A few of our favourite water books

Usually this kind of posts come at the end of the year. We are a bit late, but still hope to inspire you with this selection of the best water books we read in 2018. Enjoy!

Simon Winchester, Exactly. How precision engineers created the modern world, Harper Collins, 2018.

by Jaap Evers

During my summer holidays in France I spent the evenings with some nice French cheese and a cold beer. Before it was too dark to read outside on the porch, I completed this fine holiday picture with the reading of Exactly. I got it as gift from my wife, and I admitted to her that I would never have bought it as a holiday read, because a book on precision engineering is not the first thing to come to mind to complete the holiday idea. But, she was – as its title already hinted – exactly right.

Simon Winchester uses a fantastic narrative style to highlight the lives and works, the craziness and the brightness of some of the important engineers who made considerable contributions to our technological developments. He builds up the story based on the degrees of precision. The storyline starts with a 10th-of-an-inch precision of a steam engine and proceeds to the incredibly fine tolerance of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory that in 2015 for the first time measured the gravitational waves theorized by Albert Einstein. The chapters are filled with good stories, which are as much about the technology itself as about the engineers and society around it. Simon Winchester wrote an absolute page turner, in Dutch I would say “het leest als een trein” (an expression from the age of industrial revolution and powerful steam engines).

I want to highlight two stories. The first is about Ford and Royce, coincidentally both having Henry as their given name. Both Henry’s saw potential for developing cars in the early twentieth century and for both precision was of utmost importance, but completely and exactly different. It resulted in two extremely different outcomes in the automobile industry: the possibility of mass production (all parts are exactly similar and all parts can be replaced in a second when the car breaks down), and the production of a high-end quality car (the car is fine-tuned exactly and drives for a lifetime without breaking a part). One of the best parts of this story to me is however how the smart businessman Charles Rolls teamed up with Royce, and everybody now calls the car a Rolls rather than a Royce. How harsh live can be.

The second story is about the lenses in the Hubble telescope. The production of the lenses was tendered via an open call. Not surprisingly the lowest bidder won the contract, it was known that this company had never proof to deliver the same quality as another company. Too make a long story short, when the Hubble telescope started to send its first pictures back to Earth, they were all blurry. A big science and engineering fiasco! The shape of the lens was precisely imprecise, due to an imprecision in their measurement technique for cutting and polishing the lens. As a metaphor, they were measuring inches with a centimeter. Precisely right, exactly wrong. Later in space this was fixed with the installation of extra mirrors in the telescope and the Hubble telescope became more famous than the person it is named after.

So why is this also interesting when thinking about dealing with the contemporary and future challenges in water engineering, management and governance? Simon Winchester praises the importance of technological precision and its contributions to modern society, but he also warns to a belief among engineers (and society) that an ever growing accuracy is inherently better. Without asking what is good enough (I drive a Ford, not a Rolls). With the ever more precise, and more available information, this is I think one of the key questions for decision-making around water challenges in the twenty-first century. After the quest for information based decision-making due to lack of sufficient available data, we need to challenge the idea that ever more information, more data results in ever better decisions, management, and governance (even without taking the politics into account). The development of more precise hydrological models or GIS models with finer definition, become quests for holy grails on its own. It will never be enough. And it comes without questioning how much the men and women in the field need such precise information to make good enough decisions. In my PhD thesis I related the making of good decisions under uncertainty to Aristotle’s virtue of courage. Courage as the virtue in between cowardice and recklessness. Two other aspects of good decision making I recognized are: time (both speed and timing) and carefulness. Coward decision makers rely on too much or precise information (they are too careful and likely take too much time or do not make decisions at all), and reckless decision makers rely on too little (lacking carefulness and are hasty). Courageous decision makers and water engineers rely on precisely enough.


FOAM Magazine #50, Water, Amsterdam Fotografiemuseum, 2018.

by Jenniver Sehring

As water researchers, teachers and practitioners, we are dealing with water on a daily basis in our specific context. At the same time, we are regularly requested to think ‘out of the box’. This is why I chose a photography book to recommend as my favourite water book of 2018. It provides a different lens on a familiar topic and let us discover unexpected perspectives.

FOAM, the international photography magazine of the FOAM Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam, devoted a whole issue to the subject of water. The art works range from social documentary photography to more abstract works and combinations of photography with other artistic methods.

Some of the contributions – clustered around the topics of water as carrier, as barrier, and as source – address water issues familiar to students of water governance. The desertification of inner China in Benoit Aquin’s photo series of the Chinese “Dust Bowl” or Gideon Mendel’s “submerged portraits” of people experiencing floods, part of his art and advocacy project “Drowning World”, are examples. Other photographic essays show the many relations people have with water: postcards of mass river baptisms ceremonies in the US between 1890 and 1920, Masahisa Fukase’s self portraits in the bath tube (see the book cover), Nishant Shukla’s expeditions to the source of the Ganges, or Yoshiyuki Iwase’s portraits of the so-called ama – Japanese female free divers.

Mandy Barker followed John Vaughan Thompson, who in the early 19th century explored the plankton and marine life along a coast in southern Ireland through microscopic observations. Studying the same coastline 185 years later, Barker took photos with the microscope showing the beauty of underwater creatures – this time, however, not unknown species but plastic waste.

