Unruly Waters

How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia's History


By Sunil Amrith

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From a MacArthur “Genius,” a bold new perspective on the history of Asia, highlighting the long quest to tame its waters

Asia’s history has been shaped by her waters. In Unruly Waters, historian Sunil Amrith reimagines Asia’s history through the stories of its rains, rivers, coasts, and seas — and of the weather-watchers and engineers, mapmakers and farmers who have sought to control them. Looking out from India, he shows how dreams and fears of water 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.

Today, Asian nations are racing to construct hundreds of dams in the Himalayas, with dire environmental impacts; hundreds of millions crowd into coastal cities threatened by cyclones and storm surges. In an age of climate change, Unruly Waters is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Asia’s past and its future.



Himalayan Rivers

South Asia’s Major Rivers

Northeast Monsoon

Southwest Monsoon

British India, 1900

The Partition of India, 1947

The Brahmaputra/Yarlung Tsangpo

India’s Dams

The Coastal Mega Cities of Asia

Map of Mumbai

Map showing the winds during the northeast monsoon, which blows from December to March.

Map showing the winds during the southwest monsoon, from June to September.


MANY OF THE PLACES I WRITE ABOUT IN THIS BOOK HAVE BEEN known by different names at different points in time. As a rule, I have used the names that correspond to the period I am writing about—to cite a few examples, I use Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Poona, and Rangoon when I am discussing the colonial period and the early decades after independence; I switch to Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Pune, and Yangon, respectively, when I am talking about more recent history, as those names were formally changed in the 1990s. I adopt a similar strategy when it comes to country names: for example, I use Ceylon and Malaya when discussing the colonial period, and Sri Lanka and Malaysia when writing about the post-independence era.

For clarity I have transliterated words from South Asian languages in a way that reflects common practice in the region rather than employing the formal diacritical marks favored by scholars of South Asian languages.

A NASA satellite image from October 27, 2002, showing a Himalayan mountain range and the rivers that descend from the Tibetan Plateau into North India. CREDIT: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC



LOOKING DOWN FROM ORBIT, THE LENS OF A NASA SATELLITE LANDS upon this patch of Earth. In the upper half of the picture lies the curve of a Himalayan mountain range, fringed by the iridescent lakes of the Tibetan plateau.

The satellite picture is a snapshot of a single moment on October 27, 2002. But there are layers of history embedded within it. It shows us the outcome of a process that unfolded in deep time. Approximately 50 million years ago, the Himalayas were created by the collision of what would become the Indian peninsula, which had detached from Madagascar, with the Eurasian landmass. The island buckled under the edge of Eurasia, pushed up the Tibetan Plateau, and eradicated a body of water later named the Tethys Sea. “Geology, looking further than religion,” E. M. Forster wrote in A Passage to India, “knows of a time when neither the river [Ganges] nor the Himalayas that nourish it existed, and an ocean flowed over the holy places of Hindustan.” Volcanic activity under the Indian Ocean kept the pressure up, forcing layers of rock to crumple under the Indian margin to create the largest mountain chain on Earth.1

So massive are the mountains, so heavy is their concentration of snow, ice, heat, and melting water that they shape Earth’s climate. Asia’s great rivers are a product of this geological history. They flow south and southeast, and they have shaped the landscape that is visible here: the force of the rivers descending from the mountains eroded rock, creating the gorges and valleys. Over centuries the rivers have carried silt and sediment from the mountains; they have deposited them along Asia’s valleys and floodplains to sustain large human populations. Writing in the 1950s, guided by maps and not yet by satellite photographs, geographer Norton Ginsburg described Asia’s “mountain core” as the “hub of a colossal wheel, the spokes of which are formed by some of the greatest rivers in the world.”2

And then your eye comes to rest on what was invisible to the satellite but is now superimposed—evidence of a more recent history lies in the borders that dissect the rivers, their shapes governed by bureaucratic, not environmental, logic. Within the frame of this image alone, the mountains run through southwestern China, Nepal, Bhutan, and northeastern India. The rivers are more unruly; they spill beyond the frame of the photograph. From mountain peaks flow ten great rivers that serve a fifth of humanity—the Tarim, the Amu Darya, the Indus, the Irrawaddy, the Salween, the Mekong, the Yangzi, the Yellow River, and, at the heart of this photograph, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. The Himalayan rivers run through sixteen countries, nourished by countless tributaries. They traverse the regions we carve up as South, Southeast, East, and Central Asia; they empty out into the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the South and East China Seas, and the Aral Sea.

