Reviews and Praise for Water: A Biography
"A compelling account of the centrality of Earth’s climate controller, water, in shaping life in it and determining the course of human history."
– Uday Balakrishnan, The Hindu
"Dall'Alma Mater a Princeton e MIT, Giulio Boccaletti racconta la storia e il futuro della risorsa più preziosa."
– Piero Di Domenico, Corriere
"Segui l'acqua, capirai il mondo."
– Luca Fraioli, La Repubblica
"Boccaletti ha fatto qualcosa di più sofisticato: ha studiato il modo in cui l’acqua nel corso della storia ha determinato alcune trasformazioni del nostro sistema politico...un libro molto ambizioso in cui Boccaletti espone una tesi interessante."
– Claudio Cerasa, Il Foglio
Meilleur livre de l'hiver 2021
"Ce livre a les qualité des big books, tel Sapiens, qui se lisent d’une traite." L’Obs
The Economist Best Books of 2021
"Humankind’s intensely political relationship with water is the undergirding of civilisation, argues this rich and engaging history."
"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, WSJ Book Review
"To understand humanity you have to understand water...in his book Water: A Biography, he traces the history of how humanity, regardless of continent or creed, has shaped entire civilizations around a resource that's both fickle and essential for life on earth"
– NPR Book of the Day
"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 tour de force world history focused on water and how we use it... An ingenious lesson in geopolitics"
– Kirkus Reviews (Starred)
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
"...a renowned expert on natural resource security and environmental stability, lending “Water” a pressing, historically fascinating, and informative arc...“Water,” the book, is a smart new chapter on the same subject that turned Joan Didion’s head toward the Hoover Dam."
– Sloane Crosley, Departures
"A fascinating analysis that will bridge the interests of environmentalists and historians, political scientists, or economists."
– Wade Lee-Smith, Library Journal
The story of WATER is our story. Without water we are nowhere. It is the crucial link between our everyday lives and our landscape , between society and the environment which nourishes and sustains us . Now , when the stark consequences of climate change are no longer deniable Giulio Boccaletti’s WATER: A BIOGRAPHY could hardly be more timely. He takes us on an extraordinary journey through water history , from the retreating glaciers of the ice age which shaped the landscape and the livelihoods of local communities, to the emergence of nation states and the industrialised world , presided over by democrats, despots and dreamers . This book is a cautionary tale for our times ....
-- Alan Yentob, BBC Presenter
A leading expert has now shown us he's also a great storyteller. Giulio Boccaletti tackles the most important story of our time: our relationship with water in a world of looming scarcity.
-- Kelly McEvers, NPR Host
As humanity strays across planetary boundaries, Boccaletti’s political biography of water is essential reading. This bold and ambitious saga offers important lessons and instills humility in the reader, both of which we need as we face the dangers of increasing pressure on nature, climate change, and corrosive inequality.
-- Rachel Kyte, Dean, The Fletcher School, Tufts University
In these lively, deeply-informed, timely pages, Boccaletti leads us on an archeological dig to uncover a formative source of all political societies from ancient kingdoms to modern republics—management of ever-changing water environments. He wisely warns that climate change’s gravest peril today is not technological, but whether our political institutions prove resilient enough to adapt.
-- Steven Solomon, author of "WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" — L.A.Times Book Prize Finalist
Giulio Boccaletti makes a strikingly original and persuasive case that the history of human civilization can be understood as a never-ending struggle over water. Boccaletti’s command of a vast range of material, across time and space, is astonishing.
-- Nicholas Lehman, Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism; Dean Emeritus, Columbia School of Journalism
From the dawn of civilization to recognition of the growing impacts of climate change today, Boccaletti brilliantly traces the human journey, shaped by harnessing water. He shares the American republic’s efforts of the 20th Century to reshape the hydraulics of its rivers, and the export of these concepts to other nations. Through these lessons of history, it becomes abundantly clear at this time of water redistribution and biodiversity loss that highly functioning political institutions will be essential to our very survival.
-- Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior 2013-17
This is magisterial. Boccaletti has pinned down our complex political and geographical relationship with our most vital but most slippery resource. We live, like the ancients, in a hydraulic civilization – one determined to a remarkable degree by where and when we can find water. In future, as he reveals with startling clarity, we face a water crisis as profound as our climate crisis. The fate of the Anthropocene hangs on the fate of water.
– Fred Pearce, author of "When The Rivers Run Dry."
