Author Q&A: Sunil Amrith

Unruly Waters (Allen Lane, £25 hardback, £12.99 Kindle)

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South Asia’s history has been shaped by its waters, including the rivers that rise in the Himalayas, such as the Indus, the Ganges and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, and the massive rainfall resulting from the reversing monsoon winds. Historian Sunil Amrith also includes the stories of the weather-watchers, engineers, mapmakers and farmers who have sought to control them in this new book, which shows how fears and dreams of water have, throughout South Asia, shaped visions of political independence and economic development, provoked efforts to reshape nature through dams and pumps, and unleashed powerful tensions within and between nations.

How did the idea for the book come to you?
I had spent many years studying the history of migration from South India to South East Asia. This led me to spend lots of time in port cities around the Bay of Bengal. The threat from rising sea levels and more intense storms was tangible everywhere I went. At the same time, as I travelled in rural India (where many of those migrants had come from in the nineteenth century), I saw the scars of prolonged drought. Water, its excess or absence, was what linked these places and the challenges they faced. And so I began to think about how we could present the history of modern South Asia through the story of water.

How do the rivers that rise in the Himalayas and the monsoon connect India with the rest of Asia?
The Himalayan rivers, taken together, run through 16 countries. This means that any efforts to dam or divert the rivers have consequences downstream. The fact that more than half a billion people depend directly on water from the Himalayan rivers creates a vital interdependence, and also the possibility for conflict, between the countries in the region. The monsoon is an essential part of that hydraulic system; any change in the monsoon’s patterns will wreak havoc on food security across the region, in a way that transcends national borders.

How does your view of the unruly waters differ from previous historians of the Asian countryside?
My book builds on a rich tradition of historical work on water, climate, and economic development in Asia. I found myself going back to works from the 1970s and 1980s, many of which are somewhat out of fashion today. But they are vital and exciting, and worth revisiting. I have approached the subject with different questions in mind. Many of those earlier works were written before awareness of climate change was widespread, or at least when it seemed like a distant prospect. For me, writing this now, the pressing question became: how do we explain how Asia came to be so acutely and exceptionally vulnerable to climate change? My view is also different in that I became interested in the water itself – including the evolving science of water – rather than focusing exclusively on the impact of water (or its lack) on economic growth, as earlier works tended to do.

Could the devastating famines that resulted from droughts in the 19th century have been averted?
Their devastating effects could have been mitigated. There is no denying that they were sparked by a colossal drought that was global in scope. Given the limitations in transportation and infrastructure at the time, it is difficult to imagine that having no impact on the wellbeing of large populations. But the British colonial state in India behaved in a callous, indeed brutal, manner, which worsened the situation. Warnings from local officials of impending shortages were dismissed by senior policymakers. British administrators in India saw the defence of free markets as more important than saving lives. Grain continued to be exported from India to other parts of the empire, even in the midst of the catastrophe. The historian Mike Davis writes very powerfully about this in his 2001 book Late Victorian Holocausts.

You write that we are still living with the “lasting legacies of the nineteenth century’s nightmares”. In what way?
In the most direct sense, the landscape of contemporary South Asia was shaped by responses to the disastrous famines of the late nineteenth century. The one thing on which the British colonial government and its Indian critics agreed was irrigation. Consider Punjab, now the agricultural heartland of both India and Pakistan. It was the massive investment in irrigated agriculture in the aftermath of the famines that made it so. In a broader sense, the famines scarred the generation of Indian leaders who took power at independence. Their sense of “never again” led them to prioritise food security above all else. It also led them to embrace large technologies, especially big dams, that have had negative social and ecological consequences.

How and why has the monsoon changed in recent years?
There is mounting evidence that the monsoon has become more unpredictable and more prone to extremes of wet and dry. This is partly a consequence of global warming, as planetary warming affects the temperature difference between ocean and land that drives the monsoon winds. But there are also regional drivers of change. The large concentrations of aerosols like black carbon over South Asia have inhibited rainfall. Changes in land use, especially the destruction of dense forests, might also have played a role.

How can coastal cities like Mumbai adapt to climate change?
There are many ways that coastal cities have put themselves in harm’s way. Mumbai is a case in point. In 2005, a torrential downpour left the city underwater. After decades of relentless growth and expansion, Mumbai had few natural drainage channels left. They had been concreted over. There was nowhere for the water to go. Storm drains were clogged with waste, tidal flats had been built upon. What environmental regulations there were on paper could not rein in a boom in unauthorised construction – in a city where prime real estate was worth more than in New York or Hong Kong. The destruction of the mangroves for highway construction and urban development robbed the city of a natural buffer between land and sea. A first step to adapting to climate change would be to recognise the way that unregulated development and rampant social and economic inequality have augmented risk.

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