Yesterday was World Water Day; well, I probably wouldn’t have known either except that Google had one of its cute themes again.
So, did you know that there’s a field of water history? I did, because one of my colleagues has done really interesting research about public health and the politics of water supplies in 19th-century Wales, and the first international Water in History conference was held here in Aber.
Which is a pretty appropriate kind of place for it. We get about twice as much rain a year on the west coast of Wales as they do in south-east England (Met Office statistics: our nearest station (Trawscoed) 1961-90, annual average rainfall 1174mm; Greenwich, London, annual average in the same period: 586mm).
But hang on, you might be asking, what is Tryweryn? What is we have to remember?
A few miles south of Aberystwyth on the road to Aberaeron, there’s an old, crumbling wall painted with the words Cofiwch Dryweryn (an older picture, much less dilapidated). It’s a home-made memorial to the flooding of a village and a valley in the 1960s in order to create a reservoir that would supply English city-dwellers, and the campaign against the project; it was not the only such case during the 1960s, but it is probably now the best known. And the widespread outrage caused in Wales by the reservoirs contributed to the growth of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh nationalist movement.
The building of large-scale reservoirs in Wales (often – but not always – to supply English areas) had begun in the late 19th century. The largest, at the turn of the 20th century, was the Elan Valley, in Radnorshire, built to supply the rapidly growing population of Birmingham. The dams built there represented major feat of engineering. (Losses and gains: the Elan Valley now is an important wildlife reserve.)
And these projects were tiny in their impacts compared to recent and current projects around the world today. The problems driving many of those current projects are the same, though: pressures of growing populations in need of water (and, these days, electricity). Which is still not much consolation for those on the receiving end.
Water supplies and sanitation are crucial global issues. Millions of people live with water shortages; it’s expected that the problem is only going to get worse. Water has been a contributing factor in conflict and war in the past; there are growing fears of severe water wars soon to come. Water is political.