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Rivers of Power Reviews

Rivers of Power by Laurence C. Smith

Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World

Laurence C. Smith

3.44 out of 5

5 reviews

Imprint: Allen Lane
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication date: 21 Apr 2020
ISBN: 9780241333860

'As fascinating as it is beautifully written' JARED DIAMOND

4 stars out of 5
15 Jul 2020

"what makes Rivers of Power particularly noteworthy is the way that Smith brings precisely into focus how crucial they are"

One of the lesser known impacts of flowing water is that it has a beneficial effect on our nervous systems. Even noise machines that mimic the acoustics of babbling brooks can induce better sleep, while cancer victims shown footage of meandering streams incur significant reductions in the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine. Given that in 15 years most of our species could expect to have a million other people as close neighbours, perhaps our largest debt to rivers is not just that they quench our collective thirst, but they chill us out at the same time. 


4 stars out of 5
Victor Mallet
15 May 2020

"a timely reminder of the life-giving force of water"

Satellites, cheap sensors and data processing are making that field of research ever more productive in our own era. Smith shows how our understanding of rivers, now “increasingly domesticated, even manacled”, is improving year by year, whether the issue is the impact of climate change and melting glaciers or the capture by vast dams of millions of tonnes of the sediment vital to agriculture downstream.

3 stars out of 5
David Aaronovitch
1 May 2020

"Smith is a decent and enthusiastic writer"

This is not a long book and Smith is a decent and enthusiastic writer, whose prose is clear and who explains scientific concepts well. From him I understood the function of “water towers” — essentially mountain ranges where great rivers begin and from where much of their water comes. He also explains very well why a muddy looking river, carrying sediment, is generally so much less destructive than a clear one, which cuts through the rock in its path.

3 stars out of 5
Dominic Sandbrook
19 Apr 2020

"Smith does a good job of reminding us how important rivers were in the birth of civilisation"

If Smith had confined himself to this issue, his book would have been much more coherent. But, like so many geographers who decide to write books explaining all human history, he ranges so widely and superficially that he ends up saying nothing very much about everything. One moment we are reading about the Nilometers used by the ancient Egyptians to measure river levels, the next we are on to the rise of Chinese communism. As a result, entire sections read like extracts from a child’s encyclopaedia, explaining, say, the origins of the American Civil War or the first Opium War. The Dam Busters’ raid happened on a river, so there are four pages on that. Then there are a couple of pages about Stalingrad that might have come from some dictionary of world battles. “Another example of how rivers influenced the strategies and battle tactics of the Second World War was Operation Market Garden,” the next paragraph begins, ominously.

4 stars out of 5
18 Apr 2020

"enthusiastic, occasionally gushing"

Being close to running water reduces stress hormones and allows us to connect with the elements. Smith is greatly inspired by urban redevelopments that open up waterfronts; by advances in data-gathering and micro-hydropower; and by a general increasing awareness of rivers’ centrality to culture, ecology and economics. When the current crisis is over, we need to get outside and fall in love with rivers for ourselves.