Look at the left of the picture and you can see a more compressed history. The haze of pollution that hangs over North India is a composite “brown cloud” of human-produced sulfates, nitrates, black carbon, and organic carbon. Aerosol concentrations over the Indian subcontinent are the highest in the world, especially in the winter months when there is little rain to wash the skies clean. Individual particles remain in the atmosphere only for a matter of weeks, but cumulatively the cloud lasts for months—what we see here is a fleeting archive of every domestic stove, every truck and auto-rickshaw exhaust pipe, every factory smokestack and crop fire that burned across the Gangetic plain after the end of the monsoon rains that year. But the location of the cloud, and its contributing sources, testify to a longer twentieth-century history of population growth, urban expansion, and uneven economic development through that belt of northwestern India. Over time, a constant succession of transient “brown clouds” may have attenuated rainfall over South Asia over the past half century, transforming the water cycle that binds the clouds, the mountains, and the rivers.3

Finally, look at the snow on the mountain peaks visible from outer space. The time horizon this gestures toward is the future. The descent of water is vulnerable, now, to the ascent of carbon. As Earth’s surface warms, the Himalayan glaciers are melting; they will melt more rapidly in the decades ahead, with immediate consequences for the flow of Asia’s major rivers—and for the planet’s climate.

ASIA IS HOME TO MORE THAN HALF THE WORLD’S POPULATION, but it contains less freshwater than any continent except Antarctica. A fifth of humanity lives in China, a sixth in India; but China has only 7 percent, and India 4 percent, of the world’s freshwater—and within both countries that water is distributed unevenly. The quality as well as the quantity of water is under strain from a multiplicity of new demands and uses. Asia’s rivers are choked by pollutants and impounded by large dams. An estimated 80 percent of China’s wells contain water unsafe for human consumption; in India, groundwater is poisoned by fluoride and arsenic, or made undrinkable and unhealthy by salinity.4

The effects of climate change are already manifest. They compound the water-related risks that Asia’s peoples already face. Most predictions hold that the Himalayan rivers will swell as the planet warms and the ice thaws; and then, around the middle of this century, they will start to dry out for part of the year. Existing inequalities will deepen: wet regions will get wetter, and dry regions will get drier. Within that broad pattern, there will be an increase in variability and a rise in extreme weather. The effects of planetary warming have already begun to interact with regional drivers of climate change—changes in land use, aerosol emissions, and “brown clouds”—to multiply uncertainty. Coastal regions in particular face a cascade of threats: heat stress, flooding, rising sea level, and more intense cyclonic storms.5 Most at risk is the coastal crescent at the southern and eastern edge of the Eurasian landmass, home to the greatest concentration of the world’s population. All twenty cities in the world with the largest populations vulnerable to rising sea levels are in Asia.6 Most threatened, because numbers are compounded by high levels of poverty and inequality, are Mumbai and Kolkata in India, Dhaka in Bangladesh, Jakarta in Indonesia, and Manila in the Philippines.

All the while, statesmen and engineers plot water’s final subjugation by technology. Over the next decade, more than four hundred large dams will be built on the Himalayan rivers—by India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan—to feed the region’s hunger for electricity and its need for irrigation. New ports and thermal power plants line the coastal arc that runs from India, through Southeast Asia, to China. India and China have embarked on schemes to divert rivers to bring water to their driest lands: costing tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, they are the largest and most expensive construction projects the world has ever seen. At stake in how these plans unfold is the welfare of a significant portion of humanity. At stake is the future shape of Asia, the relations among its nations. Each of these risks, each of these responses, is rooted in ideas, institutions, and choices that earlier generations have made—that is to say, they are shaped by Asia’s modern history.


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.7 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 destabilization 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 eighteenth and nineteenth 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.

The origins of these dreams and fears, the longevity of the policies and infrastructures to which they gave rise, are the subject of this book. Unruly Waters tells the story of how the schemes of empire builders, the visions of freedom fighters, the designs of engineers—and the cumulative, dispersed actions of hundreds of millions of people across generations—have transformed Asia’s waters over the past two hundred years.

This is not the way we usually understand Asia’s modern history. 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.8 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 mobilization 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 twentieth-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.9 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.

