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Look back to move forward 


The Chairman’s blog of May 29th on Running Out of Water raised some interesting questions and provided a sobering reminder that ten significant civilisations disappeared from the face of the Earth with water being the root cause of their demise. We certainly do have to learn from these historic events and build resilient cities that can withstand the water scarcity shocks.


But I wanted to explore the central proposition in the Chairman’s blog that politicians are not good students of history. And I wanted to forward an alternate view, one that firstly looks at the competence of today’s politicians and, secondly, asks whether the politicians are ignoring history or whether they are taking those lessons from history that appeal to them the most?


Let's start with the politicians we have as our modern-day leaders, and consider them in light of Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review entitled - Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? The answer to this incredibly important question to human civilisation lies in our inability to discern between confidence and competence. Chamorro-Premuzic argues that people in general commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, and are fooled into believing that confident men are better leaders.


As a result, the image of a popular “leader” that has emerged in recent times is one with characteristics that psychologists would commonly describe as personality disorders, such as narcissism, histrionic or Machiavellian. Now pick up your world atlas and start going country-by-country and leader-by-leader, and see how many of them tick these personality disorder boxes. Some of them may even offer complete trifecta! Yes, there are exceptions, and God bless them!


The point is simple, these politicians are, in fact, students of history but they are looking at history for lessons on self-grandeur, not building resilient cities. No one remembers civilisations without pyramids and tombs full of riches for their emperors. The ten civilisations listed in Chairman’s blog are all well known and, interestingly, all had some form of monuments to celebrate the greatness of their rulers.


When it comes to water and building resilient cities, there was another civilisation around the time of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations. The Indus Valley Civilisation, which was a thriving urban civilisation around 4600 years ago in Western India (modern day Pakistan). According to, the people of the Indus Valley civilization did not build massive monuments, nor did they bury riches among their dead in golden tombs. There were no mummies, no emperors, and no violent wars or bloody battles in their territory.


Around 2500 BC, when the Egyptians were building pyramids, people in the Indus Valley were laying the bricks for India’s first cities – see built strong levees, or earthen walls, to keep water out of their cities. When these were not enough, they constructed islands to raise the cities above possible floodwaters. Engineers of the Indus Valley civilisation are known to have created sophisticated plumbing and built sewage systems that rival any urban drainage systems built before the 19th century. According to Saifullah Khan, the uniformity in the planning and construction of the Indus Valley cities suggests strong central government.


Knowledge of history, as they say, is empowering. We, the water managers of today, must celebrate lessons from history where civilisations went beyond building monuments for their powerful rulers and invested in building great cities instead. Perhaps then we might get our modern ‘leaders’ who are always keen to leave a legacy, interested in this important endeavour!

By: Amit Chanan. WaterLinks Board of Trustees 

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