A History of Water in nine volumes

books_history_of_waterPresentation of the complete series: waterhistory.b.uib.no

The pioneering History of Water series brings a much needed historical perspective to the relationship between water and society. The volumes in the series aim to show how history and development – from the birth of civilization to the present day – may be enriched, and new understandings and reinterpretations realised, by a proper awareness of the significance of water. Water issues can only be fully understood when all aspects – social, cultural, political religious and technological – are properly integrated.

Presentation of the book series at University of Bergen

The ultimate water journeys

The two award-winning TV documentaries The History of Water and The Future of Water present for the first time a broad, comprehensive story of how human battles with water have shaped our past and will shape our future. They contain moving and detailed accounts from a global journey to almost 40 countries on five continents.

The third instalment in this series is the Nile Quest (2014) which tells the fascinating story of the longest, most mythical and politically intriguing river in the world. It shows the peoples and animals that live in its basin and analyses the power struggle that currently takes place regarding control of the river.

The Nile Quest

In his new TV documentary series, ‘The Nile Quest’, UiB Professor Terje Tvedt takes us on a spectacular journey through the history of the fabled river to today’s looming conflict over the control of the Nile’s precious but limited resource.

Longer than any other river, the River Nile crosses three climatic zones from a trickle in the rain forests of the heart of Africa through gigantic lakes, the world’s largest swamp and through a ruthless desert. The Nile supports the lives of 350 million people as it winds its way through 11 countries on its way to the Mediterranean.

The Nile Quest
Watch all three episodes of the Nile Quest (in Norwegian) at nrk.no

But its water is also a source of conflict and power struggles, at the same time as parts of the Nile Basin have been the very symbols of African misery: drought, genocide, state failure and aid dependency.

River of life and death
Professor Tvedt takes the viewers on a journey through the giant river system’s history up to the present. In meetings with ordinary people and heads of states he seeks answers to how a potential conflict can be averted.

Population growth, new technology and environmental changes all make the scramble for its water increasingly urgent. Developments, as the Arab Spring and subsequent instability in Egypt, the creation of a new state in Southern Sudan, and Ethiopia’s decision to build one of Africa’s biggest dam on Egypt’s lifeline, have exacerbated the struggle.

“The population of the countries in the Nile Basin has grown from about 86 million in 1950 to around 500 million now while it is expected to be close 900 million by 2050. Combined with their economic aspirations, the stage is set for a regional power struggle over this scarce and extremely valuable resource. Let us hope that the stage is not set for another ‘water war’ in the Nile basin”, says professor Tvedt.

Terje Tvedt is one of the world’s foremost experts on the role of water in societies around the world. His previous documentaries include ‘A Journey in the History of Water’ (1997), an award-winning TV series broadcasted in more than one hundred countries. The sequel ‘The Future of Water’ was awarded “Gullruten” for best documentary in 2008 at the annual award for Norwegian TV. Dr Tvedt is also author of numerous books. Last year he published the book collection ‘Nile – river of history’ which received rave reviews.

Shifting balance of power
The Nile has been central to some of the most grandiose projects the world has seen: it brought the building blocks to the pyramids and provided the economic basis for the first, powerful Egyptian civilization. The Aswan High Dam of the 1970s was a potent symbol of the awakening of the non-Western world.

“Tutankhamun, Caesar, Churchill, Nasser, Clinton and Bin Laden all made ​​world history on its shores. Now, at the end of the post-colonial era, Africa is really moving forward economically, socially and politically. This will radically change the struggle for power over the Nile – and this will have global consequences,” says Professor Tvedt.

The balance of power in the region is shifting. Egypt, which has always existed on the grace of the Nile, is weakened and Ethiopia has teamed up with states further upriver, pushing to rewrite the old colonial Nile treaties and the 1959-treaty, which give Egypt the right to most of the Nile waters.

“We have tried to make a film about these power struggles that does not take side for one or the other protagonist, but that seeks to understand the position of each country and the unique role the river once more plays in world history”, says Tvedt.

Wasser – Eine Reise in die Zukunft

The book ‘Vann’, published in 2011, is now translated into German (and Ukrainian).

Ch. Links Verlag, 2012, Berlin)wasser, writes about the book:

Die Zukunft des Wassers ist die Zukunft der Menschheit. Leben wir in einem Jahrhundert der Dürren oder der Überflutungen? Oder beides? Der Zugriff auf Wasser wird einen großen Einfluss haben auf die globalen Kräfteverhältnisse, die Umwelt und das Gleichgewicht zwischen Arm und Reich. Wasser wird über Krieg oder Frieden entscheiden und die Entwicklung der Länder und Kontinente bestimmen. Anders als andere Rohstoffe entzieht sich das Wasser der totalen Kontrolle.
In 25 Ländern auf allen Kontinenten sucht Terje Tvedt Antworten auf diese Fragen. Er folgt dem Lauf der großen Flüsse, besucht gigantische Wasserbauprojekte wie das MOSE-Projekt in Venedig, den Drei-Schluchten-Staudamm in China und den größten unterirdischen Ozean, spricht mit Experten über ihre Beobachtungen und Prognosen. Spannungsreich berichtet er von den Bemühungen der einzelnen Länder, den Herausforderungen zu begegnen und Lösungen für die Zukunft zu finden.


