Ecology Reviews

‘Unruly Waters — How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons have Shaped South Asia’s History’ review: Taming the rivers

“Above the dark grey ridge rises a world of mountains which seems to belong to the heavens rather than the earth.” So, writes the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin upon discovering the source of the Indus and the Brahmaputra. Sunil Amrith is just as lyrical in Unruly Waters, using the lens of water to take the reader deep into South Asia’s colonial past and through the post-independence period to contemporary times — the leitmotif all along being the monsoons.

Water strategy

Extensively researched, yet simply written, the book provides many historical details and narratives around the lives and contexts of its themes. These include the taming of river waters by colonial engineers like Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, the transformation of Punjab, the frequent famines in various parts of South Asia, the building of the railways, the establishment of the astronomical observatory at Colaba in 1826 by the East India Company, which later became the Meteorological Centre, the damming of rivers, the World Wars and their effects on colonial India, the Indian Ocean expeditions, the changing political situation in India over this long period and new threats to India from climate change relating to water. The picture that unfolds is that controlling and strategising around the use of water has long been an obsession of those ruling India. Building canals, digging wells, learning to study the monsoons, anticipating and controlling floods, displacing people to make way for big dams and so on make up the many fluid ideas of the book.

Many large interventions in waterworks in the subcontinent date to pre-Mughal times, going as far back as the Harappan civilisation in the 3rd millennium BCE, when drainage and storage systems were engineering marvels. Water tanks and canals were also prevalent in other eras in different parts of the subcontinent. Amrith does not linger in these periods, preferring to focus instead on the18th through 21st centuries. British India offered a lot of opportunities to aspiring, ambitious engineers and by the beginning of the 20th century, about a fifth of cultivable land was under irrigation. Most of this was in Punjab, but there were also many large canals in the Gangetic plain and over 600,000 wells dug in the Madras Presidency. Still, the British fixation on parsimony was the driver for many of the famines faced by India. The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 was supposed to ease the construction of the railways, but its timing was also suited to the proliferation of colonial engineering projects for water.

‘Hydraulic sabotage’

Amrith also has something to say about China, especially about the damming of rivers, the country’s development and the visits by Indian officials, which left a marked impression on them. In June 1938, “retreating Chinese troops breached the Yellow River dikes in Henan province, an act that was referred to as the single most environmentally damaging act of warfare in world history.” More than 800,000 people were reported killed and four million displaced by this deed of “hydraulic sabotage.”

Many of the problems we have seen over India’s growth began much earlier than one may realise. The people in Belgaum, for instance, were displaced by the growing demand for water from cities. The scale of indebtedness we see today in rural India was already occurring in the 1930s with farmers relying on the monsoons and borrowing money to handle their growing vulnerability.

A large number of historical figures and their motivations and contributions are highlighted. For example, there was Henry Blanford, the first head of the Meteorology department in 1875; John Eliot, who developed the first Climatological Atlas of India; and M. Visvesvaraya, an enduring hero for his pioneering contributions as a hydraulic engineer. Late in his life, Jawaharlal Nehru, who once termed big dams as “modern-day temples” now referred to them as the “disease of gigantism” and advocated for smaller projects.

Unruly Waters appears at a time when there is a new scramble for water resources in the region. India and its Himalayan neighbours, including China, are proposing hundreds of dams across the rivers that arise in the peaks. This big dam building spree continues and will undoubtedly cause ecological havoc to the fragile mountain ecosystems and any benefits would be short-lived due to worsening climate change through this century.

According to a recent report from the Drought Early Warning System, developed by IIT Gandhinagar, about 42% of the country’s land area is facing drought. With ground water levels already low and falling further in many regions, India faces severe threats to water and food security from mal-development and climate change. The future looks bleak unless the region is able to make some massive changes to its approach to water, development and poverty.

Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons have Shaped South Asia’s History; Sunil Amrith, Allen Lane/PRH, ₹799.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 5:49:53 PM |

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