The monsoon, and nature’s arithmetic


Rudyard Kipling's 1893 short story ‘The Bridge Builders’ surprised me. It is not about how noble British men brought ‘civilisation’ and ‘progress’ to India, as many Kipling stories are.

Instead, probing humanity's relations with environmental forces, it highlights nature's relentless power, in this case, the unpredictability of Himalayan rivers hurtling into the plains. It celebrates not heroic, manly confidence but humility, even doubt. British technological tools seem no match for unruly nature.

As a reporter in India in the 1880s, Kipling had watched as British engineers built bold bridges over north Indian rivers. In ‘The Bridge Builders’, storm flooding along the Ganges threatens to sweep away one of these nearly finished bridges.

The British chief engineer and his skilful Indian assistant can do little but watch and wait, passing a long night worrying that years of work will vanish in but a few hours. ‘There was nothing to do,’ Kipling says, ‘except to sit still.’

‘The river will do what the river will do.’

In the end, the bridge holds. It survives the river's onslaught, but barely. Readers will not find their confidence in human ingenuity bolstered. Up against the force of Himalayan rivers, humanity's constructions seem fragile and fleeting. ‘What man,’ Kipling asks, ‘knew Mother Gunga's arithmetic?’

More than 130 years later, we are still placing big bets on technology's ability to tame Himalayan rivers. Roads and bridges now crisscross the world's highest mountains. Roughly 400 large dams are planned along steep Himalayan rivers, particularly in Nepal and Sikkim.

If they all get built, the region will house more dams per river kilometre than any other place on the planet -- one dam every 32 km. All these dams in a physical and socio-political landscape as complex and uncertain as any on the planet.

One might reasonably wonder, how well do we today understand ‘Mother Gunga's arithmetic?

In his important 2018 book, Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia's History, Harvard historian Sunil Amrith wonders the same thing. For answers, he takes us on an ‘aha’-filled journey back into South Asia's geographic and hydrological past to assess earlier attempts to control the region's tricky rivers and powerful monsoons.

He wants us to see not only how India's capricious and ‘unruly’ rivers and monsoons have shaped its history, but also how scientists, engineers, builders, politicians (British and Indian alike) have sought to manage them.

To understand what lies ahead, Amrith suggests, we must look behind. ‘We live with the unintended consequences of earlier generations' dreams and fears of water,’ he says.

Unruly Waters is a tour through those fears and dreams. With fluid and often lyrical prose, it describes and dissects India's waterways and weather but also follows the water to where much of it flows from, the great mountains in the north. It contains much to contemplate for those of us who call the Himalaya home.

Unruly Waters differs from most South Asian histories. Amrith's focus is not Clive, Curzon, or Mountbatten, nor Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah. He spotlights the Ganges and the Godavari, the Indus and the Brahmaputra, focusing primarily on meteorology and monsoons, not policies and politics. Nature is the main actor here. It drives the action.

And if not, it lurks behind the scenes, waiting to jump out at any instant, to surprise everyone, to remind us it will not be ignored. The result is a refreshing and insightful historical interpretation.

But even as Amrith highlights the natural side of human history, he also stresses the human aspect of nature: how humans have thought about and even transformed the Subcontinent's monsoon and rivers. Indeed, so much human history is wrapped into Amrith's "natural" actors that, by the end of the story, it is hard to tell humanity and nature apart.

In other words, to fully understand history's shifting river currents, we need to understand its shifting intellectual currents, mostly science and sociology, but also, inevitably, political currents as well.

Thus, even if Unruly Waters does not start out as a story about nations and nationalisms, it ends up being one, though one refracted through water. In the end, nature and nationalism shape each other; we can't understand one without the other.

Perhaps nowhere is this lesson more important than in the Himalaya.

Controlling water and space 

Amrith's story starts with the summer monsoon. South Asia, like much of the rest of Asia, has both way too much and too little water at just the right moment, and all the wrong times.

China next door is home to 1.4 billion people, about 20% of the global population, but has 7% of the world's freshwater. India has 1.35 billion people, 17% of humanity, but only 4% of the water. Worse, much of this water in India is spread unequally through the country and unevenly through the year. Much of South Asia is arid.

