How can history help the never-ending human dance with water? | Aeon Essays

Preparing the fields near Gotemba, Japan, in 2000. Photo by Chris Steele-Perkins/Magnum

As storms, droughts and floods become more intense, what can the world learn from Japan’s profoundly wet history?

In early June 2018, I landed at Kansai airport in Japan, with a full day of travel ahead. A few hours later, I was sitting on a Shinkansen – the high-speed train connecting Osaka to Tokyo. Jetlagged, I tried to concentrate on the countryside as it streamed by at over 300 km per hour. Water was everywhere: a steady flow of wetlands, historical paddy fields, embankments. It was a watery procession, occasionally interrupted by a tangle of power lines and packed houses, the scars of centuries of hydraulic struggle.

What I saw was the symptom of a universal story. All societies are locked in a dialectic relationship with water over time. It falls from the sky, comes from the sea, flows over land: floods, droughts, storms are expressions of Earth’s climate. People respond, finding solutions to protect themselves. It is a story of action and reaction, of water encroaching on daily life, of catastrophic failures, of people organising to shift water’s course or hold its force at bay. What propels this story forward over centuries is the fact that the solutions of any age are transformed – or rendered obsolete – by the changing expectations of those who follow, in a never-ending human dance with water.Night Rain at Karasaki by Utagawa Hiroshige. Courtesy The Met Museum, New York

The traces of that dance are etched into the landscape and institutions of society: the memory of what past generations did shapes what current generations can do. The question, in an age of unprecedented climate change, is whether this past has anything to contribute to the struggle we face. As the floods and droughts that define the extremes of everyone’s water experience become more frequent and intense than ever before, what role does our historical relationship with water play? As the music changes, do the steps we learnt over centuries help us in this new dance with water?

Answering this question is harder than one might think: the traces of past water solutions are often hard to detect. During the 20th century, most rich countries deployed exquisite skill and vast resources to sever their relationship with their water past, creating the illusion that water on the landscape is nothing more than a modern, inert stage on which life plays out at the rhythm of the industrial economy. They wished to engineer away water, along with its unpredictability, burying it under a modern control of nature. For the most part, they succeeded.

No one in London (or anywhere else in the developed world beyond the UK, for that matter) wades a river going to work. The ancient tributaries of the Thames – the Walbrook, the Fleet, the Tyburn and the Westbourne – are lost inside the city’s sewers. In the US, Manhattan has forgotten flowing water altogether, as ‘Manahatta’ – the island once watered by countless streams and springs – lies under a thick layer of 20th-century architecture. Most citizens of Tokyo or Osaka experience water from taps, a familiar jutting feature of bathrooms or kitchen walls everywhere in the rich world.

But as the train sped through Japan’s constructed landscape, I realised that its relationship with water had a singular characteristic. Water, though controlled, had not disappeared. Japan’s millennial landscape proudly bore centuries of visible scars from fighting with it. The past was in full view. Its legacy – the paddy fields, river development, levees constructed over centuries – seemed to be still central to the security infrastructure of the present.

Japan is not entirely alone in having integrated its water past visibly into the present. The Dutch, for example, rely on centuries of water management and associated historical infrastructure in their modern relationship to water. It is inevitable: the Netherlands is at the mouth of continental rivers and much of it is well below sea level, facing the same existential problems it faced in the 10th century. But it is an exception, alongside a few places like Venice, the ancient water city.

The country is supplied by infinite moisture

In most countries, water management is a modern solution to a contemporary problem. For the most part, the historical plumbing of Europe’s landscape is buried under the cultivated fields of a land that enjoys a benign climate. Places with far more complex hydrology – India, the Amazon, even the Western US – once had rich Indigenous traditions of water management, but colonisation all but erased them. Modern infrastructure is a discontinuity entirely unrelated to their hydraulic past. China and Russia were transformed by communism’s 20th-century ideological enthusiasm for hydraulic engineering. Almost everywhere, water’s past is archeologically interesting, culturally important, but appears to be functionally obsolete, making it hard to read in the present.

But not in Japan. Conditions there are an unusual mix of difficult hydrology and historical continuity. The climate of this large, rich country is among the most diverse in the world, stretching from fully tropical latitudes at roughly 20 degrees north (south of Okinawa) to 45 degrees north, at the tip of Hokkaido, where midlatitude storms dominate. Its topography adds complexity. During the rainy seasons, water collects in about 3,000 unforgiving, short rivers, draining all sides of the young, steep mountains that cover most of Japan’s territory, leaving marshes and swamps on what little flat land is left.

The country is supplied by infinite moisture, surrounded to the west by the warm waters of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, and the Pacific to the east. It is as if someone cut out the middle of the continental US, squeezed east and west coasts together, and drenched that thin strip with more water than the US or Europe receive at similar latitudes.

These conditions produce singularly complicated water problems. Tokyo’s metropolitan area, for example, is home to more than 37 million people, among the largest in the world, crammed in one of Japan’s few lowlands. It receives as much water as famously wet tropical locations such as Darwin in Australia. Because Japan is on the edge of the ‘Ring of Fire’ (the seismically active Pacific Ocean rim), Tokyo’s infrastructure is at greater risk of earthquakes than San Francisco or Los Angeles. Its citizens face typhoons as much as people in Florida risk hurricanes, and tsunamis as destructive as those that threaten Alaska or Hawaii.

Delivering any illusion of water control in these circumstances is an extraordinary challenge, one that has accompanied Japan for centuries. Indeed, Japan is one of the few developed nations that exhibits a long history of adaptation to these unusual conditions. Its history is on display in what one can see from the train: centuries of evolution in a remarkable environment.

As the bullet train sped through the glistening countryside, I wondered how these layers of water history – the paddy fields, constructed wetlands and more – would behave when marshalled to defend Japan from a changing climate. Would that history reveal itself to be an ally? Or would it fail, proving that modern infrastructure is the only answer? As the frequency and intensity of storms, droughts and floods change, what does the resilience of the past tell us about the challenges of the future?

These would have remained jetlag-fuelled musings had it not been for the events that unfolded only a few weeks later.

On 29 June 2018, three weeks after my train ride, Prapiroon was born as a tropical storm east of the Philippines, 400 nautical miles south-southeast of Okinawa. It headed west, then veered north, as these storms often do, aiming for Korea and Japan. Three days later, on 2 July, it had grown into a typhoon. Over the following three days, climate change conspired to turn Prapiroon into one of the most destructive typhoons to ever hit Japan. […]

Continue reading: How can history help the never-ending human dance with water? | Aeon Essays


Edited byPam Weintraub

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