No Water, No Story

I learned from Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick that a strong novel requires a contended resource base. Something that everybody wants or needs. In my Late Iron Age story, it’s water. Some have it; some had it and lost it. Everybody needs it. Without it, there’s no story. With it, come civilization and the gods who control that water.

IO9: If you collected all of Earth's water into a sphere, how big would it be?

IO9: If you collected all of Earth’s water into a sphere, how big would it be?

My research into the Late Iron Age agricultural techniques took me first to the Nile River Valley. Not the most representative model though. Sandra Postel in Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? explains that “Egyptian irrigators did not experience many of the vexing problems that plagued (other historic) irrigation societies.” Until the building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, the Nile Valley had been a sustainable ecosystem for 5000 years because it flooded every year after the harvest season, replenishing the water below plants’ root level, bringing nutrient-rich silt for the following year’s crops, and washing off excess salt that would have otherwise turned the land into desert. Variation in the Nile’s water levels brought famine once in a while and that’s what the Aswan Dam is trying to control now—with a new set of challenges. But for most of their history, Egyptians considered themselves blessed by the gods who gave them the Nile. If the gods were angry, they preferred to send down pandemic diseases and foreign invaders.

In contrast with the Nile Valley stand the cities on the floodplains of the Tigris and Euphrates during the third millennium BCE: Ur and Uruk in Sumer, southern Mesopotamia (today’s southern Iraq).

“When Sir Leonard Woolley excavated in Sumer between the world wars, he wrote: “To those who have seen the Mesopotamian desert… the ancient world seem[s] well-nigh incredible, so complete is the contrast between past and present… Why, if Ur was an empire’s capital, if Sumer was once a vast granary, has the population dwindled to nothing, the very soil lost its virtue?”

His question had a one-word answer: salt. Rivers rinse salt from rocks and earth and carry it to the sea. But when people divert water onto arid land, much of it evaporates and the salt stays behind. Irrigation also causes waterlogging, allowing brackish groundwater to seep upward. Unless there is good drainage, long fallowing, and enough rainfall to flush the land, irrigation schemes are future salt pans.” – Ronald Wright, An Illustrated Short History of Progress, pp.105-106

By 2000 BCE, the once-fertile earth of Sumer had turned white and all crops were failing, including the resilient barley. The cities of Sumer disappeared, but not after terrible times of famine, bargaining with gods who seemed to withhold the land’s gifts from their subjects, and punishing all the imaginable scapegoats, also known as sinners. Sumer’s political power was assumed by Northern Mesopotamia, a land better drained than the south, by the Babylonians (today’s central-southern Iraq) and Assyrians (today’s northern Iraq), who ran the same cycle of soil degradation that can be seen today all over Iraq.

There isn’t much left of the ecosystems of ancient Rome and Greece, or of that of the neighboring countries the two empires conquered and harvested. Fires, timber-felling and goats destroyed most of the old-growth forests on hills and mountains. The Roman Empire crumbled from the Mediterranean basin outwards, following the environmental damage it created. In his unfinished dialogue Critias (360 BCE), Plato writes (inspired by his contemporary Athens) about the fate that overcame the prehistoric city of Atlantis once it became corrupt and grew debased and the gods deserted it.

“What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away…. Mountains which now have nothing but food for bees… had trees not very long ago. [The land] was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil was deep, and therein received the water, and kept it in the loamy earth… feeding springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandoned shrines remain to show where the springs once flowed.” – quoted in Ronald Wright’s An Illustrated Short History of Progress, p. 117

Through my research I learned that a civilization either had the good fortune of its natural elements being in balance (Egyptian, Inca), or, as in the case of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Rome, Greece, once its population increased as a result of booming agriculture, they were on the path of destruction through a cycle of coopting more and more land for farming, reducing fallowing periods, planting for commerce and not the health of the ecosystem. Each of the great civilizations built on agriculture (either city-states or centralized empires) developed a top-heavy class of rulers and priests, who were the last to feel the pain once the system declined, and thus unlikely to change course until it was too late.