And when it rains, it pours. Most of South Asia's rains, eight of every ten centimetres, fall in just three months, mid-June to mid-September. This is the summer monsoon, the seasonal shift in the winds that, due to an overheated landmass surrounded by tropical waters, draws rain clouds toward the Subcontinent's dry plains and Himalayan slopes, where they dump their abundant moisture.

Most of this rain falls in just 100 hours of heavy intermittent downpour, in no regular pattern. ‘No comparably large number of human beings anywhere in the world,’ Amrith notes, "is so dependent on such intensely seasonal rainfall.’

Over the centuries, the monsoon has left deep marks on South Asian societies. Climate, Amrith says, is woven into the fabric of life, colouring the social, economic, and political patterns to an extent rarely seen elsewhere. Rivers here are revered as gods. Coursing with energy, they both sustain and destroy.

Perhaps no one expressed this doubleness better than the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro, who visited India in the 1920s. With its heavy downpours, swollen rivers, and disastrous landslides, Tetsuro wrote, the monsoon ‘typifies the violence of nature’, displaying a ‘ vast that humans are obliged to abandon all hope of resistance’.

But the monsoon also wields positive power, the power ‘of giving life’. Monsoon rains nurture the rich rice paddies that maintain some of the planet's densest human settlement.

Indians have long been victims and beneficiaries of the monsoon's doubleness. But they have rarely been passive. Through the centuries, Amrith says, the monsoon has spurred ‘a unique source of human concern’ and even ‘fear’ among residents but also what he calls "adaptive ingenuity".

Communities from the ancient Indus civilisations through the Mughals have worked to lend order to the region's rivers and streams, to manage nature, to control it -- and not without some success.

That said, the nineteenth century saw unprecedented changes in South Asian water management, with the arrival of powerful new British technologies and ideas. In order to deliver Indian resources from forests and fields to British factories and return their finished products back to Indian consumers, the colonial government found new ways to master water and manage space.

Outpacing earlier efforts, they remade India's watery landscapes with more ambitious dreams, more robust tools, and a broader vision. Overseeing a transport revolution, they introduced new ways to tame the region's rivers and work around its monsoon. Doing so led them to see how the once far off Himalaya seemed deeply connected to the larger South Asian world.

A new technology, steam power, sparked this transport revolution. The first steam engine arrived in Calcutta in 1817 and was soon driving boats up and down north Indian rivers. By 1840, steamers could push the almost 800 miles from Calcutta to Allahabad in three weeks. Steam-powered boats shrank India.

Bullock carts could roll 20-30 km a day. Steamboats could go that far going upstream, against the current, despite a much bigger payload. Going downstream they could travel twice as far, 65 km a day.

But steamships paled in comparison to the steam-powered trains that arrived in India mid-century: railways could haul people and goods 600km a day. By 1870, India's rail workers had mapped, cleared, and levelled 24,000 miles of track (often using sal logs from the Nepal Tarai), linking Asia's largest railway network, the world's 4th largest.

Made with iron and powered by steam, Amrith notes, the railways ‘transformed the landscape’ of monsoon India: trains rolled in the dry season and through the rains. They spanned vast rivers, gorges, and mountains. They linked the country's wet and arid regions.

India grew smaller, shrinking by one engineer's estimate, to one-twentieth of its former size by the early 1890s. A smaller India was a more open, more connected India. The age-old walls of localised economy were said to be collapsing.

The century's steam-powered transport revolution ushered in a new scale of planning, bringing the Himalaya and other remote places far closer. ‘There can be no question that the scale of the works designed and built in the nineteenth century were without precedent,’ Amrith writes in his book.

This scale, this new vastness and sense of interconnection, he says, may have been the most lasting effect of British rule.

As rail was linking together India's disparate regions economically, scientists were beginning to learn how weather patterns had long linked them together ecologically. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists, particularly meteorologists deploying the era's new transport and communications technologies, came to realise the grand stage upon which South Asia's climate played upon, a scale that extended up to and well beyond international borders.

