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Publisher's Summary

Spanning millennia and continents, here is a stunningly revealing history of how the distribution of water has shaped human civilization. Boccaletti, of The Nature Conservancy, “tackles the most important story of our time: our relationship with water in a world of looming scarcity” (Kelly McEvers, NPR host).

Writing with authority and brio, Giulio Boc­caletti - honorary research associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Univer­sity of Oxford - shrewdly combines environmental and social history, beginning with the earliest civ­ilizations of sedentary farmers on the banks of the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates Rivers. Even as he describes how these societies were made possible by sea-level changes from the last glacial melt, he incisively examines how this type of farming led to irrigation and multiple cropping, which, in turn, led to a population explosion and labor specialization. 

We see with clarity how irrigation’s structure informed social structure (inventions such as the calendar sprung from agricultural necessity); how in ancient Greece, the communal ownership of wells laid the groundwork for democracy; how the Greek and Roman experiences with water security resulted in systems of taxation; and how the modern world as we know it began with a legal framework for the development of water infrastructure. 

Extraordinary for its monumental scope and piercing insightfulness, Water: A Biography richly enlarges our understanding of our relationship to - and fundamental reliance on - the most elemental substance on Earth.

Cover image: "Vista", painting by Tobias Tovera © 2016

©2020 Giulio Boccaletti (P)2020 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Brimming with ideas and unexpected correlations, Water is far more than a biography of its nominal subject.... The book stands as a compelling history of civilization itself." (Gerard Helferich, Wall Street Journal Book Review)

"This is one of the most ambitious books that I've read in a long time. It is both deep and broad." (Ari Shapiro, NPR All Things Considered)

"[A] wonderfully detailed account of humankind’s relationship with water.... During this time of accelerated population growth, climate change, and political instability, Water is essential reading." (George Kendall, Booklist)

What listeners say about Water

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Understand Built-Environment Governance~Know Water

Listened twice. A significant amount of content to integrate with my understanding to date (1946 Boomer) to get a broader Whole Earth understanding, a goal since 1968.

The many mistakes in managing water resources revealed here are invisible as we look from our high level of assisted living.

As Humans expanded the assisted living built-environment in unsustainable ways, Nature was scarred. Water resources were damaged, and people suffered and died due to failures of intelligence.

The current sustainability challenge we face is a consequence of the 30 trillion metric tonne Technosphere.

Places in the natural environment where expansion could not be maintained, ancient settlements, are found by lidar today. Water engineering and governance are little-studied but critical, as we learn from Giulio in this book.

Listen, think, integrate and pass on this important perspective.

5 people found this helpful

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Needed more fleshing out

Hard to keep up with it without prior knowledge. Hard to see the connection between political changes and water. Doesn’t do a good job explaining

5 people found this helpful

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Great book, but reader could be better

I loved the content
I only wish the reader was different
I am very hard of hearing and the accent was different from that of other readers.
That made it sometimes hard for me to understand

That said, I would get it again

4 people found this helpful

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Like Cadillac Desert, but for the whole world

The history of human interaction with water is fascinating. The ways in which we have harnessed the power of rivers and and rain with water storage, canals, dams, and other constructions is so much more important to society than most of us realize.

As we face the challenges of global climate change, we need to understand the history of water management in order to create and manage the infrastructure that will sustain is into this uncertain future. Learning from the mistakes of the past as well as the victories will help us envision tomorrow's water management landscape.

4 people found this helpful

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Tour de Force

What an insightful trip through world, geopolitical history seen through the unifying lens of water. A must read to understand our past and to prepare for out collective future.

2 people found this helpful

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Solid water

This was a tough read for a variety of reasons. The “biography” was very historical and wove in political issues from throughout history. So the book focuses on politics rather than water itself. It’s focused on big powers, mostly the west with a healthy dose of China. I would have liked a bit more of exploration of how Indigenous cultures have used water, so a less empire focused approach. It wants to be a wake up call for action regarding climate change, but the history and how we have gotten where we are is rather depressing! It def makes me want to be more proactive in thinking about these issues which is ultimately a good thing. I’ll be meditating on the material for some time, although I’ll admit that I often drifted off as the writing and delivery was not always energetic.

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Very interesting, but academic read...

I was intrigued by the premise of the book and the author did a good job of explaining his argument chapter by chapter. One note for readers would be that the author's style is very academic and there is not a lot of effort put into hooking the reader with entertaining side notes or even variations in how the book is read. This did not bother me, but some may have found the author's style to be more dry than other books they have read.

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nothing more than a high school term paper

if you want to learn about water this isn't the book. not only do we not really learn about water we get a lot of random information that isn't fact checked and doesn't hang together.

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  • R Jarrald
  • 05-18-22

Excellent appraisal of the story of water

From the last Ice Age to the present day, an excellent appraisal of the story of water and its influence on the development of societies, and economies and on geopolitics.

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  • Gregory B.
  • 10-22-21

Fascinating read, real tour de force

MUST READ!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading WATER: A BIOGRAPHY by Giulio Boccaletti. The book is an incredible tour de force revisiting our history and institutions through the angle of water management. It is both brilliant and breath-taking.

WATER flows through centuries and across continents and connects to reveal the underestimated connection between water and familiar events, ideas and institutions.

It is insightful and a pleasure to read.
The knowledge and research are immense yet never overwhelming because incredibly well articulated. The analysis is precise but never cryptic.