How does all this translate into the lives of characters in a story where water is the primary resource base?

Wherever water was scarce or the land lost its fertility, people viewed their gods as stark and revengeful. They tried to understand their gods’ reasons for anger and to placate them with sacrifices. Prophets became loud and powerful. Over time, the power of those who claimed to speak in the name of the gods eclipsed any rational thought that could have led to finding a real solution to an already complicated environmental problem. The image of death and afterlife varied too between civilizations, depending on their resources. Where life on earth was bearable, the view of the afterlife was a murky realm where souls dwelled forever (such as Hades). Where life on earth was a struggle, the idea of a better afterlife emerged, with rewards for the suffering and with horrendous punishments for those who angered the gods.

Blue Gold: If you collected all of Earth's FRESH water into a sphere, how big would it be?

Blue Gold: If you collected all of Earth’s FRESH water into a sphere, how big would it be?

These are all things I try to keep in mind as I work on my novel. I also watch with worry the direction our civilization is taking on a planet we aren’t managing well.

“Wars of the future will be fought over water as they are over oil today, as the source of human survival enters the global marketplace and political arena. Corporate giants, private investors, and corrupt governments vie for control of our dwindling supply, prompting protests, lawsuits, and revolutions from citizens fighting for the right to survive. Past civilizations have collapsed from poor water management. Can the human race survive?” –

Sam Bozzo, director of documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars (2008)

10 thoughts on “No Water, No Story

  1. Interesting material and theme. I’ve been to the Aswan dam. What stands out, if you travel by road, is the wasteland produced by damming the Nile. How does this subject factor into your novel? Scott Driscoll

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Scott. I’ve been following your blog too.
      I read about the destruction caused by the Aswan Dam. I saw pictures taken from satellites that show the salinization of the ground. Terrible stuff to do to that ecosystem that worked pretty well for 5000 years.
      In my novel, a once prosperous kingdom destroys its soil by salinization. Its people, once the leading civilization in their Known World, are reduced to third-class, dependent on the neighboring countries for survival. They consider themselves the creators of civilization, but they aren’t the ones prospering, which creates a lot of bad blood between the countries on my map, enough to lead to war and to fuel my novel’s needed conflict.

  2. So how does the need for (or abundance of) water in your novel drive your individual characters? Is ‘water’ an imperative that characters are aware of?

    • In the beginning of the story, there’s an agreement between the kingdoms that allows the parts that don’t have water to still function with the help of those who have it. A war destroys that pact and, with it, the economic ballance. Now the characters scramble to live in a new reality, and everything in the story stems from the fight of the people in power to control the water resources.

  3. “Until the building of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, the Nile Valley had been a sustainable ecosystem for 5000 years because it flooded every year after the harvest season, replenishing the water below plants’ root level, bringing nutrient-rich silt for the following year’s crops, and washing off excess salt that would have otherwise turned the land into desert.”
    Hi Roxana,
    That’s a great, long, full-bodied, textured opening sentence. That’s all you gotta know.
    And Jack’s “When the water kills the dirt, we die.”
    That’s a winner too.

  4. Roxana: you bring a lot of threads together in this piece. I learn a lot from each of your articles. Thanks for placing me and Bob in the same space with the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Plato. This quote digs very deep: “Wars of the future will be fought over water as they are over oil today, as the source of human survival enters the global marketplace and political arena…” In fiction, it’s interesting that in Waterworld, oil and water are the apparent resource bases, but the real one is the one you write about: dirt. When the water kills the dirt, we die. Oil or no oil.

    • Remember in Claude Levi-Strauss the distinction between the water that kills and the water that heals? Also, the terrestrial water versus celestial water? And the same discussion about the different kinds of fire? I’m drawing from that for my book. Thanks for introducing me to The Raw and the Cooked.

  5. Roxana, you certainly understand your resource base for your characters, and on a worrisome note, for all mankind. Excellent article. I learn from you. Thank you.

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