A flowing history of Asia

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on March 31, 2019

Title: Unruly Waters Author: Sunil Amrith Publisher: Allen Lane, UK Price: ₹799

The book is a treatise on the region’s rivers, seas — and deluded planners who tried to tame nature



The current clamour over water scarcity is pitched around what nature supplies through rains and what gets delivered through pipes, backed by the assumption that effective demand-side management will help counter supply-side conundrum.

Between the extremes of a dreary summer and a blistering summer, water crises manifest themselves in dried and polluted rivers; as cumulative water shortage in major reservoirs; and in unending queues of desperate people awaiting erratic supplies. All these point towards an emerging social disruption, if it isn’t there already.

For getting a better sense of the emerging water crises in an age of climate change, Sunil Amrith, Professor of South Asian Studies at the Harvard University, suggests a nuanced understanding on how history shaped water management and use; what compelled the society to respond to new economic opportunities; and how mastering the unevenness of water and its extreme seasonality, the British shaped an economy that improved revenue flow into the treasury.

With maximising revenue being the be-all and end-all of the British rule, every investment in infrastructure had led to expanding trade for Indian products in the markets of London, Liverpool, Hamburg, and New York. Investment in irrigation works bolstered local resilience to drought, signalling benevolence of the rulers, while ensuring that the state’s coffers remained full. The political connotation of investment in irrigation projects has persisted since then.

In his reading of the history, Amrith finds a serious lack of realisation of nature’s water endowment in expanding irrigation — exploiting economic gains from water remained bereft of social and ecological concerns. And this had continued well into the twentieth century as quick economic turnaround had propelled a large swathe of large landowners to switch to water-guzzling cash crops like cotton and sugarcane.

It has only eroded deep social and historical patterns that had treated ‘the monsoon as a way of life’ in promoting crop diversity, and a culture of resilience. With farm crises at their peak, the state is now trying to restore historical sanity by promoting diversified crops a la more crops per drop.

Mining the archives

Amrith mines British and Indian archives to produce a lively account of the development of modern meteorology in erasing water inequalities. Though the powers-that-be knew water has been a source of both social and economic power, it was in the disguise of democratisation of irrigation expansion that the state sought to usurp power. No wonder, control over water became a driver of inequality between people, classes and castes, and city and regions. Regional disparities have, therefore, become ever more pronounced.

Unruly Waters provides an interesting peep into the history of water development that continues to shape and reshape politics in the countries of South Asia. It captures the fears and dreams of rulers and governments in the region in laying control over its shared natural endowment through dams and river diversions, which has led to political tensions between neighbours. It is bound to escalate, as both China and India race to construct hundreds of dams to secure both power and water in the age of climate change.

Amrith reminds the present-day governments of both countries about what their founders had painfully remarked: “Jawaharlal Nehru had lamented the ‘disease of gigantism’ in promoting large dams, whereas his compatriot Zhou En-lai had acknowledged the mistake of accumulating water by cutting forests”. It is an irony that political expediency has allowed cumulative wisdom of the past to erode.

Miscued development

As the risks of climate change become increasingly evident in the region, there are essential lessons to be learnt from the shared history of miscued water development in South Asia. That many measures to secure the region against monsoon vagaries have destabilised the monsoon itself through unintended consequences leave much to be desired for sane actions in securing a safe water future. Need it be said that the idea that modern technology will fix matters is passé.

Unruly Waters is a comprehensive historical treatise on rains, rivers, coasts and seas, as also on weathermen, engineers, and politicians who sought to tame nature. Amrith covers a vast historical landscape on water but leaves the reader to draw his/her own conclusions. It should be essential reading for researchers and planners as it has between-the-lines lessons and messages to be captured to get a better sense of the unruly waters.

In suggesting that the task to understand the monsoons and the rivers that shape the region is far from complete, the author is emphatic in his suggestion that water management can neither be purely technical nor can it be addressed on a purely national scale. Without counting cultural values and notions of justice, any attempt at re-engineering water management is bound to escalate fears about nature and climate.

Amrith calls for a new political imagination to view water beyond local histories and national boundaries. ‘Water, which connects Asia, cannot be allowed to divide the region’. There cannot be a more compelling reason for countries in the region to cooperate in managing and sharing water than the fact that the countries in South Asia are the world’s most vulnerable to climate change.

Unruly Waters presents all the essential elements to get back on the drawing board to plan a secure water future for the entire region amidst the most challenging times.

The reviewer is a writer and researcher based in Delhi

Published on March 31, 2019

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor