Water—not culture and politics—is at the heart of modern Indian history

Hidden depths.
Hidden depths.
Image: REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal
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To understand why Asia is the part of the world most vulnerable to climate change, why south Asia in particular stands at the front line, we need to turn to the history of water. Across the heartland of Asia—from Pakistan in the west, through India and southeast Asia, to China in the east—the control of water has underpinned an increase in human population and an expansion in longevity that would have been unimaginable even in the middle of the twentieth century. In a warming world, Asia is distinctive for its sheer scale, and distinctive for the scale of inequality among its peoples. Both are rooted in the quest for water, which is a vital feature of modern Asian history, and one that we have ignored.

The struggle for water in modern history is a global story. We can tell a version of it set in the western United States, or in Germany, or in the Soviet Union, which was an Asian as well as a European power. But nowhere has the search for water shaped or sustained as much human life as in India and China. Their demographic weight is not a fact of nature. It is an outcome of history, a history in which the control of water was pivotal. Today that control is more rigorous than ever, thanks to intensive hydraulic engineering, but the foundations of that control are fragile. Nowhere is the multiplier effect of any destabilisation in the material conditions of life greater than it is in Asia. This, too, demands a historical explanation. As rains grow erratic and storms more intense, as rivers change course and wells dry up, the hard-won gains of half-a-century are vulnerable to reversal. The force of planetary warming combines with the material legacy of earlier quests to control water. Warming seas meet coastal zones that sag under the weight of growing cities, many of them founded as colonial ports in the 18th and 19th centuries. River deltas are sinking, starved of sediment by large dams upstream that were built in the 1950s and 1960s. We live with the unintended consequences of earlier generations’ dreams and fears of water.


Since the 1990s, identity and freedom have been the dominant themes in historical writing: These have oriented the study of Asia as much as anywhere else. The late 1980s and the 1990s witnessed an upsurge in struggles for democracy in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Burma. In trying to explain the weakness or the persistence of authoritarian states, historians looked to political and intellectual history to capture alternative understandings of freedom, especially as earlier clusters of ideas were reinvigorated after the end of the Cold War. In the study of south Asia, the theme of identity has loomed largest. In India in the 1990s, political mobilisation along caste lines—and growing recognition of the deep wounds that caste still inflicts on Indian society—clashed with the spectacular rise of a violent and exclusionary Hindu nationalism to focus historians’ attention on the cleavages of culture and community that continue to divide south Asia.

These histories shed light on struggles for recognition and justice that are unfinished; they pinpoint inequalities that endure. But there is much that we have missed. Novelist Amitav Ghosh points out the irony that 20th century literary fiction proved oblivious to the growing crisis of climate change at the very moment of its escalation—a solipsistic turn at a moment when the material world was in the process of irrevocable transformation. With only a few exceptions, the same charge can be leveled at those of us who write history. My premise here is that the transformation of Asia’s environment, and in particular its ecology of water, may be as consequential in modern history as the political and cultural transitions that have compelled our attention—and it is consequential, not least, for its impact on both culture and politics.


To put water at the heart of the narrative is to demand that we adopt a more flexible conception of space. Rivers pay no heed to human frontiers; but political boundaries have had a material effect on their flow. The quest to understand climate has led meteorologists and engineers and geographers to think beyond borders; but they have faced countervailing pressure to fix their plans and dreams in place. Water draws our attention not only to the  two-dimensional space between points on a map—as when we trace the crooked line of a river—but also to depth and altitude, which turn out to matter more than historians have realized.

What we end up with is not an alternative to the well-known narrative of modern Asia shaped by empire and capitalism, forged by anti-colonial revolution, remade in the second half of the twentieth century by ambitious new states. Rather, water adds another dimension to that familiar story. Asia’s waters have long been a gauge for rulers’ ambition, a yardstick of technological prowess—and a dump for the waste products of civilization. Water is, in a sense, a “sampling device” for other sorts of change, even as changes in water ecology have had a direct effect on millions of people’s lives. We can trace many of Asia’s political transitions through the effects they had on water: from the global reach of the British empire in the 19th century, to the projects of national reconstruction that the Indian and Chinese states carried out in the twentieth. But the history of water is more than a mirror to human intentions. The history of water shows that nature has never truly been conquered. Water has served as a material constraint on every Promethean plan of growth and plenty. The sheer ferocity of a wet climate—a climate of monsoons and cyclones—remains a source of fear, and no fear is as great as the fear of water’s absence, in drought. The cultural history of water is one of reverence as much as hubris. And water has its own chronology—the chronology of the seasons; the episodic chronology of sudden, intense disasters; the imperceptible chronology of cumulative damage, as manifested in the effects of human activity on the oceans.

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House India from Unruly Waters: How Mountains, Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia’s History by Sunil Amrith.

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