People had once understood and measured the weather locally. With the naked eye, they watched storm clouds collect on the horizon. But in the 19th century, scientific observers, carefully comparing notes and data from farther and farther afield, began to see how far-off dynamics shaped monsoon rain patterns across South Asia.

By century's end, drawing upon the telegraph and a network of weather stations stretching across southern Asia, scientists learned that India's fierce cyclones usually originated in Southeast Asia near the Philippines.

A single astonishing map in John Eliot's Climatological Atlas of India showed how all the monsoon's pieces fit together -- highlighting how heat and energy moving between the Eurasian continent and the Indian Ocean shaped where and when rain would fall across India's plains and hills.

The expanding transport networks and new scientific understandings of the monsoon carried special import for the Himalaya. In the late 19th century, British and Indian alike began to see the mountains with new eyes. The northern mountains, Amrith says, ‘came more clearly into view in the last two decades of the nineteenth century’, becoming central to new geographic and geopolitical understandings.

Scientists began to see how the plains and the Himalaya fit together as part of a single hydrological region. They began to speak of the Indian ‘Subcontinent’. New explorations helped them realise facts that today we think of as common knowledge -- that many of India's rivers flowed from the Himalaya. They also learned how much Himalayan landmasses shaped the monsoon, by both attracting and blocking monsoon rainclouds.

‘Advances in meteorological science,’ Amrith notes, ‘pointed to the awesome power of the monsoon climate, and sketched its continental span.’

The eight-volume Imperial Gazetteer (1881) showcased the Himalaya. ‘By India, we now imply not merely the wide continent which stretches southward from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, but also the vast entourage of mountainous plateaux and lofty ranges,’ wrote meteorologist and ethnographer William Wilson Hunter.

Hunter gave two reasons why plains residents should care about the Himalaya: India's agricultural prosperity depended upon water from the mountains, and, as rail networks had spread north, the mountains had become doorways to the larger Asian continent, bringing opportunities but also threats.

Unquestionably, railways had transformed India. And yet, their power was not limitless. Despite their revolutionary speed and endurance, trains could never completely circumvent the monsoon's intense seasonal rain. ‘India's hydrology challenged every scheme,’ Amrith stresses.

As in previous centuries, crossing rivers and streams still posed trouble. In the summer rains, rivers roared down from the Himalaya, multiplying ten-fold or more, undercutting bridge foundations, spilling over their banks, even shifting course.

A nineteenth-century observer noted the ‘immense volumes of water periodically brought down’ by mountain rivers in ‘seasons of flood’, the ‘erratic and unstable character of their channels’, and the deep ‘scouring’ of bridge supports. As with steam boats, nature set boundaries within which humans and their trains operated.

Kipling's bridge builders in the 1880s and 1890s came face to face with the fury of monsoon floods. ‘However far the power of steam had advanced, the monsoon rivers retained the capacity to surprise," Amrith notes.

Famine, nature and nationalism 

Nothing reminded Indians of the monsoon's unruliness, of nature's unpredictability, more cruelly than the famines that devastated India in the nineteenth century's final decades. Famines ravaged the Deccan Plateau and northwest India in 1876-1879, central India in 1896-97, and the Bombay region in 1899 and 1900.

Indians perished in staggering numbers. In the 1870s famines, starvation and associated disease felled 5 million people. Many millions more would die in subsequent decades. The pain and suffering from these vast human tragedies, owing to nature's whims but also human failings, defined Indian politics for over a century.

Some blamed the famines on nature, the ‘failing’ rains. What this really meant, Amrith notes, is that the rains ‘failed to behave as they were expected to -- they failed to fall when, as much, or where they usually did’. The rains failed to obey human plans.

But blaming nature was only a diversion. The famines had natural elements, of course, but were also man-made. As Amartya Sen and Mike Davis have argued, human decisions to spread market-based capitalism and new ‘improved’ forms of agriculture in India benefitted some groups but ravaged others, rendering them more vulnerable to famine.

Moreover, the British, obsessed with a ‘laissez faire’ faith that only markets should guide action, offered little or no relief to the starving. Indian critics such as Mahadev Govind Ranade and Romesh Chander Dutt attacked British policy as flawed and callous.