In a dazzling tale that spans millennia, geography, science, and human civilizations, Water: A Biography is more than the story of water. With water as its connecting tissue, this is a story of ideas and institutions; of tensions between individual enterprise and collective action; of human needs and planetary dynamics that outstrip human agency to manage Nature. Stretching back to nomadic foragers through early city-states to modern mega-nations, this saga of water is a saga of political architecture and the linkages of institutions, nations, and collective action to the exigencies of securing and sustaining water for people. I am astonished at its breadth, depth, and scholarship, at once encyclopedic yet also highly readable.
-- Lynn Scarlett, Former Deputy Secretary US Department of Interior
Chief External Affairs Officer, The Nature Conservancy
It was an inspired idea to write a ‘biography’ of water and Giulio Boccaletti has carried it off in style. His book is impressively global in scope. It ranges from the earliest human societies to questions of water security in our own time, combining bold lines of argument with compelling examples. Ambitious, assured and very well written, Water: A Biography is an impressive and very welcome addition to the literature.
-- David Blackbourn, author of “The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany”
Cornelius Vanderbilt Distinguished Chair of History, Vanderbilt University.
Giulio Boccaletti’s book is a remarkable achievement: a readable history of the world, seen through the history of water management. He shows, with clarity and erudition, how this is in reality a political, not a technological issue. Throughout history, humans have tried to conquer water, but water always wins; and it would be better for humanity if we realised it. The book is a real tour de force; it should be essential reading for every politician, as well as the rest of us.
-- Chris Wickham, FBA, author of "The Inheritance of Rome: A history of Europe from 400 to 1000."
Chichele Professor of Medieval History (Emeritus), Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford
Water, A Biography chronicles a rich and fascinating story of how the intrinsic power of water has exerted itself over empires, economics, politics and human survival. What enhances the reading experience is an opportunity to rediscover human history itself but with a dimension that was missed in most people’s wider learned history. What it makes clear is that water’s influence has delivered many lessons across millennia, and often recurring lessons—making this book also about the future. As someone who has devoted a career to water-related issues it was remarkable how much this book still revealed to me about where we have been and where we are going.
-- Gary White, CEO& Co-Founder, Water.org
Water: A Biography is a masterly, compelling history of the relationship between society and water. It weaves politics, history, and science in a riveting narrative that spans millennia. Giulio Boccaletti has spent years working on water issues at the highest level and it shows. This is a monumental work, which is a must read for anyone wanting to understand the role of water in human history.
-- Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman Emeritus, Neslté Group
Vice-Chairman, Foundation Board of the World Economic Forum.
Water is politics – as Boccaletti says, the story of water is a political answer to material conditions. Water is also economics, because of two crucial features: the scarcity of water in relation to where humans have chosen to live, and what is called economies of scale – in many cases, the provision of water is accomplished most effectively on a group scale rather than an individual scale. This calls for collective action. And collective action leads to some form of the state.
What makes this fascinating book stand out from other accounts of how water has shaped human history across the ages is Bocaletti’s brilliant and nuanced treatment of the political and economic dimensions of water’s role in history. The breadth and substance of the narrative are outstanding – from Rome’s imperial market in water (trading wheat as virtual water) to Sun Yat-sen’s dream of harnessing water to create a modern China. The book is a tour de force!
-- Michael Hanemann, Professor & Julie A. Wrigley Chair in Sustainability, Arizona State;
Chancellor's Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley
Boccaletti’s Water is a brilliant exploration of the role water has played in societies’ fortune or downfall. Water provides us with a poignant reminder of the fragility of our natural world and its critical importance in sustaining the future of humanity.
-- Jennifer Morris, CEO The Nature Conservancy
Boccaletti takes water deadly serious. For him water is bigger than life, bigger than anything else. It is our past, present and future. Moreover, water has always been, and will always be political. Water exacerbates our vulnerabilities and drives our vested interests to conflictional proportions. And water drives our actions, paralyzes us while—at all scales, times, and decisions—it becomes larger than anything else. That could be overwhelming, even too much or big to connect to. But, Boccaletti takes a people’s, even very personal and passionate perspective. Taking the reader literally by the hand, going back through the ages and being our best water-travel guide ánd companion: Giulio is your best friend in a stormy water-world.
--Henk WJ Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, Kingdom of The Netherlands
Sherpa to the UN/WB High Level Panel on Water
Excellent. Boccaletti takes the reader on a polyglot tour de force that shows how the flow of human history, economics and geopolitics from ancient times to the present day is utterly connected to the constant blue thread of our need for water and the integrity of Earth’s hydrological systems that provide it. With the unprecedented threat to our climate and water security which we now face, Water A Biography also poses us with challenging questions about how best to secure our water future and, as a result, ensure our very existence.
