Humboldt and NAWAPA
June 1, 2011 • 11:48AM

An illustrated and complete version of this post will appear at

By Timothy Rush

A string of recent books which focus on Alexander von Humboldt’s connections to, and affinity for, the United States, paint him as a proto-greenie ready to do battle to reduce man's "footprint" on the globe, a many-faceted impresario of Earth sciences who had an exquisite aesthetic appreciation of nature and a corresponding sense of the "smallness and nearsightedness" of Man, as one of the authors puts it. (see references) The authors would surely enlist Humboldt (1769-1859) as an authority in denouncing the vast transformation of the West of the North American continent—something 40 times greater than the TVA—envisioned in the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA).

Ironically, the reason Humboldt's name graces the major river, mountain chain, and inland sink of northern Nevada—bestowed on these features in the mid-1840s, in an area never visited by Humboldt and some 40 years after his one and only, brief stay in the United States—is that Humboldt was seen by several generations of America's front-line explorers, geographers, and geologists, as the guiding spirit of America's development of these parched areas.

Today, Humboldt, an ardent promoter of technological progress in general and great engineering enterprises in specific, would be an emphatic partisan of NAWAPA. In fact, there is no stretch in calling him a father of NAWAPA. Here is the evidence of his paternity:

Three vast human geo-engineering projects for the Americas stand out in Humboldt's panoply of initiatives.

The first proposal was made after he personally verified that the Orinoco River of Venezuela was connected to headwaters of the Rio Negro (a tributary of the Amazon) by a singular, natural canal-like watercourse called the Casiquiare. Humboldt proposed that the interior of South America be developed by linking all three of the great river basins of the continent—the Orinoco, the Amazon, and the Rio de la Plata—into a 4,000 mile vast inland transport and development network.

Put forward two generations before the building of the transcontinental railroad in the United States, Humboldt's conception shared much of the railroad's function in opening the interior of a continent to systematic development, and thus breaking the patterns of coast-based enclaves of colonial economy. Humboldt's vision is still not built today—although it is much discussed and studied.

The second and third of his hallmark geo-engineering projects are contained in his extraordinary Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. This lengthy work, the fruit of his roughly one year (1803-1804) spent in New Spain (what is today Mexico), was translated into English the very year of its original publication in French, 1811. (Fortunately, this John Black translation has been reprinted in its complete four volumes in 1966 by AMS Press in New York. Otherwise, modern readers would be stuck with an abridged Borzoi version published in the 1950s by Alfred A. Knopf which "eliminated with regret" exactly these two defining projects!)

Connecting the Oceans

The first of these projects, contained in Book I, Chapter II, pp. 16-45, is an astonishing survey of nine routes for connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Western Hemisphere, including with canals. As he writes: "We must confine ourselves here to the problem of the communication between the two seas, in all the generality of which it is susceptible. We shall present in one view nine points ... and all offer a greater or less probability either of canals or interior river communications" (italics in original).

The first of these points is an examination of possible connections between the Columbia River and Canadian Arctic rivers, including the Mackenzie. Geographical knowledge of the region at the time Humboldt was writing was too sketchy for him to come to any conclusion on the point. In fact, the river systems are not naturally connected: That will be accomplished with NAWAPA.

The third route identified by Humboldt is the Tehuantepec Isthmus in Mexico. The fourth, involves a crossing at Nicaragua, utilizing the San Juan River and the Lake of Nicaragua. Humboldt finds this the most viable (as did the extended U.S. surveys of 1870-1875), but says many more studies and surveys are needed.

The fifth location is the crossing at Panama. Humboldt devotes more space to this possibility than any other, and with extraordinary prescience observes that because of the difficulties of the terrain, the notion of a sea-level canal "ought to be completely abandoned." Would that the French effort under Ferdinand de Lesseps 70 years later had had such acumen!

Humboldt then proceeds to point six, the Atrato-Truandó route through the Colombian side of the Darien Isthmus. He concludes with point nine, a speculation that there might be a potential crossing of Patagonia, 7 degrees north of the Strait of Magellan (later proven not feasible).

Wherever the interoceanic canal would be determined to be most viable, Humboldt writes in summary, it would be "an undertaking calculated to immortalize a government occupied with the true interests of humanity."

Defeating Tropical Disease

Tellingly, Humboldt recognizes that defeating the vectors of tropical disease will be a prerequisite for such gigantic undertakings. He devotes 70 pages to an exhaustive survey of the extant literature in Europe, the United States, and Spanish America, regarding yellow fever, known in the tropics as "vómito negro" for the typical gushing of darkened blood from the mouth in its final stage. To this he adds extensive personal field notes accumulated in his travels, along with tables of incidence of the disease correlated with weather readings gleaned from health records in notorious fever-ridden ports such as Veracruz, Acapulco, and Panama City.