Indeed, nothing did more to spark Indian nationalism, which first ignited during these decades, than these man-made famines.

Many pointed to the need for more and better water policy. The main theme of the government's Famine Enquiry Commission's 1880 report was water. It downplayed the government's role in causing famine for political reasons, but called for more irrigation.

‘Among the means that may be adopted for giving India direct protection from famine arising from drought,’ it stressed, ‘the first place must unquestionably be assigned to works of irrigation.’ India's water resources needed better management.

The painful memories of hunger and unnecessary death did not fade easily. During the first decades of the twentieth century, ‘a fevered quest for water’ gripped India and most of Asia. To mobilise more water, India's government pioneered new water technologies: new canals and irrigation systems, new urban water systems, and new machine-powered pumps. In Madras, 750,000 pumps were soon at work pulling water from beneath the ground. In 1903, India's first hydroelectric plant was installed, in the princely state of Mysore.

Doubts still remained, of course. In 1909 India's finance minister described his budgets as, essentially, a ‘gamble on the rains’. But by the 1920s, rail, water pumps, canals, and dams had reshaped landscapes and boosted confidence across the subcontinent. Many believed that India had solved its age-old problems of famine.

No place showed the transformative power of technology and planning more dramatically than the Punjab. Starting in the 1880s, to make ‘waste’ land more productive, the colonial government began building what would eventually be nine Canal Colonies between the Beas and Sutlej and the Jhelum, providing life-giving water to 13 million acres.

They encouraged in-migration from other parts of the country, pushing aside herders who had grazed the land for generations. The largest of the canals, the Chenab canal, attracted a million new migrants. (The canals also attracted deadly, malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes.) A new society sprouted, the product according to Amrith ‘of an engineer's vision backed by the power of the state’.

Leading Indians such as Bengali economist and poet Romesh Chander Dutt applauded such efforts but demanded more. In 1901, Dutt sent a blistering letter to India's viceroy Lord Curzon attacking British claims of lifting India out of poverty and spreading civilisation. In his lifetime alone, famine had struck down 15 million people.

Nature was not to blame, he said, but British policies. Heavy taxation had turned Indian farmers poor, putting them at the mercy of high food prices and disease. ‘The moneylender, is the result, not the cause, of the poverty of the cultivators,’ Dutt wrote. The British had invited famine then ignored Indian suffering.

Though deeply critical, Dutt lauded some British programs, particularly the work of water engineers such as Arthur Cotton. In the early 1850s, Cotton and thousands of Indian labourers had created a barrage across to the Godavari river to channel water to the area's farmers, who now could harvest crops two and sometimes even three times a year. India's best hope, Dutt insisted, was similar programs.

Water and freedom 

India's nationalists, it turned out, did not differ much from the British in their fondness for ambitious water management. India's nationalist movement had sprouted in the late 19th century in revulsion to British policy failure and indifference as famines cut short millions of Indian lives.

Discontent deepened and spread in the early decades of the twentieth century. Echoing Romesh Dutt, Indian nationalists called for more irrigation and stronger attempts to harness nature.

Many Indian nationalists, Amrith points out, ‘felt that the conquest of nature in the early twentieth century had not gone far or fast enough’. Indian engineers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals held tremendous faith that, better than the British, they could use modern tools to tame nature for India's benefit.

Among these was Jawaharlal Nehru, who in the late 1920s expressed faith that modern science had curbed ‘the tyranny and the vagaries of nature’.

That said, not all Indians backed the nationalists' pro-development view. Gandhi, a harsh critic of industrialisation, often called for low-impact village-based small production. Radhakamal Mukerjee, a Lucknow University sociologist who in the 1920s and 1930s wrote prolifically on development, economy, and society, hoped for ecological ways of thinking. ‘Man, tree, and water,’ he wrote, ‘cannot be regarded as separate and independent.’

Though narrow in some regards, often showing disdain for India's poor, Mukerjee went far beyond Gandhi in warning about big development's environmental costs. He had seen the British ‘improvements’ in his native Bengal, where rail-enabled market-based agriculture had stripped the soil of fertility and left rivers on their death beds.

