Saturday 15 February 2014

Floods - the lengths to which we have gone to fight them

Some of the most ambitious structures ever created by humans have been put up in an effort to stop flooding. The founder of China’s first real imperial dynasty owed his position to some of these. Throughout history, the Yellow River has flooded so often it became known as ‘China’s Sorrow’, but during the third millennium before Christ, a man named Yu (pictured), was hired to tame it.

Inspired, it is said, by the many lines on a turtle’s shell, Yu decided the answer lay not just in building dykes, but also in clearing existing waterways and digging new canals. In one place, he even had a gorge cut through a mountain, which became known as ‘Yu’s doorway.’

Yu took on the job just four days after getting married, but such was his dedication that he never once visited his wife during the eight years he fought the river. The existing emperor was so impressed that he named Yu his successor instead of his own son, leading to the foundation of the Xia dynasty, which ruled the country for 400 years, though the river continued to be a menace.

Now there is a campaign to get World Heritage status for the Yellow River dykes, which were said to have required more technological expertise than the Great Wall, and consumed 13 times as much effort.

My new book, Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 78023 196 9) tells the story of many more ambitious anti-flood structures.  It also includes chapters on the deadliest floods in history, the flood myths that feature in so many religions, on how floods have been portrayed in literature, art and films, and on the impact that climate change may have on humanity’s attempts to combat them in the future.

* Review of the book from a Belgian newspaper -

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