Outside the specialized field of environmental history, the disappearance of nature from most broad accounts of historical change has been marked. It is also recent. In the 1970s and 1980s, agrarian history was a vibrant field. In those decades, discussions of water and agriculture in Asia fought to shake off the ghost of the German Marxist sociologist Karl Wittfogel. Wittfogel had argued in the 1950s that the need for centralized control over irrigation lay at the heart of “hydraulic societies” like China, ancient Egypt, and India, predisposing them all to absolutist government, or what Marx had called “oriental despotism.”10 Wittfogel’s generalizations crumbled under closer examination. The agrarian histories written in the 1970s and 1980s emphasized the variability of arrangements through which different Asian societies harnessed the power of water. They all insisted on the importance of irrigation, but traced no simple relationship between that hydraulic fact and political forms. Browse through any study of South Asian or East Asian agriculture written in those decades: water is omnipresent. Historians of China were inclined to take a very long view, showing how the control of water shaped Chinese society and civilization over millennia; historians of South Asia were more likely to emphasize discontinuity—and especially the rupture that came with British colonialism, which forced the Indian countryside more fully into the global capitalist economy. Whether on the scale of millennia or of decades, this work exudes a rich sense of landscape. It is alive with a sense of the seasons changing, of the shifting flow of rivers, of the threat that floods or drought posed to human survival.11 This tradition of historical writing disappeared most conspicuously from the study of South Asia, where the turn to cultural history swept all before it. But in other fields, too, historians decamped to the cities, leaving rural history behind as they turned to urban culture and politics, to intellectual history, to histories of cosmopolitanism and travel and migration. They did so just when a mounting water crisis began to pose an existential threat.

There are two main ways in which my view departs from the perspective of earlier work on the Asian countryside. The first is to see water as more than just a resource. In the pages that follow, the effects of new economic pressures and new technologies on water itself—on the water cycle, on the toxicity of water, on ideas about the value of water—are as important as the effect of water resources on agricultural output, which is what economic historians were primarily concerned with. As Asia’s waters were transformed, water was understood in new ways by meteorologists, hydrologists, and oceanographers. Recent scientific research, made possible by advances in imaging technology and statistical capacity, has transformed the possibility of understanding water and climate historically, bringing us to archives we had scarcely thought to look at. The great French historian Marc Bloch believed that human history lived “behind the features of landscape” as much as it lived in “tools and machinery” and in institutions.12 It lives, too, behind the chemical content of river water samples; behind satellite images of the water that lies underground; behind the composition of the smog that hovers above South Asia every winter, altering its rainfall. It lives in the changing ocean currents and winds.

In Fernand Braudel’s three-fold conception of historical time, the first, slowest-moving layer was the time of nature and the seasons: a “history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles.” His perspective influenced histories of the Indian Ocean, for example, in which the regularly reversing monsoon winds provide a basic material backdrop, enabling long-distance trade and shaping the agricultural cycle.13 But over the last two hundred years nature has been altered by human intervention to such a profound extent that that stability and “constant repetition” cannot be assumed. By the end of the twentieth century it became possible to ask—as this book will ask—not only how climate has shaped us, but how we have affected the climate.

My second departure stems from a more elastic sense of geography. Like most history-writing until the end of the twentieth century, agrarian history took the nation-state for granted, though often the most meaningful unit of study was the region-within-the-nation: South China or Java, the Bengal or Mekong deltas. 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 anticolonial 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.14 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 nineteenth 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.


Environmental history derives its richness from a close attention to particular landscapes—the most profound works have often been local and regional in scope, ranging from the study of a single village to a city, a forest, or a river. Only at that limited scale can we truly tease out the relationships between nature and human society. But the scale of environmental change has ballooned; its pace has accelerated. Connections between environmental crises have multiplied: the causes of harm and risk in any given locality may lie far away. We need a larger view. In a 2009 article, “The Great Himalayan Watershed,” historian of China Kenneth Pomeranz took up the challenge: “For almost half the world’s population,” he wrote, “water-related dreams and fears intersect in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau.”15 The Himalayan rivers bind the futures of the significant portion of the world’s population that depend on them; conflicts over their course, and their use, threaten to ratchet up tensions between bordering states, especially India, Pakistan, and China.

The scale and interconnection of Asia’s water crises provide a starting point for Unruly Waters. But this is not only a view from the Himalayan peaks; still less is it the omniscient view from a satellite image, for one characteristic of the satellite view is that there are no people in it, even if signals of the human imprint are everywhere apparent. This is a history of Asia’s waters with India at its heart—and there are three compelling reasons why India is an illuminating vantage point from which to tell a story that crosses regional and national boundaries.

