The Dawn of Green, By Harriet Ritvo

The battle lines between environmentalism and industry were drawn in 19th-century Manchester
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Manchester is a thirsty city. To see just how thirsty, take a walk in the Lake District on a hot day, when water levels in the lakes are low. At Thirlmere and Haweswater, dry-stone walls marking the field edges lead straight down into the dark water. For these are no ordinary lakes: they are man-made, and their waters cover fields, roads, farms and even churches, flooded to make way for the grand reservoirs that fill Manchester's taps.

Harriet Ritvo's book shows exactly how great that thirst was, focusing on the moment in the late 19th century when huge numbers of people were drawn to the expanding metropolis in search of work. Hundreds of new factories were using millions of gallons of water in industrial processes, while Manchester's city councillors had a growing consciousness of the need for clean water following multiple epidemics of waterborne disease.

To quench its thirst, Manchester looked northwards to the Lake District. Manchester had already constructed a series of nearby reservoirs in the Peak District, to the south-east of the city. But now it needed something larger. Proper hills would create enough of a natural bowl to be easily floodable, and height was required to allow gravity alone to power the water's journey to Manchester.

The city therefore decided during the 1870s to purchase the land around the lake at Thirlmere, on the road between Kendal and Keswick in the heart of picturesque Lakeland. Ritvo describes how the Waterworks Committee tried to make their purchases in secret, to avoid arousing suspicion and raising local land prices; nonetheless word of the scheme quickly spread. Yet instead of raising property prices, the Manchester councillors' efforts had an unexpected effect: mass protest against the whole scheme. Local residents hated the idea of their beautiful lake becoming a municipal utility for faraway city dwellers. But most importantly for the way events were to play out, locals were not alone in their opposition to the scheme. As Ritvo shows, rebellion against Manchester's city fathers came from across Lakeland and further, uniting voices throughout Britain and even beyond.

John Ruskin wrote angrily on Manchester's plan to drain "the little lake of Thirlmere into its water closets"; other rural areas protested, worrying that Manchester's claims to "own" Thirlmere's water might give their local towns ideas. The result was a 20-year battle before the reservoir finally opened in 1894, flooding Thirlmere valley forever.

Ritvo's account of this confrontation between industrial commerce and early environmentalism is clear and utterly readable. Thirlmere was the first modern conflict between these two camps, so difficult to reconcile. Ideas about natural beauty versus the need for modern utilities were discussed here in detail for the first time. But the consequent history of big-dam making has proved equally controversial – such as at Hetch Hetchy in the US, a parallel turn of the century project to bring water supplies to San Francisco by creating a dam in the centre of the new Yosemite National Park.

In our own decade, the Three Gorges project on the Yangtze took its place in the history books as the most destructive dam ever built in archaeological, cultural and human terms, having displaced some 1.24 million people from their homes and contributed to the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin. Yet the project is also hailed in China for its formidable contribution to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions: in its first three years the dam has already generated enough electricity to cover a third of its building costs, and it provides significant winter flood protection to the provinces downstream, including several of China's biggest cities.

There are no easy answers, and the dam at Three Gorges demonstrates exactly why Ritvo's fascination with the conflict at Thirlmere remains relevant to us today.

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