Unruly Waters is a history of the Indian subcontinent (and, to a lesser extent, China) as seen through a watery lens. Author Sunil Amrith, a Harvard University history professor, takes as his starting point the centrality of water to Indian life, and identifies the unpredictability of the monsoon as the dominant theme of India’s history of development. Until recently, its failure and consequent drought inevitably led to devastating famine, which prompted the two intersecting lines of action that dominate the book – attempts to better understand and forecast the monsoon itself, and attempts to ameliorate the effects of its failure.
The latter plays out as a familiar tale of hubris, of the folly of man’s desire to control nature generally and water specifically, of a slavish devotion to technological solutions, the bigger the better. From colonial times to the present day, successive governments have promised to solve the monsoon problem and improve India’s food security using irrigation schemes, river diversions, mega-dams and groundwater extraction. But of course each new ‘solution’ brings its own new problems: siltation, water-borne disease, cross-border conflict, lowering water tables and the displacement of populations (between independence and the present day, an estimated 40 million people have been chased from their homes by dams in India) to name but a few.
Looming over it all, inevitably, is the spectre of climate change. Just as scientists were beginning to understand the forces that drive the monsoon and their effects on its intensity – and began to get closer to the Holy Grail of accurate forecasting – the increasing build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere threw the whole system out of whack, bringing new levels of unpredictability and ramping up the extremes of drought and flood.
With many more mega-dams in the works, coastal construction continuing and groundwater extraction draining more and more aquifers dry, it’s clear the lessons of history haven’t been learnt.
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