Water: A biography (Boccaletti, 2021)

Elliot Rooney


Boccaletti, G. 2021. Water: A biography. Penguin Random House. ISBN 9781524748234 (hardback) 400p. $30.

(URL: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/602733/water-by-giulio-boccaletti/)

Elliot Rooney

UKRI–GCRF Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub, Newcastle University, United Kingdom; E.Rooney2@newcastle.ac.uk


To cite this review: Rooney, E.  2021. Review of “Water: A Biography”, Penguin Random House, 2021, by Guilio Boccaletti, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/256-Biography


Authors have long been tempted to attempt to write histories of everything (recently, e.g., Harari 2014; Rutherford 2017; Graeber & Wengrow 2021). The analytical value of such an exercise risks being compromised by the sheer breadth of material covered in descriptive terms to be able to lay the groundwork for explanation, and this book certainly exemplifies the consequences of not being attuned to such a risk. Boccaletti takes readers through Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and other periods of classical antiquity, with loose connection to those elements of their history that intertwined with watery narratives. The story then moves through medieval Europe into the European colonial project. Finally, we are presented with a picture of the past half-century of world history as dictated by US and Chinese foreign policy. The book is lacking in representing the agency of everyday people in shaping the ways in which they relate to water whilst filled with unending hyperbole and reductive representations of more or less anywhere but Western Europe.

The principal frustration of the book is best revealed thus: “Because water played a fundamental role in the medieval economy it was inevitable that jurisprudence would focus on it” (p. 91). The trouble with inevitability is that it doesn’t give much room for analytical insight. What results in an obtuse analytical tool with which to try to understand society.

One connecting sinew, however, is what seems to be an effort to find trace elements of the market normativity so pervasive in contemporary approaches to water management. The author asserts that “the natural evolution of medieval principles” gave rise to “concession contracts and companies” (p. 163) in nineteenth-century European water management. We are told that the “financialization of water infrastructure” (p. 97) in 12th century Italy was a “crucial step” (p. 97) that helped “unlock finance” (p. 98). What could have been an interesting exploration of the diversification of powerful actors involved in the development of water infrastructure and related institutions, becomes instead something that reads from the playbook of World Bank appraisal reports.

This culminates in the description of the coalescence of the neoliberal policy agenda pushed by the Bretton Woods institutions for the past forty years: “Markets, not politics … provide the glue for society operating as one” (p. 262). Not only is this a tired claim, that markets somehow operate in a vacuum devoid of politics, but it is also emblematic of the struggle the book finds itself in throughout, that of how to engage seriously with the political economy of institutional formation. This plays out notably through the use of unproductive binaries: technical or socioeconomic, engineering or institutions, markets or politics, and so on. Not only is this an unhelpful approach to conceptualising the dynamic between these elements, but the author himself contradicts these binaries in suggesting that there exists “an inseparable blend of technical and institutional measures” (p. 295) in water management approaches, whilst, for example elsewhere, suggesting that “China has so far focused on technology, leaving explicit political propaganda to one side” (p. 290) in its foreign policy approach to water resource management.

There are glimpses of opportunities missed for deeper analysis. When we are told that the Roman Empire’s “market for grain was not just efficient. It was, in effect, a vast water market” (p. 72), readers might have been tempted to imagine an interesting application of the concept of virtual water (i.e., Allan 2011) to this situation or more broadly in historical societies. Instead, the narrative moves on swiftly and projects the inevitability of the formation of markets – “the Roman state would never have been able to afford the scale and size of infrastructure required to both control water on the landscape and honor the needs and liberty of its citizens. The alternative had been to become a regulator and enabler of a market economy of sorts” (p. 73).

By the time the book declares to have covered a period encompassing ninety percent of the entirety of recorded human history (p. 79), there is a sense that a work promising to consider the entire ‘biography’ of water should have done more to consider the histories of the Americas and Africa (beyond the Nile) – in particular, specific technological and institutional innovations that came out of societies around the world and are still used today. Notable in their absence are any mention of common imaginaries of arid antiquity that would suggest the relevance of ancient Persia’s qanats (paralleled also in South America), the Indian subcontinent’s stepwells, or Archimedes’ screw (perhaps first developed in Egypt), to name but a few examples.