-- Dominic Waughray, Managing Director, World Economic Forum
Visiting Scholar Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University
A revealing and accessible analysis of one of society’s longest and most fundamental relationships with the planet. It traces how institutions have evolved to cope with the challenge of managing and regulating the competition for water on which all the Earth’s very dynamic ecosystems depend. Water is one of Nature’s flows. It defies capture by concepts such as sovereignty. The analysis is very deeply informed because the author has worked with the most experienced professionals and scientists who have studied and sometimes made the history of water. It is a very complicated story told with elegance and authority.
-- Professor Tony Allan, King’s College London and winner of the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize
Water: A Biography takes an expansive look at the ways in which this vital resource has shaped the history of societies and their institutions over thousands of years. It provides essential reading for those seeking to explore how humanity’s relationship with nature has influenced the development of legal and political systems and offers invaluable insights into current debates surrounding climate change and sustainability. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
-- Lee C. Bollinger, President and Seth Low Professor of the University, Columbia University
Giulio Boccaletti takes the most prosaic thing on the planet, water, and rebrands it. Yes, it’s the source of all life, but in this deeply researched and vivid story, he deftly reveals how the struggle to master water is also the root of all organized society. From antiquity to today’s precipice of water scarcity, he spins a dramatic, sweeping story that forces the reader to reappraise civilization, politics, and all of human history through a water lens. It is a riveting view where humans and water are inextricably linked in what Boccaletti describes as “a precariously balanced dance from which neither can be freed”. A transformative, dramatic and revelatory tale of how our struggle to master water, from antiquity to today, defines us as humans.
-- John Bredar, Vice-President for National Programming, GBH.
“Water - A Biography” is a bold, daring and unusual book. Many thinkers advocate that humankind consider the “big picture” when pondering the environmental challenges ahead. Giulio Boccaletti does exactly that and takes it to the highest level. He tells the fascinating story of how humans and water systems have interacted over the ages, with consequences - many unforeseen- that are both good and bad. It’s a humbling but important tale for us to study as we embark on the next daunting chapter of the Anthropocene era.
-- Mark Tercek, Former CEO, The Nature Conservancy; Former Partner, Goldman Sachs; co-author of "Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature."
Water could have no better biographer than Giulio Boccaletti who takes us on a fascinating journey, telling the story of how humanity's interactions with this most precious resource have shaped our history, our present, and will define our future. Brilliant and enlightening.
-- Professor Eric D. Beinhocker, University of Oxford; author of 'The Origin of Wealth"
Ebbing and flowing, quietly or violently, water has defined the course of human civilization. Boccaletti compellingly reveals this blue thread of history that ties or divides, strangles or sustains. Its future will singularly define our future. Water: A Biography is meticulously crafted and arrestingly prescient. It is the essential story of us and our planet, which should rightly be called Water, not Earth.
— J. Carl Ganter, Co-Founder and Director, Circle of Blue / CEO and Founder, Vector Center
Filtering the entire span of human history through a water lens, Giulio Boccaletti finds a breath-taking narrative that connects across continents and centuries linking our re-plumbing of this planet to our success on earth. This new chronology is dotted with occasional extreme shifts in climate whose influence on society, linked through its relationship with water, are monumental and devastating. When Giulio’s powerful book connects today’s global politics to its supplies of water, one is left feeling he is only just getting started on what disruptions may be afoot, as climate changes this time around.
-- Dave Allen, Film Maker, Passion Pictures, Series Producer "H2O: The Molecule That Made Us"
It’s a story. It’s a drama. It is a large fresco of human ingenuity, passions, misery and glory. Boccaletti’s book follows the evolution of human history through the lens of its relations with water. It reveals its role as the powerful driver that has shaped human history connecting in an astonishing way the modern world with antique civilizations. Splendidly written, meticulously researched, it offers a deep insight into our society, revealing the hidden role of water in the decision-making process and in the formation and destruction of policies. It is an essential guide to the comprehension of the dynamics of the present energy-food-water nexus.
-- Antonio Navarra, President, Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change
Water: A Biography" is a deeply insightful, well written and thought-provoking book. At first sight, it’s a big history account of our most essential element. At second sight it’s the story of how human and natural systems co-evolved and increasingly parted – and how they can be reconciled again if we decide to manage water and natural resources differently. Giulio Boccaletti is both a story teller, a scientist and an evangelist, he writes with clarity, rigour, and a breathless pace through the centuries, how the struggle between people and water has shaped civilizations and institutions. Dive in!
-- Prof. Dr. Martin R. Stuchtey, Founder and Managing Partner, SystemIQ;
Author of "The Good Disruption: Redefining Growth in the Twenty-First Century