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Humans and the History of Water

Q & A With Brian Fagan, archaeologist and author of Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind

California Department of Water Resources

The Sacramento-San Joaqiun Delta provides water for tens of millions of Californians.

While many work to understand the world’s current water problems with a laser focus on the present, a few, such as¬†University of California at Santa Barbara emeritus professor of archaeology, Brian Fagan, have chosen to look back, at the water engineering efforts of past civilizations. In his recent book, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, Fagan finds striking historical parallels to California‚Äôs myriad challenges.

He agreed to answer some questions for Climate Watch.

JEREMY MILLER: In previous books such as The Long Summer and The Great Warming you have written about the influence of climate on ancient civilizations. How did you decide to make water the focus of your latest book, Elixir? Did living in California play any part in your decision?

BRIAN FAGAN: I got into the history of water as a result of giving a talk to the California Water Policy Conference on medieval drought, where some participants strongly encouraged me to undertake such a history.

Two experiences have shaped my perspective on water. The first was living in East and Central Africa for six years when I lived among subsistence farmers and saw the problems of drought first hand. The second is, of course, California, which has a classically erratic rainfall pattern that varies greatly one year to the next. In both cases, I learned just how precious water is to us.

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