important water resources in an otherwise rain-free area. Every year, the Nile swelled due to monsoonal rains, which triggered the annual floods. These floods were much expected by the Egyptians, because they represented the most important source of fertile soil for the people who were tied to the predictability of the Nile. Solomon says that, “thousands of years of annual flood deposit built up 10-foot high natural embankments ideal for human settlements” (Solomon 30). By managing to control excessive flooding, Egyptian farmers provided the people with an abundance of grains, which boosted the development of Egyptian civilization, and power. The hydraulic technology it developed, allowed Egypt to control the Nile.
On the other hand, the Islamic civilization developed in a desert area and its lack of freshwater limited its possibilities of development. Solomon argues in this respect, “freshwater scarcity in short, effectively rendered Islam a fragile civilization, extremely vulnerable to changes in natural and hydrological conditions” (Solomon 128). Oases, underground springs and other seasonal water courses represented the only sources of water in the desert. Islamic communities flourished around oases which allowed them to develop, and in other areas which provided reliable water sources (Solomon 134). This gave rise to extremely crowded cities which emerged in the vast solitude of deserts. Water challenged both by the lack of freshwater, and the immensity of the oceans which surrounded them, the Islamic civilization was able to defeat these challenges only because of its trade routes and military prowess.
The access to freshwater sources and their efficient control has determined the development of human civilizations throughout the world. Water-challenged civilizations faced great difficulties in sustaining efficient agricultural practices, and rising to power. On the other hand, even in water-rich areas, people needed to learn how to control and to direct the water resources in order to avoid human losses, and use the water for their purposes. These challenges forced these people to find innovative engineering solutions and to evolve.
Solomon, Steven. Water: the Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization. New York: HarperCollins. 2010. Print.