Montag, 27. Oktober 2008

river be[n]ds

Since a project on Milan's water network I did a few years ago, I've been fascinated by the transitional nature of rivers, and mankind's constant struggle to control their flow. Of course it makes sense that agricultural settlement, from Mesopotamia onwards, has grown up around river systems. No piece of infrastructure has enabled the development of civilisation as much as the irrigation channel.

Nevertheless, the effort put in to straightening rivers, cutting navigable channels, redirecting flows, stabalising wetlands and deltas, and damming rapids often goes beyond economic efficiency. Especially the long term costs, for example the almost annual damage done to Milan's agricultural hinterland through flooding, outweigh the potential gains, such as gains in arable land and access to stable water flow. It seems to me that decisions are often as much a result of a desire to exert control over nature, as they are to provide economic gain. We will climb the highest mountain, we will tame the mightiest river.

Witness attempts by Belgian colonialists in trying to dam perhaps the mightiest river of them all, the Congo. Efforts only got as far as building western style concrete towns and cities along its banks, but since the country's liberation people have gone back to living in huts of mud and reed. Is this a sign of de-modernisation, a regression towards a less civilised lifestyle, or is it an inherent awareness that unpredictable and frequent floods cannot be contained. People move with the flood, staying close to the seasonal fertile land. They rebuild their huts frequently, and always with readily available materials. The concrete villas and piers of the colonials have long since been washed away. Permanently.

Back in Milan, I had trouble getting my point across when trying to explain the consequences these actions can have on a landscape. I wish I'd known about these incredible images (stitch) of the Mississippi's historic water channels. The Mississippi of course ends at New Orleans, the most current example of the dangers of messing with the planet's blood vessels.

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