...[an] important new book ... Some of Mr. Smith’s most original and compelling passages don’t deal with rivers’ pervasive cultural influence but with their awesome physical force. The mechanics of how rivers push all that soil downstream are so complex that the young Albert Einstein reportedly threw up his hands and turned to astronomy. Yet Mr. Smith explains cogently and even lyrically how rivers constantly tune their flow to move their sediment efficiently.
Geography can be history and history geography—and sometimes the most obvious things are overlooked. Laurence C. Smith’s Rivers of Power endeavours to make us see beneath the surfaces of arterial waters and consider them as carriers of civilisation and arbiters of destinies ... This enthusiastic, occasionally gushing, author opens his hymn to hydrology ancient and modern with a descent into a 9th-century Nilometer, a great pit ... 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.
...[a] brave attempt to write a history of the world’s rivers from more than 4bn years ago until the present day ... At times, a little too brave. In trying to tell us everything about rivers, Smith deviates into areas of history, politics and business where his evident scientific expertise is of little use ... He is distracted by everything from riverside property developments in New York to events — such as the German siege of Stalingrad in the second world war — that are only tangentially relevant to his subject ... He does not do lyrical. Indeed, the best writing here is from John Steinbeck’s loving description of the Carmel river and its farms, sycamores, raccoons and frogs ... But Smith is passionate about his field of study, and infectiously enthusiastic about how our scientific understanding of rivers has developed over the centuries and allowed us to use or abuse this 'vast, arterial power humming all around us'.