“Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History” by Sunil Amrith

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Geography used to be considered destiny, but this once-popular notion that terrain and climate drove history has gone out of fashion. Now a new generation of environmental historians are bringing hard, physical materiality back into mainstream history with a more nuanced approach, looking at the historically situated interaction between people and their physical environments.

Sunil Amrith’s wide-ranging history of water in Asia places the element at the center of his story. Water is, it should go without saying, one of the most basic and essential elements of our physical world. In fact, because water is so present, it usually has gone without mention, noteworthy only when there is too much or too little.

Amrith masterfully captures the interplay between the British colonial state, and later the post-Independence Indian government, the societies that these administrations ruled, and water. This is not a story of geography as destiny but of how geography provoked destiny, of how people—colonial administrators, Indian independence activists, meteorologists, and canal-builders—engaged with their geography and their climate as part of the process of organizing and controlling on the part of the colonial and the modern state.

With 4000 dams by 1980, India had spent more money on dam-building than education.

Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History, by Sunil Amrith (Basic Books, Allen Lane, December 2018)
Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History, Sunil Amrith (Basic Books, Allen Lane, December 2018)

Amrith’s story begins with dam and irrigation projects on the eastern coast. Today, the 19th-century water engineer Arthur Thomas Cotton is memorialized in a statue, a museum, and memories as the man who tamed the waters of the Godavari delta. Cotton’s irrigation schemes protected the region from periodic droughts.

They also opened the way for ever-larger schemes to control the destructive impact of too much or too little water. The large-scale mastery of water during the British colonial period was designed to maximize revenue. Since independence in 1947, the concern with water-mastery has continued. Dam building demonstrated the Indian state’s ability to modernize. The country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, took Chinese premier Zhou Enlai to the Bhakra Dam in 1956 for this purpose. From fewer than 300 dams at the time of independence, India had 4000 by 1980—having, Amrith notes, spent more money on dam-building than on education.

A series of famines disrupted the British Raj’s claims to moral and technical superiority. The canal and dam projects, and a complementary rail-building program, were supposed to provide greater food security for Indians. When the famine came, the hollowness of the British Raj’s claims was unmasked. The Economist thought that it was a mistake for Indians to believe that it was “the duty of the Government to keep them alive.” The famines killed some twenty million people in the second half of the 19th century in the British Raj. The experience of drought and famine, in Amrith’s telling, spurred anger and led directly to the political activism that a half-century later drove the British from India.

Amrith’s wide-ranging, compelling and sobering book makes it clear that Asia’s water crisis is likely to get far worse.

India is a fitting subject for this look at water, given the global importance of the monsoon. Colonial efforts to understand India’s intense weather patterns became more integrated, international, and timely with the extension of the telegraph in the 1870s. The International Meteorological Organization was founded in 1873, standardizing observations. By 1880, India had over 100 weather stations. Amrith notes that a surprisingly large number of Indian intellectuals worked for the weather service and argues that as a young, fluid field of science meteorology was more open and less subject to orthodoxy and hierarchy than better-established science. As a field science, it also allowed more freedom and innovation at the local level. Elizabeth Isis Pogson wasn’t allowed into the Royal Astronomical Society for 34 years, because of her gender, but as head of the Madras region oversaw 18 regional observatories.

Nodes like Pogson’s in Madras linked up with similar institutions throughout East Asia, notably those founded and overseen by Jesuits in the Philippines and other parts of the Spanish empire as well as the British-run Chinese Maritime Customs Service. Slowly, a picture of Asia as an integrated climactic system emerged. What began as an attempt to understand how India was being affected by weather ended in understanding how India’s weather was affecting the world as a result of the monsoons, a powerful phenomenon produced by a combination of warm waters and the wall of the Himalayan landmass.

Subsidized electricity prices and inexpensive water pumps have allowed Indian farmers to irrigate their crops. The result has helped India become self-sufficient in grain. But it is coming at a long-term environmental cost, as levels in the aquifers are dropping.

Reading Amrith’s wide-ranging, compelling and sobering book, it is clear that Asia’s water crisis is likely to get far worse. As he shows, a preventable debacle, a disaster of our own making, is slowly unfolding.


Mark Clifford is Executive Director of the ‎Asia Business Council.