Humboldt does not hit upon the Aedes aegypti mosquito vector (that would wait for the work of Carlos Finley, Walter Reed, and William C. Gorgas at the end of the 19th Century), but he shows a method of assembling and cross-referencing all data in all variables which eventually would yield the breakthrough. It would not come in time to save the doomed French phase of the Panama Canal enterprise; but the discovery was an indispensable component of the successful U.S. effort 10 years later.

The Mexico Basin

The second great project outlined by Humboldt in the Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain is a solution to the hydrographic challenges of the basin of Mexico City. He devotes no less than 85 pages to the nature and history of the problem, which bedevils Mexico City to this day. His treatment became legendary, and modern studies continue to refer to his summary of the efforts to deal with the difficulties as a landmark

The problem was clear even at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The basin of Mexico City has no natural drainage. The Aztecs built their capital city, Tenochtitlán, as an island city in the middle of one of the large lakes of the basin, connected to surrounding higher ground by causeways. Even so, they suffered periodic floods.

When the Spaniards arrived, they attempted to drain the surrounding lake, (one of four lakes in the broader basin), but likewise faced recurrent devastating floods. The years 1629-1634 were one uninterrupted period of flooding! Over a period of 200 years, up to the very time of Humboldt's visit, a series of large-scale hydraulic works were initiated, which Humboldt called "undoubtedly one of the most gigantic hydraulical operations ever executed by man."

These included a tunnel at Nochistongo (also designated by the name of the nearby town Huehuetoca), to drain the upper lakes at the lowest point in the surrounding hills and mountains. The tunnel collapsed—because, Humboldt noted, the designer failed to use elliptical curvature, of the kind Humboldt, trained as a mining engineer, knew to work for similar conditions in shoring up mine tunnels.

The viceroys then ordered that the rock above the collapsed tunnel be excavated (at times using 15,000 native Indian laborers), to make the passage an open-air cut. But as Humboldt demonstrates, the cut was too narrow for the nature of the surrounding rock, and the passage was routinely blocked by rockfalls for long periods of time. Humboldt prepared a cutaway schematic (see illustration) of the levels of the water courses to aid the conceptualization of a more enduring solution.

Humboldt notes with interest a proposal just being conceived at the time of his visit, of digging a deep drainage tunnel at a different point in the valley, leading out to the Tequizquiac River. This was indeed the major advance undertaken 150 years later, in the mid-20th Century! He also emphasizes that the brute force work conditions of the Indian laborers had aroused "the most bitter hatred against the desague (drainage cut) of Huehuetoca," and that "a hydraulical operation is looked upon by them in the light of a public calamity, not only because a great number of individuals have perished ... but especially because then were compelled to labour to the neglect of their own domestic affairs, so that they fell into the greatest indigence while the desiccation was going on."

It was clear that Humboldt recognized that major technological advances were required to avoid this appalling human toll.

But the most interesting observation from Humboldt, of special relevance to the interacting features of the NAWAPA project, is his passionate attack on those who obstinately defined the problem of the Mexico City basin solely as how to get the water out.

"In all the hydraulical operations of the valley of Mexico, water has been always regarded as an enemy, against which it was necessary to be defended either by dykes or drains. We have already proved that this mode of proceeding, especially the European method of artificial desiccation, has destroyed the germ of fertility in a great part of the plain of Tenochtitlán. Efflorescences of carbonate of soda have increased in proportion as the masses of running water have diminished. Fine savannas have gradually assumed the appearance of arid steppes. For great spaces the soil of the valley appears merely a crust of hardened clay, destitute of vegetation, and cracked by contact with the air."

Modern-day residents of Mexico City, afflicted with frequent dust storms and consequent breathing difficulties during the dry seasons, arising from the desiccated expanses of dried lake-beds and denuded landscape, will heartily assent to Humboldt's admonition.

But the real fun is Humboldt's sketch of a solution: "It would have been easy, however, to profit by the natural advantages of the ground, in applying the same canals for the drawing of water from the lakes for watering of the arid plains, and for interior navigation. Large basins of water ranged as it were in stages above one another facilitate the execution of canals of irrigation."

That is, a human makeover of the entirety of the basin, in a comprehensive application of man's creative powers.

Humboldt was a builder. Let the greenies scream.


The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. Laura Dassow Walls. Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. 2009.

The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Centruy Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. Aaron Sachs. Viking Press, New York. 2006.

Alexander von Humboldt: A Metabiography. Nicolaas A. Rupke. Univ. of Chicago press, paperback edition. Chicago and London. 2008.

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