The first encounter with South America is in the year 1492 (p. 105), and it is exclusively in relation to the role the continent played in propping up Europe’s economies of the time. The foray is, however, brief – three pages later we are returned to Italy. Sub-Saharan Africa enters the frame when European imperial expansion in Africa is linked to water (p. 144). Readers may question the intellectual rigour in only beginning to consider the ‘biography of water’ in Africa once European colonial powers had arrived. The book concludes with a simplistic reading of the complex geopolitics at play in the relationship between Chinese investment and aid, and the water infrastructure projects of the African continent (p. 291).

Reductive and problematic language litters the text. Italy is at one stage in its history referred to as “overpopulated” (p. 187); we hear of migrants escaping humanitarian crises passing through “floodgates” (p. 289); South America is “discovered” (p. 105); and even Africa’s rivers are not permitted to flow in peace, accused of “dropping precipitously close to the coast” (p. 235). The final parts of the book describe water’s entering into “modernity” (p. 148 ff.). The book makes incessant references to “modernity”, “modernization”, and so on, without ever defining the term, and this builds to a frustrating vagueness through which it is hard to see the analytical value of its use. At one point we are told of a “theory of modernization” (p. 223) that evolved from the Tennessee Valley Authority to be exported to the world, again without any definition of the term.

A simplistic reading of Marx sees the influence of his work manifested only in the policies of Soviet Russia and Maoist China and a deeper consideration of the ways in which Marxist thought and scholarship has shaped so many approaches to water management and our understanding of the relationship between water and society is missing (only his influence on Wittfogel is recognised; p. 226). Boccaletti claims that Marx “assumed that the natural world had little to contribute to the evolution of modern society” (p. 152) – a claim only substantiated with reference to Capital Vol. I and perhaps ignorant of the degree to which Marx’s position on ecology evolved over his lifetime.

The book’s heavy focus on water’s instrumental and economic value precludes it devoting much space to other relational valuations. A brief interlude skirting around the mythical image of ancient river civilisations alluded to in religious texts (p. 147) gives another flirtation with water’s deep connections to spirituality and cosmology, something touched upon once earlier in the book (p. 14), and to an extent related to the ways in which the Christian churches of Europe exerted political power, including control over water (p. 86). Fuller exploration of these concepts would have given the book greater depth.

Overall, the book offers little new in the way of historical insight, instead knitting together patchy extracts from existing narratives. The book seems to trip over itself in its principal premise: that of water’s universality, ubiquity, and unchangeability. By relating all of human existence and societal organisation to water, it is hard to keep sight of any connecting tissue that strings the story together: in large parts this leads to a retelling of the history of agriculture and of market formation histories which have been better recounted elsewhere, and independently of any explicit link to water (e.g., Federico 2005, and van Bavel 2016, respectively). Taking a global perspective that includes all of water’s diverse forms and uses means that place-based specificity is compromised and, along with it, opportunities for deeper analysis. Effort might better have been devoted to exploring the ‘biography’ of water in a more restricted timeframe or geography, as has been done to great effect recently in, for example, the case of South Asia (Amrith 2020).


Allan, JAT. 2011. Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to Our Planet's Most Precious Resource. London: IB Taurus.

Amrith, S. 2020. Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia's History. London: Penguin.

Federico, G. 2005. Feeding the World: An Economic History of Agriculture, 1800-2000. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Graeber, D. & Wengrow, D. 2021. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Harari, YN. 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Vintage.

Rutherford, A. 2017. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes. London: W&N.

van Bavel, B. 2016. The Invisible Hand? How Market Economies Have Emerged and Declined Since AD 500. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Additional Info

  • Authors: Giulio Boccaletti
  • Year of publication: 2021
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House
  • Reviewer: Elliot Rooney
  • Subject: Environmental History
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English