John Akomfrah links the different ideas and narratives around the sea: from transport and harvesting of marine resources to seafaring explorers, refugees crossing the Mediterranean, and nuclear testing. He reminds us of the asymmetries of power that shape the meaning of the sea across times and individuals.

My favourite piece is a series of photos of the Soviet-Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov, which he took in 1986 in his home tome. It shows people bathing in a small lake that they believe has healing powers due to the effluents discharged into it from a nearby soda water factory. The photos are shocking, ironic and absurd: they remind us of the disregard of the environment in Soviet high modernism and lack of public information; they provide an ironic reference to collective bathing in health resorts as a typical Soviet way of organized recreation; but ultimately they also simply show people enjoying their free time not minding the background of an industrial complex that contradicts common ideas of a recreation space.

Many more aspects of water are found in this collection of photographic art work, and other readers will find their own insights, surprises, and linkages to enjoy.

Chris De Stoop, Dit is mijn hof, De Bezige Bij, 2016

by Margreet Zwarteveen

This book, a novel, describes the fate of the Hedwigepolder, located on the border of the Dutch province of Zeeland and Belgian Flandres. The polder is earmarked for flooding to make place for so-called new nature, a measure prompted by the extension of the harbour of Antwerp. The decision to do this was the outcome of long-winding negotiations between the people living and farming in the polder, environmental and nature organisations and the project developers representing the Antwerpen harbour. Where in the past environmental organisations would fight with the farmers against the Antwerpen investors, in recent years they have increasingly taken the side of those involved in the further extension of the port. Attracted by the funds made available for nature compensation, and perhaps by the prospect to actually help recreating a landscape instead of just protesting against further deterioration, environmental organisations have gradually become the new designers, planners and managers of what used to be the polder. In the process, biologists and other nature experts have re-placed engineers and agronomists in deciding about this waterscape.

The writer, Chris de Stoop, is the son of one of the farmers in the polder. In the book he describes how he returns to his parental farmhouse, now empty because of his parents’ old age. It is one of the few farms that is still there, the others have already been vacated to make place for new wilderness. While attempting to run the farm, he observes and wonders about how the polder landscape has changed and is changing. His wonderment is interspersed with and inspired by nostalgic memories of his youth, which instilled in him a love for the specific fields and meadows that came into being because of the hard work of his father and his fellow farmers.  He remembers the enormous wealth of flowers, plants, birds and trees that used to form his habitat – a habitat that emerged through decades of interactions between people and their environment. He also reminisces about the beautiful lands outside of the dikes, where he used to go on bird-watching excursions. The comparison of the landscape of his youth with what is now created prompts interesting reflections about what is nature: what is the basis for deciding what is authentic or original and who decides this? Can and should nature creation be done without the active involvement of those who most directly live with it, and do people living in a place not form part of what is nature? It is at all possible to “go back” to a past natural state, given the many changes that have happened and are happening in and around the polder, changes that often elude the calculations of planners and experts?

These do not seem to be questions that bother those responsible for doing nature compensation. On the contrary, the re-creation of nature is in full swing: stables and farm houses are destroyed, the fertile topsoil is removed from the fields. In the remaining land, bulldozers dig ponds with small islands following the design of the Dutch consultancy firm Arcadis (roughly following the recipe of the famous Dutch nature designer Frans Vera). Eventually, the dikes protecting and separating the land from the river Scheldt will have to go as well, allowing the river to run its ‘natural’ course again, following tidal fluctuations. The intention is to create lagoons of brackish water: places devoid of history, where people are no longer welcome. The book’s descriptions of these initiatives, including the attempts to bring back or re-introduce specific birds (geese and oyster-catchers, for instance) clearly expose the short-sightedness and arbitrariness of the rewilding experiment. Combined with the anger and sadness of the farmers about how their environment and farms disappear, and about how they themselves are forced to sell their cows, move and seek another form of living, De Stoop’s portrayal of what happens here is one of incompetence, greed and naïve idealism.

I liked the book for many reasons. It is very well written; I particularly enjoyed its combination of personal memories with rather factual descriptions of the ongoing and contested history of the polder. I also liked it because it provides – in a much more compelling and engaging way than most scientific writings – a clear illustration of how water governance – because that is what much of the book is about – is indeed about dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are interrelated problems, characterized by high levels of uncertainty, a diversity of competing values and decision stakes and a multitude of interest groups who may have different world views and different frames for understanding the problem. The book clearly shows that the socionatural orders assumed or desired by scientists, managers and policymakers are always of their own invention. The real world, especially a dynamic ever-changing deltaic landscape, eludes those orders and often messes with them, striking back as it were.

Terje Tvedt, Water and society. Changing Perceptions of Societal and Historical Development, I.B. Tauris, 2016

by Emanuele Fantini

I had the great pleasure of receiving this book by his author as a gift for a trip we did together to the Factory of the Wheel of Pray, in Piedmont (Italy). Visiting with Terje Tvedt this water-powered textile factory – built in 1878 and operating for almost a century before being converted into an industrial archaeology museum – and exploring the physical settings in which it is situated, proved a highly enjoyable way of looking with new eyes at the history and geography of my hometown region.