Instead, Mukerjee pushed policymakers to plan for the unintended consequences of their large projects. He favoured supporting local traditions of irrigation and water management.

Wise development, he stressed, had to honour the ‘natural balance of man with the organic and inorganic world around him’. Only natural balance, he said, would bring ‘security, well-being, and progress’. But few Indian policymakers agreed with him.

Across the Himalaya in China, too, nationalists increasingly turned to controlling rivers through big infrastructure. Just as India had historically tried to corral the monsoon and harness its rivers, so too had China, though more for flood control than for irrigation.

One of the Unruly Nature's biggest strengths is comparing India's river policy with Chinese ideas. Amrith shows that, despite varied historical contexts and, later, very different political ideologies, nationalists in both India and China adopted remarkable similar approaches.

In China, the twentieth century brought new hopes of using modern tools to rein in devastating Yellow River flooding. Sun Yat-sen enthusiastically placed better water management at the centre of his plans for a modern independent China: "If we could utilize the water power in the Yangtze and Yellow rivers to generate one hundred million horsepower of electrical energy, we would be putting twenty-four hundred million men to work!"

Harnessing China's rivers, he said, would mean power aplenty for railways, motor cars, fertilizer plants, and factories of all kinds.

China, though, was more than just an interesting comparison for India, it was becoming a dangerous competitor. As both India and China began to consolidate their frontier regions, they both began to focus on exactly the same region, the Himalayas, and on the same resource: water. Though few recognised it in the early twentieth century, the two Asian giants, both driven by fears and dreams of water, had started down what Amrith calls ‘a collision course’.

Meanwhile, a ‘deepening paradox’ sprouted in South Asian science and politics: As meteorologists and scientists in the first half of the twentieth century increasingly began to see a larger, more interconnected world, with regions and countries interlinked with their neighbours, nationalist lawyers and politicians increasingly saw the world as a competition between nations. This world, they believed, required not interconnection but high and thick walls.

‘Water and climate were boundless. Their boundlessness became clearer with every advance in the technologies of measurement,’ Amrith writes. And yet, as nationalist movements grew during the twentieth century, water and climate ‘came under ever tighter but more fragmented territorial control’.

Boundlessness clashed with a world of rigid national boxes. Science showed international borders to be less and less relevant, but politics increasingly stressed their importance. Borders simultaneously became more porous and more rigid. Increasingly, water ‘both connected and divided Asia’.

World War II proved pivotal: it revived old fears of hunger and despair but also consolidated nationalist thinking about water. After many decades, famine returned to South Asia. In 1943 in Bengal, a vicious cyclone and tidal wave flooded fields and washed out crops. As many as three million people died. The massive, devastating Bengal famine reminded Indians of nature's vicious power. The famine, Amrith says, ‘shattered the complacent assumption, pervasive by the 1930s, that nature had been conquered’.

Here too, it seemed, the British government's policies made things worse. Rail embankments had undermined productivity over the years. Market mindsets had eroded social solidarity and safety nets. During the famine, the British actually sent rice out of Bengal. ‘It was a man-made famine,’ Nehru wrote, ‘which could have been foreseen and avoided.’

The war also bred faith in technology and central planning, particularly related to water. Perhaps no one spoke louder for bigger and bolder plans to capture water and remake landscapes than Meghnad Saha, a scientist trained in astrophysics, originally from a low-caste East Bengal family.

The founder of the journal Science and Culture, Saha became a ‘missionary for scientific development’ and critic of Gandhi's rural romanticism. ‘We do not for a moment believe that better and happier conditions of life can be secured by reverting back to the spinning wheel, the loincloth, and the bullock cart,’ he wrote.

Saha had analysed Bengal's changes over the decades, and called for big dams along the lines of the USA's Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). A remote part of the US South, the Tennessee Valley housed some of America's poorest residents.

In Tennessee, Saha said, ‘Nature, vested interests and thoughtless management made a once prosperous valley a wilderness, but Nature, Man and Science can again make it a smiling garden.’ As in the US, dams and ‘Science’ with a capital ‘S’, he believed, could ‘liberate’ India's rivers from the unpredictability of the monsoon cycles.

