Rivers of Power

Laurence C. Smith

Laurence C. Smith


How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World

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From the Pharaohs to the space age, the sweeping story of rivers and
civilization and how they shape human welfare on Earth

Rivers, more than any road, technology, or political leader, have shaped the course of human civilization. They have opened frontiers, founded cities, settled borders, and fed billions. They promote life, forge peace, grant power, and can capriciously destroy everything in their path. Even today, rivers remain a powerful global force — one that is more critical than ever to our future. In Rivers of Power, geographer Laurence C. Smith explores the timeless and vastly underappreciated relationship between rivers and civilization as we know it. Rivers are of course important in many practical ways (water supply, transportation, sanitation). But the full breadth of their profound influence on the way we live is less obvious. Rivers define and transcend international borders, forcing cooperation between nations. Huge volumes of river water are used to produce energy, raw commodities, and food. Wars, politics, and demography are transformed by their devastating floods. The territorial claims of nations, their cultural and economic ties to each other, and the migrations and histories of their peoples trace back to rivers, river valleys, and the topographic divides they carve upon the world. And as climate change, advancing technologies, and cities transform our relationship with nature, new opportunities are rising to preserve the waters that sustain us.

Beautifully told and expansive in scope, Rivers of Power reveals how and why rivers profoundly influence civilization and the importance this vast, arterial power holds for the future of humanity.


“Laurence Smith takes readers on a tour of the world’s great rivers — past, present, and future.
The result is fascinating, eye-opening, sometimes alarming, and ultimately inspiring.”
-Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction

“What do rivers give us? Among many other things: cheap transport, dam disasters, fish, floods, highways, hydroelectric power, inspiration for art and music, irrigation water, national boundaries, and the reason for Stalingrad. This book about rivers is as fascinating as it’s beautifully written.”
-Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, and Upheaval

“Engagingly panoramic and truly global.”

“In Rivers of Power, Laurence C. Smith brings gentle humor and a gift for storytelling to the task of explaining a force that has shaped the earth for over three billion years. The result is an eye-opening and occasionally chilling account of the past, present, and future of both rivers and the humans that depend on them. An important new read.”
-David Frye, author of Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick

“Smith has written a tour de force — a narrative as powerful as the rivers he documents. He is up there with Jared Diamond — a story-teller with real craft, and an academic career that makes him an important part of the modern revival of geography. Rivers determine where we live and often how we live, too. From Herodotus musing on the Nile to the dam makers of modern China, this is their story.”
-Fred Pearce, author of When The Rivers Run Dry and The New Wild

“A valuable, well-observed work of history and geography.”

“How can one write a world history of rivers? Laurence C. Smith triumphantly meets the challenge, fluently comparing the role of rivers in wartime, in trade, in water management, in floods and droughts, and, looking to the future, in a world of rising temperatures.”
-David Abulafia, author of The Boundless Sea

“Absorbing. Smith is not only an excellent storyteller, he is also perhaps the world’s leading scientist using satellites to unlock the secrets of the planet’s rivers. His deep understanding will inspire readers to see rivers in wholly new and surprising ways”
-Paul Bates, Professor of Hydrology at University of Bristol and Chairman, Fathom Global

“Smith demonstrates compellingly and engagingly that rivers have played a key role in the development of nations and, indeed, of humankind itself”
-Julian Dowdeswell, Professor of Physical Geography and Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University

“Rivers of Power transforms something quite common and often unappreciated into a compelling subject of critical importance to humanity. With scholarship, literary flair, and a personal touch, Smith takes the reader on a fascinating and surprising voyage of discovery, illuminating the myriad ways in which rivers have molded the course of history. He also sounds a clarion call for all of us to invest in understanding, revitalizing, and protecting our rivers as a means of improving our own lives.”
-Eric Jay Dolin, bestselling author of Black Flags, Blue Waters

More Reviews

Financial Times

The Spectator

Geographical Magazine

Library Journal

Geography Realm


The Globe and Mail

Popular Science


About the Author

Laurence C. Smith is the John Atwater and Diana Nelson University Professor of Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at Brown University. Previously, he was Professor and Chair of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and of the John S. Guggenheim Foundation, and his research has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, and on NPR, CBC Radio, and BBC, among others. He has been invited to speak to the World Economic Forum in Davos three times. His first book, The World in 2050, won the Walter P. Kistler Book Award and was a Nature Editor’s Pick of 2012. His second book Rivers of Power, was a GEOGRAPHICAL Best Book of 2020.

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