The wheel of the Factory of the Wheel in Pray

It also offered me a powerful explanation of the main thesis of the book: because of its unique features, water is key to study societal and historical development in different societies and in comparative perspective. While this idea might be obvious for water researchers and for the readers of this blog, Terje Tvedt argues that the water element and its influence on broader social and historical processes remains overlooked in mainstream social sciences. To fill the gap, he proposes the “water system approach”, consisting of three interconnected analytical layers: the first is the physical and chemical layer of water forms and behaviour, looking at how factors linked to the hydrologic cycle, geography and climate contributed to shape societies and human action; the second layer looks at how human interventions appropriate, manage and control water through institutions and infrastructures, transforming the way it flows through the landscape; the third layer focuses on water as natural resource and social good that is culturally constructed, pointing at how different ideas of water – as a metaphor, religious symbol or sign of power – are interwoven with its physical and social characteristics – the first two layers. Different book chapters apply this approach to big socio-historical puzzles, such as why the industrial revolution took place initially in Britain and Europe and not in Asia? What drove British colonial strategy in the Nile basin? What can a focus on water add to our understanding of world religions? What is the relation between water infrastructures and political regimes? On all these issues, the three layered water system approach allows to shed light on overlooked issues, to suggest original interpretations and to pointing at new questions, linking for instance national trajectories of industrialization and development, or water cosmologies, to different river morphologies. I found this book stimulating because it recalled me the importance of integrating the physical dimension into water governance analysis, and the three layers approach offer a way to do this while avoiding deterministic explanations.

It also offered me a powerful explanation of the main thesis of the book: because of its unique features, water is key to study societal and historical development in different societies and in comparative perspective. While this idea might be obvious for water researchers and for the readers of this blog, Terje Tvedt argues that the water element and its influence on broader social and historical processes remains overlooked in mainstream social sciences. To fill the gap, he proposes the “water system approach”, consisting of three interconnected analytical layers: the first is the physical and chemical layer of water forms and behaviour, looking at how factors linked to the hydrologic cycle, geography and climate contributed to shape societies and human action; the second layer looks at how human interventions appropriate, manage and control water through institutions and infrastructures, transforming the way it flows through the landscape; the third layer focuses on water as natural resource and social good that is culturally constructed, pointing at how different ideas of water – as a metaphor, religious symbol or sign of power – are interwoven with its physical and social characteristics – the first two layers. Different book chapters apply this approach to big socio-historical puzzles, such as why the industrial revolution took place initially in Britain and Europe and not in Asia? What drove British colonial strategy in the Nile basin? What can a focus on water add to our understanding of world religions? What is the relation between water infrastructures and political regimes? On all these issues, the three layered water system approach allows to shed light on overlooked issues, to suggest original interpretations and to pointing at new questions, linking for instance national trajectories of industrialization and development, or water cosmologies, to different river morphologies. I found this book stimulating because it recalled me the importance of integrating the physical dimension into water governance analysis, and the three layers approach offer a way to do this while avoiding deterministic explanations.

Having read most of this book on Friday afternoons while on swimming pool duty with my daughters, I tested this approach to better grasp how Dutch live with water, and to better learn how to inhabit a Dutch swimming pool. The Dutch landscape and morphology – the physical layer – plenty of canals with almost no barriers to protect from falling in, make swimming a survival skills for all. Getting your national zwemdiploma is a must for all kids, and that’s why as parent you have no choice but to enrol them in – rather expensive! – swimming courses that prepare for it. The swimming pool is also a privileged spot to observe everyday Dutch practices of living with water – the social layer – and, of course, to compare it with my own. Being the only ones – together with another couple of kids of Italian and Moroccan origins – that cannot leave the building until the hairs are completely dry, I realised that the Dutch are much more at ease with water and being wet, that we, Mediterranean are: what’s the point of drying your hair at perfection if you get them immediately wet when cycling back home under the rain? I feel that I could learn more about public health, everyday practices and hygiene in the Netherlands by thinking thoroughly about the role that the Dutch watery landscape and wet climate play in it. And finally the cultural layer: swimming classes and diploma in the Netherlands are not simply about healthy sport activity; first and foremost it is about feeling safe in water – and that’s way once a month my bewildered kids have to swim fully dressed with their clothes and shoes. Something in between sport and civic education, honoured by the whole family and friends that gathered at the swimming pool to assist and celebrate the day their offspring swim for the diploma.

Usually on Friday afternoon I am also quite tired, as the working week ends, so perhaps this is not the sharpest and more meaningful analysis that the water system approach can elicit. But indeed, I invite you to read the book and get inspired and challenged by Terje Tvedt’s critique of the waterblindness of mainstream social sciences.   


Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Chair group of IHE Delft. He works on water, politics and development in Ethiopia; media, science and water conflicts in the Nile basin; visual research methods. Emanuele hosts the podcasts "The sources of the Nile" https://nilewaterlab.org/podcast-the-sources-of-the-nile/ and Water Alternatives Podcast http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/wat

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.