The first is India’s centrality to the history of the British Empire; and empire’s centrality, in turn, to the history of climate change. The conquest of most of the world by European powers in the nineteenth century forced a fundamental transformation in the human relationship with the rest of nature. Asian and African lands were drawn more closely into a global capitalist economy. Their absorption was underpinned by imperial gunboats and colonial taxes, but it was driven, too, by new opportunities for enrichment and advancement. India was at the sharp edge of change—exploited more intensively and on a larger scale than almost anywhere else, and pivotal to the further thrust of imperial power into Asia. From European trading companies’ earliest expansion into the islands of the Atlantic and the Caribbean in the early modern era, they thrived on the exploitation of “cheap nature” as well as coerced labor.16 The pace of change stepped up in the nineteenth century. The period from the 1840s to the 1880s witnessed the global triumph of industrial capitalism; in Eric Hobsbawm’s words, “an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it.”17 India’s fields and its waters were pushed harder to sustain the colonial state—which depended on agricultural taxes—and to produce the raw materials that fed Europe’s industrial machine and its working classes: cotton, jute, indigo, sugar, tea, and coffee. Each of these thirsty crops generated new demands for water.

From India, imperial power and investment spread east and west across the Indian Ocean. British ships, filled with Indian troops, set sail in 1839 to bombard China, to force the Chinese government to allow the sale of Indian opium to Chinese consumers—a traffic that was vital to the East India Company’s financial health. A reordering of the entire region between India and China followed. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, from Burma to Vietnam, Asia’s demography changed as migration opened new frontiers of settlement; its ecology altered to accommodate the spread of cash crops for export. Many of Asia’s largest coastal cities—Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Dhaka, Hong Kong, Jakarta—began life as colonial ports, built to sustain the global trading networks on which European empires thrived.

Imperial India reached further than the present boundaries of the Indian nation-state, and further, too, than the region we now define as South Asia—present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. But British India was also more internally variegated than independent India. Areas under direct British control existed amid a patchwork of other forms of polity, known collectively as “princely states,” all of which retained a degree of sovereignty while submitting to overall British domination. Both within the Indian subcontinent and beyond its shores, water constituted the connective tissue of imperial power. In the British imagination, India extended across the vastness of the Indian Ocean, connected to China and Southeast Asia (the “East Indies”) through the flow of its rivers and the span of its climate. The ability to imagine India on that scale was, itself, a product of the nineteenth century and its new ways of seeing—maps, censuses, surveys, and photographs. It depended on the compression of space by the railway and the steamship. The contraction of those larger geographies in the twentieth century is a recurrent theme in this book.


  • "A compelling history of India over the last 200 years mostly describing how its people and rulers have dealt with the weather. "—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
  • "When confronted with tragedy, the modernist project has always retreated behind the sober voice of science. There is no more vivid description of this encounter than Sunil Amrith's wonderful new book, nor a better example of combining sympathy for the main protagonists---the planners, the engineers, the meteorologists---with a sustained sense of how, with the best of intentions, things can go horribly wrong."—Abhijit V. Banerjee, coauthor of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty
  • "In this groundbreaking work, Sunil Amrith deftly and imaginatively steers us towards an understanding of both water's worldly historical importance and its sublime capacity to exceed the human scale. Between its haunting opening pages and chilling epilogue, Amrith's sensitive, deeply engaging, and densely woven narrative reminds us that the present water crisis is the legacy of a colonial past---not of the peculiarities of Asian people and climate. This is a politically urgent book that shows the need to tell more expansive histories to help us address climate risks that transcend national borders."—Priya Satia, author of Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution
  • "Across Asia, water is power. Sunil Amrith's Unruly Waters is a gripping work, both timely and necessary, that captures the forces at work in the struggle to control Asia's water. From cultural influences of colonial empire engineering to atmospheric chemistry in a time of climate change, Amrith reveals all that is at stake for half the planet's population."—Meera Subramanian, author of A River Runs Again

On Sale
Dec 11, 2018
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Sunil Amrith

About the Author

Sunil Amrith is the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies and Professor of History at Harvard University and a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. The prize-winning author of Crossing the Bay of Bengal, as well as several other books and articles, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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