Famine had stalked the plains year after year in the late 1800s but had not shown itself for decades, until wartime Bengal in 1943. Old fears returned. The war also fostered new trust in governmental action.

‘The trauma of famine and social breakdown,’ Amrith writes, ‘met a newfound confidence in the power of state planning and big technology to reshape economy, society, and the environment.’ The path was set for aggressive postwar dam construction.

The disease of gigantism 

Some historians see India's independence in 1947 as a watershed moment in South Asian history. They argue that Indian control of the government changed much. Before 1947, events flowed one way, afterwards they flowed another direction.

No doubt independence brought significant changes. But if you look at history from the perspective of an actual watershed, with a focus on water management strategies, 1947 actually does not look that different from 1907 or 1887. India's new national leadership continued ambitious attempts to use human technology to flatten the unevenness of the monsoon, efforts broadly akin to the British colonial government's railways, canals, and early dams.

If anything, the years after 1947, sparked by wartime developments, intensified and expanded bold efforts to control the region's unruly waters. Looking back, should we now call these efforts heroic or hubristic?

In India's postwar development efforts, huge concrete dams took centre stage. Dams sprung up not just in India but around the world. During the middle decades of the twentieth century, in both the West and the developing world, dams took on a kind of magical power.

The very first Life magazine cover, from 1936, celebrates a dam, a towering facade of cement. At first, the photo seems bizarre, a mountain of bare grey concrete, until one grasps the cover picture as a symbol of national pride and hope, of power, during the deep despair of the Great Depression, history's worst economic downturn.

Perhaps no dam project earned more attention worldwide than the Tennessee Valley Authority, a network of dams and government programs aimed to root out entrenched poverty in one of the poorest corners of the US South. Engineers and policymakers from around the flocked to see it, including, in the late 1940s Bhim Bahadur Pande, Nepal's diplomat and development secretary for much of the next decade.

In the decades after World War II, the TVA's broad vision fuelled the nationalist dreams of Asia's rising nations, particularly India and China. ‘Dreams of hydraulic engineering,’ Amrit writes, ‘were inseparable from dreams of freedom.’

In 1947, fewer than 300 dams sat upon Indian rivers, by 1980 there were more than 4,000. China under Mao outdid even this, building 22,000 dams in the postwar decades.

In India and China, large dams carried enormous symbolic power. ‘They epitomized the dreams of development promised the mastery of nature," Amirth writes. ‘Dams promised to liberate India from the capricious monsoon. They promised to finally free it from the specter of famine that had struck so often.’

They promised independence from foreign meddling and freedom from the monsoon. They promised release from hunger.

Few of India's dams took on more meaning than the Bhakra Nangal on the Sutlej, a Himalayan river that races down into Punjab's arid plains. According to a 1957 government documentary, the Sutlej's ‘unused, wasted’ water could solve the region's ‘never-ending’ search for water. ‘The Sutlej must be tamed,’ the film announced.

To do so, India erected a 680-foot high dam, the world's second-tallest. To produce the 500 million cubic feet of concrete needed for the dam, the government built Asia's largest cement factory.

The Bhakra Nangal project symbolised India's progress. At the opening of one of its canals in 1954, prime minister Nehru remarked, "What place can be greater than Bhakra Nangal ... where thousands of men have worked or shed their blood and sweat and laid down their lives as well? Where can be holier than this?"

In 1957, a feature film about dams and India's struggle for water and freedom, Mother India, became a global hit. The film tells the story of Radha, a proud grandmother who, looking back on her life, sees mostly flood-induced misery and heartless moneylenders.

Partway into the film, a flood devours Radha's modest house but villagers rally around to save what they can, helping with a successful harvest the next year. Eventually, one of India's new large dams helps deliver protection. With new hope, Radha is invited to flip the switch to open the dam's gates.

Mother India is a story of terrible nature overcome by human ingenuity and perseverance, and found a global audience, capturing the dreams of vulnerable people across Asia and Africa for a better life. Its hopeful message resonated broadly for deeply impoverished newly independent nations. It was still drawing good crowds in Nigeria in the 1990s.

