The Water Kingdom

It is rare to find a non-fiction book about water that aims for a broad audience yet can impress water professionals. “The Water Kingdom” by Philip Ball (Penguin Random House, 2016) does so and I recommend it as a captivating story.

The water kingdom, of course, does not refer to The Netherlands but to China (or the societies living in the area now commonly called P.R. China), and notably focuses on how these societies have dealt with their great and capricious rivers.

Philip Ball is a gifted journalist who has written many thoroughly researched non-fiction books often with a definite technical and scientific slant, and he doesn’t shy away from complex topics.

This book explores the inter-connection between the philosophical, cultural and political evolution in China on one hand, and how the peoples and their rulers and administrators dealt with water. The narration covers a period of about 4000 years as numerous records exist on coordinated efforts to manage the rivers over this period. The primary water issue in China have been the floods emanating from notably the Huanghe (Yellow River), Huaihe, Haihe, Yangtze, and a few others (see map in Fig. 1). The hydraulics and landscape are such that flooding of epic proportion and impact unknown to, say, Europe have been a feature of daily life and a focus of government policy for 4000 years. Breached dikes and massive sediment accretion shifted the course and mouth of the Yellow R in this period over 100s of kms.  Already in the Zhou and Han Dynasties (roughly 1000 BC to 250 AD), extensive water management and flood protection investments were undertaken. In the Han Dynasty (and before), water also took other national significance as a means to facilitate transportation–of goods and grains but also tribute (from the south to the north) and armies–and the Grand Canal was constructed. From the 19th century on, irrigation infrastructure, hydropower and industrial development became mainstays of government policy. To the point that, where for nearly 4 millennia the country invested heavily in channelizing the destructive powers of the Yellow R, in the last 50 years the river has been utilized so intensively that it usually runs dry in the last hundreds of kilometers to its mouth. The intensity of this engagement  required the development of a ‘hydraulic state’ and is reflected in the fact that in the Tang and Sung Dynasties (say, AD 600-1300) water management tasks absorbed more than 10% of the annual state budget.

I have always been puzzled by what triggered the abrupt cancellation of the early Ming Dynasty expeditions by the ocean-going fleet of admiral Zheng He who set out on 6 expeditions in 1405-1424 to visit and trade with (and seek treasure from) Indochina, Java, India and even east African nations. At its peak the armada comprised up to 3,800 vessels. Until Ming Emperor Hongxi prohibited all ocean-going navigation in 1424 and suddenly grounded the fleet. Ball refers to various analyses to conclude that this far-reaching decision was driven by several factors including the high cost and limited benefit of the sea expeditions, the waning influence of the eunuch faction at court (He was a eunuch), and, importantly, because the administration and business lobbies promoting the inland navigation over the rivers and the Grand Canal system succeeded in preventing the development of a competitive south-north shipping route over sea.


Figure 1. Map of China showing the main river basins.

(Note: Huanghe is Yellow River, Zhujianghe is Pearl River; the Huaihe River is not indicated but its basin is)


The book also describes how water figures heavily on the common mindsets and how it has got intertwined with the language, calligraphy, art (in poetry and painting), morality, philosophy and politics of the country. A central tenet is the concept that the legitimacy of the rulers and the political system are, somehow, related to their capability to stem floods and manage the rivers for the benefit of the country. The book dedicates ample space to review how the modern political systems (during the last decades of the Qin Dynasty in the 19th century, and the successive nationalist and communist regimes in the 20th) have approached water (and by extension, nature). During Maoist times nature and water, as well as people, were merely regarded as technical instruments of which the value is subordinate to achieving targets decreed by the party.

From a Dutch perspective, it is particularly interesting to note how in early philosophy water management formed already an important chapter and probably Philip Ball may not quite understand himself the significance of his description of the struggle on how to do proper flood management between the two main Chinese philosophical systems: whereas the Confucian guidance emphasizes management and control of rivers (albeit while seeking balance), the Daoists considered that one should adapt to accommodate nature (“Humanity follows the Earth, the Earth follows Heaven, Heaven follows the Dao, and the Dao follows Nature”). Has the Netherlands with its US$3 billion “Room for the River” flood programme converted itself from a Confucian to a Daoist precept? A current public critique casts large-scale water projects in China  as running counter to fundamental Chinese philosophical precepts of maintaining order and balance.

I am not equipped enough to express comprehensive judgement on the accuracy and quality of the book’s analysis and conclusions. However, having worked in China on numerous programs in policy and investments between 1986 and 2006 across many parts of the territory, I found the book well researched and concerned with the facts. The book also tries to stay away from preconceptions and the kind of mechanistic causality that mars analyses such as Wittfogel’s “oriental despotism” and “hydraulic empire”.


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