Far more potent than oil or gold, water is a stream of geopolitical force that runs deep, feeding crops and building nations
Giulio Boccaletti is an author, entrepreneur and senior executive. He is co-founder of the tech startup Chloris Geospatial, an honorary research associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, and the author of Water: A Biography (2021). He lives in London.
Edited by Pam Weintraub
Agreat river encircles the world. It rises in the heartland of the United States and carries more water than the Mississippi and Yangtze rivers combined. One branch, its oldest, streams over the Atlantic, heading for Europe and the Middle East. Another crosses the Pacific, flowing towards China. Countless tributaries join along the way, draining the plains and forests of Latin America, Europe and Asia.
You probably have never heard of such a river, even though almost all of us draw from it. You cannot fish in it, float on it, drink from it. If you were to look, you would not find it: it is invisible. Yet there is no doubt that it flows.
The river starts anywhere water feeds agriculture. But from there, physical water vanishes, replaced by a flow of crops that carry only the memory of the water used to produce them. Crops then travel along the shipping lanes of the global trade system, eventually displacing the water that would have otherwise been used to grow them locally. Thus, water flows from source to destination ‘embedded’ in its products. It is a flow of ‘virtual water’, an idea first developed in the 1980s by the late geographer Tony Allan.
This great virtual river helps explain how nations exercise power over each other. It is far from a coincidence that its dominant source today is the waters of the Mississippi. Its current path was established when Franklin Roosevelt’s US replaced Britain as the world’s hegemon. The US began feeding an imploding, war-torn Europe with crops nourished by the rich waters of Old Man River, and the rest is history.
In 1947, Thomas Hart Benton painted a celebrated allegory of this transition, Achelous and Hercules: a youthful US Army Corp of Engineers, cast in the role of Hercules, fights the Missouri River – Achelous, the river god, in the shape of a bull – while the Midwestern farmland fills a proleptic Cornucopia with food headed east. The US had become the postwar granary of the world.
Benton’s geopolitical reference in Ovid’s myth might seem obscure today. But he could be confident that, when the average customer of Harzfeld’s store in Kansas City glanced at that mural above the elevators, near the perfumery section – the location of the original commission – she would have recognised the elemental nature of water, the struggle that shaped the rural landscape of the 1940s, and the power that water control gave to the nation.
Streams of power and identity run deep in the waters of the great virtual river.
All through the 20th century, trading the products of a country’s water resources was an act of power. When the US became the granary of the world, flooding food eastward, it also provoked a countercurrent of hard currency streaming back to pay for it, setting the stage for the Bretton Woods settlement.
Lenin and Stalin paid for Soviet industrialisation with cereal production of Ukrainian, Russian and Central Asian fields, irrigated by canals built by thousands of Gulag prisoners. In China, Mao may well have measured the targets of the Great Leap Forward in tons of steel, but planned to fund their pursuit by irrigating the plains of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.
Ibn Saud knew that oil might make him wealthy, but only water to irrigate Saudi Arabia would give him power, so the former paid for the latter. And the 1970s postcolonial competition for regional influence over water reached a peak when the pan-Arabism of Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser collided with Israel’s claims over the Jordan River, seeding conflicts that – from the Arab Spring to the Syrian crisis – have contributed to shaping the contemporary world.
Yet the geopolitical value of water ended up hidden from view. A thick layer of 20th-century industrialisation concealed the force of water behind countless dams and vast embankments, replumbing the planet and fooling people into believing that modernity had emancipated their life from concerns about water.
Its roots reach back to the dawn of history, a bridge between past and present we still stand on today…