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Between the prolog (a brief introduction) and epilog (a brief look at what the future may bring), there are seven chapters covering various aspects of the history and development of water usage. Together they show how much we all depend on water, not just for drinking, and how dangerous it can be. As an aside, we also get a glimpse into some of the political battles through the centuries. While this book is primarily about the history of water in Britain, there is plenty of interest to others, especially as Britain was in the forefront of technological developments up to the nineteenth century.

The first chapter focuses on the supply of drinking water to London, especially via a scheme called the New River. The second chapter describes how the fenlands of East Anglia were drained, eventually providing agricultural land of a high quality, but not before plenty of people had opposed the scheme. We learn, if we didn't know already, that xenophobia and racism are nothing new. They've been around in Britain for centuries, as is clear from the hostility shown to French and Dutch immigrants involved in in some of the early engineering projects.

The third chapter discusses the development of the inland waterway network, especially the construction of canals and their associated works. The canals were extremely successful for half a century or more, but went into a long period of decline as another form of transport, partly powered by water (until steam power was itself superseded), took much of their traffic away. Eventually, the canals that were originally built to carry freight staged something of a revival as pleasure boats appealed to a growing number of people. Many British canals have been restored and re-opened to serve this market.

The fourth chapter deals with water as a source of power. It begins with simple waterwheels used to power cotton mills and the like, and ends winds with the generation of hydro-electricity. The greater part of this chapter is devoted to steam power, first in stationary engines and later in locomotives. The author makes it clear that James Watt did NOT invent the steam engine, although most people think he did. However, he played a key role in its development, making it far more useful than it had hitherto been. You might say that James Watt did for steam engines what Bill Gates did for computers, although the author doesn't make such a comparison.

The fifth chapter highlights the danger of water in spreading diseases such as cholera and typhoid. The author explains how London's sewage system developed and how the Great Stink of 1858 hastened that development, not least because the Houses of Parliament are located on the banks of the Thames. A major sewerage scheme had been designed and prepared some years earlier but politicians had procrastinated as they often do, not sure if such a major scheme was viable, practical or necessary. The hot summer of 1858 made the air so bad that parliamentary business was difficult to conduct and approval was quickly granted. Isn't it amazing what politicians will do to alleviate their own suffering?

The sixth chapter is about landscape and literature, focusing on the Lake District, particularly poet William Wordsworth and children's author Beatrix Potter. The seventh chapter is about health and recreation, covering the rise and fall of spas (particularly Bath) and seaside resorts, though the author seems far more interested in the spas, given that he devotes twice as many pages to them as to seaside resorts.

So the author has covered just about every water-related issue but I suspect that if he were writing the book now, he'd say a lot more about flood plains, which became a huge issue in Britain in the summer of 2007 thanks to a summer of torrential rain. They warrant much more now than the solitary incidental mention they get in the chapter on draining the fens, but I don't blame the author really as few Brits cared before 2007.

The epilog briefly assesses the current situation and what the future may bring, including the possibility that lack of water supplies may cause war. Desalination plants, ideas for towing icebergs, dams, tidal power and the debate about private ownership of water supplies are all mentioned, but none are covered in detail. These issues could cover a whole chapter or maybe a whole book, but would contain more opinions than facts.

This is a fascinating book about a subject that is often neglected simply because most of us in the developed world take it for granted. It's certainly not the last word on the subject but is definitely worth reading.
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on 10 July 2012
Very interesting subject, but unfortunately the presentation is dull. However, this is a handy reference book to have and call upon.
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