An indigenous time-related framework for reconstructing the impact of disasters on ancient water systems in southern Ethiopia, 1560–1950

Tiki, Waktole; Gufu Oba, Peter & Tvedt, Terje (2013). An indigenous time-related framework for reconstructing the impact of disasters on ancient water systems in southern Ethiopia, 1560–1950 . Journal of Historical Geography.


This article uses an indigenous time-related framework to reconstruct the impact of disasters associated with floods, epidemics, droughts and famine on the ancient tula well systems in southern Ethiopia. We interviewed oral historians, who used the gada timeline to reconstruct the impact of disasters in the tula region from about 1560 to 1950. The Borana gada timeline is based on a system of social organization and transfer of power (each gada lasts for eight years) between five patri-classes called gogessa by the community. The Borana are able to recall events corresponding to a 40-year cycle (i.e. 5 × 8) when the same gogessa returns to power. With the return to power by each gogessa, grouped into seven naming clusters called maqabas, each gogessa experiences event-repetition or dhaaccii, which served as a repository of social memory. The time chronology in gada context and its social structure (gogessa), cyclical names (maqabas), and event-repetition (dhaaccii) are all connected in a complex historical narrative to reconstruct environmental events. To corroborate the oral history of the impact of disasters on tula wells, we used regional climatic information as proxy data. The findings showed that the gada timeline and its maqabas and event-repetition of dhaaccii correlated with the collapse of the wells, and with pastoral economy and human demographics. The gada timeline and its historical memory closely reflected climatic proxy data in terms of regional level disaster events.

About methodological nationalism and the communicative situation. Critique and an alternative


About methodological nationalism and the communicative situation. Critique and an alternative

Historisk Tidsskrift 04/2012 (p 490-510)
While historians were central in interpreting the national breakthrough in Norway in the late 19th century, and in creating the national story about the working class’s entry within the centre of the state system in the first half of the 20th century, the dominant practice of Norwegian history has largely been marginal and shown little interest in interpreting the third great wave in Norwegian modern history; namely the impact of what can be called the «international breakthrough» and the globalization process on Norway’s development over recent decades. How this historiographic situation is understood and explained will affect the ability of the Norwegian historical community for self-reflection, and the theoretical, methodological and conceptual choices historians will make. The article discusses the fruitfulness of the term «methodological nationalism», which the Norwegian Research Council through its evaluation of Norwegian historical research has launched to raise awareness of this situation. It shows that the concept is not fruitful – for theoretical, empirical and conceptual reasons – if the goal is a balanced reflection of the development of historical studies and of methodological conventions and opportunities. The article promotes a different, less politicized, historiographic interpretation and discusses another term and an alternative method that might help historians explore the development of societies in new and more fruitful ways, including the nation’s development.

Keywords: communicative situation, globalization, historiography, methodological nationalism.


Hydrology and Empire. The Nile and the partition of Africa

2011: Hydrology and Empire. The Nile and the partition of Africa, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 39, 2: 173-193.


Why did the British march up the Nile in the 1890s? The answers to this crucial question of imperial historiography have direct relevance for narratives and theories about imperialism, in general, and the partition of Africa in the nineteenth century, in particular. They will also influence our understanding of some of the main issues in the modern history of the whole region, including state developments and resource utilisation.

This article presents an alternative to dominant interpretations of the partition of Africa and the role of British Nile policies in this context. It differs from mainstream diplomatic history, which dominates this research field, in its emphasis on how geographical factors and the hydrological characteristics of the Nile influenced and framed British thinking and actions in the region.
Realising the importance of such factors and the specific character of the regional water system does not imply less attention to traditional diplomatic correspondence or to the role of individual imperial entrepreneurs. The strength of this analytical approach theoretically is that it makes it possible to locate the intentions and acts of historical subjects within specific geographical contexts. Empirically, it opens up a whole new set of source material, embedding the reconstruction of the British Nile discourse in a world of Nile plans, water works and hydrological discourses.

Water wars and water cooperation. An empirical critique of dominant schools of thought regarding water and geopolitics

2010: Water wars and water cooperation. An empirical critique of dominant schools of thought regarding water and geopolitics, in Terje Tvedt, Graham Chapman and Roar Hagen, (eds), History of Water Series II, Volume 3: Water and Geopolitics in the New World Order, IB Tauris, New York/London, 78-111.