Ultimately, the film is a story of finding security through controlling the weather and the waters. ‘In Mother India, vulnerability to the weather is confined to the unhappy past," Amrith writes, ‘it represents an old, unchanging India, juxtaposed against an India where technology and political freedom would triumph over nature.’

Sadly, India's huge dams did not live up to the high expectations. They destroyed as many hopes as they sustained. India's dams gobbled land and pushed aside communities. Three of the biggest 1948 dams -- the Bhakra in Punjab, the Hirakud in Odisha, and Bengal's Damodar Valley -- each destroyed more than 100,000 acres of land. Water flooded what was called ‘waste land’, but land that often had homes, fields, forests, grazing areas, and ancestral sites.

Over the decades, as many as 40 million Indians, disproportionately from adivasi groups, lost their homes to such dam projects. Poor rural residents were asked to sacrifice, while benefits flowed to rich businesses and urban residents. Environmental costs were high: submerged forests, ruined soils, blocked rivers, wasted silt, disrupted drainage patterns, and often more severe flooding.

Even before the end of the 1950s, Nehru himself began to rethink the big projects as their unintended costs began to mount. "I have been beginning to think," he noted, "that we are suffering from what we may call 'disease of gigantism.' "

Amrith writes, ‘Behind the glossy dreams of dams and plenty was a darker reality.’

Since the 1960s 

Since the 1960s, South Asia's landscapes have grown only more complicated. Populations have mushroomed. Economic growth and urbanisation have burgeoned, ratcheting up pressure on resources and landscapes.

The Green Revolution's new hybrid seeds have brought toxic chemicals and surging water use. Pollution has dirtied the region's air, water, and soil. Not least, geopolitical tension in the Himalaya has escalated, boiling over in the 1962 war between India and China. Recent skirmishes in the mountains show that tensions between the two giants remain high.

Perhaps most unsettling is climate change. As the world warms, glaciers melt faster, rivers change shape and flow, and rain patterns shift. The monsoon itself has changed, growing more erratic. And yet, increasingly, aided by new mountain roads, South Asian governments are turning to large scale hydro in the Himalayas -- ignoring, it seems, ever larger geopolitical, climatic, environmental, and seismic risks.

With climate change, history itself is as much an actor as nature and politics. Climate change in South Asia is ‘irreducibly historical’, says Amrith. Changing weather patterns will play out across a landscape ‘shaped by the past -- shaped by the cumulative effects of social inequality, shaped by the borders of the mid-twentieth century, shaped by infrastructures of water control. And it will be shaped by the legacy of ideas from the past, including ideas about climate and the economy’.

Intractable social inequality, hardening borders, bigger infrastructure, faster economic engines all move about the South Asian stage, demanding attention.

As do cultural fears about climate and the monsoon. South Asians have faced famine more recently and on a greater scale than other nations. They rightly worry about the monsoon and its capriciousness. ‘For us in India,’ Indira Gandhi poignantly noted, ‘scarcity is only a missed monsoon away.’

This uncertainty and deep loss has fostered an intense drive to control nature, but that in turn has fueled climate change and new instabilities and risks. The monsoon, still powerful, is even more unpredictable than ever. Amrith warns of the ‘willful blindness’ to the consequences of ‘repeated attempts to conquer nature’.

He also warns of overheated nationalism. ‘Today, the inability of states to think beyond their borders imperils lives and denudes the political imagination,’ he notes. Water connects Asia and Asians but also divides them.

In the late eighteenth century, bearing witness to relentless Himalayan floods that left engineers and their iron, concrete, and science with little option except to just sit nervously and hope for the best, Rudyard Kipling had asked, “What man knew Mother Gunga's arithmetic?"

Today, through humanity's actions, Mother Gunga's arithmetic has grown far more complicated and more unpredictable than ever before.  

Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history.

Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History

by Sunil Amrith

Penguin, 2018

$16.99 on Amazon

Read also: After the deluge in Nepal, Amit Machamasi

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