Book Review

Review Essay on UNRULY WATERS: How Mountain Rivers & Monsoons have Shaped South Asia’s History

Guest blog by Dr. Ruchi Shree

Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers & Monsoons Have Shaped Asia’s History (by Sunil Amrith (2018), Penguin/ Allen Lane, New Delhi) unfolds the mysteries of monsoon in countless ways. It is written by Sunil Amrith, a historian and professor at Harvard University and the book has much more to offer to numerous other disciplines ranging from geology to ecology and political economy to name a few. Interdisciplinary as well as multidisciplinary orientation of the book makes it an interesting read for even the lay persons.

Although, I must admit that its non-ideological nature may at times lead to difficulty in placing the book in a certain category of left and right. Probably, the author has consciously done so and we will deliberate on this issue little later.

Coming back to the rich content of the text, it is based on painstaking research done in archives and libraries in different parts of the world. The author has also made wise use of the interviews conducted with key officials, farmers, artists, etc. His wide range of interests and scholarship enables him to take an account of the simultaneity of ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ aspects of water. His words ‘water cycle that binds the clouds, the mountains and the rivers’ (p. 3) gives us ample food for thought.

The book is divided into nine chapters with thought-provoking titles such as ‘Rivers Divided, Rivers Dammed’, ‘This Parched Land’, ‘Stormy Horizons’ followed by a short epilogue titled ‘History and Memory at the Water’s Edge’. It covers a span of almost two centuries i.e. nineteenth and twentieth century to historically locate the multiple realities of water in South Asia shaped by factors viz. colonialism, mushrooming of numerous sub-disciplines (oceanography, climate science, hydraulic engineering), role of technological innovations, implications of political ideologies, etc. At times, the book seems to give more attention to India viz-a-viz other countries of South Asia. The author has confessed the same in the first chapter. I will go into some of its details in the last section of the review. However, in different chapters the author has gone into details of politics of water in China and Japan and comparative analysis on issues such as dams, use of groundwater, etc. remain a mainstay of the book.

The Making and Unmaking of South Asia:

In writing the history of water in South Asia, the author has chosen India as an illuminating vantage point and has illustrated three reasons for the same in the first chapter titled ‘The Shape of Modern Asia’. First, India was central to the British Empire and the empire was central to the history of climate change. In Amrith’s words, ‘India’s experience of imperialism cast a long shadow over the history of Asia’s waters’ (p. 12). Second, the range of India’s public sphere is quite wide ranging from newspaper columns, publications of environmental organizations and cinema, etc. Third, Indian subcontinent is united by the thread of monsoon. Here, it is pertinent to note that the author seems to be using the terms ‘Asia’ and ‘South Asia’ interchangeably as per his convenience which could sometimes be quite problematic and difficult to agree with.

The book makes sharp observations on similarities and dissimilarities of politics of water in India and China. Amrith writes, ‘In China, as in India, water was a vital ingredient of freedom’ (p. 152) and ‘river engineering’ played an important role in early twentieth century. But, in India it was focused on irrigation and China focused on flood control (p. 153). Both the countries heavily rely on groundwater for agricultural purpose (p. 278-280) and with each one having a large population to sustain, food sufficiency was a major challenge in 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, dam-building became an obsession for both the countries and many others.

Rise and Fall of Hydraulic Societies:

Amrith writes that Karl Wittfogel in his book Oriental Despotism (1957) argues 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’’ (p. 7) but his generalization soon started being attacked. The agrarian histories written in the 1970s and 1980s emphasised on the importance of irrigation but denied a simple relationship between hydraulic fact and political form. But, one can certainly say that the hydraulic element remained central to State as an actor for quite a long time.

For instance, elsewhere in the book the author mentions that much before Wittfogel, almost three centuries ago the Mughal emperors named Babur in his Babur Nama[i]  and Abul Fazal’s account of Akbar’s reign titled Akbar Nama discussed about the challenge of climate in the Indian context. Babur mentions of ‘Persian wheel’ (p. 28) and his primary interest in water was both ornamental and practical necessity in constructing the gardens. Irfan Habib in An Atlas of the Mughal Empire (1982) gives a detailed analysis of rivers changing their course and their repercussions viz. silt deposits raising the riverbeds and pushing the rivers into new channels. Many of those problems India faces even today and thus we may say that the roots of hydraulic ambition are quite old in this region.

Dams, Dissent and Environmental Politics:

Dams have been one of the most controversial aspects of politics of water in the countries of the global South. On the one hand, they are the symbols of technological prowess but on the other they also contributed to rise of dissent and environmental politics. In the 1940s and 50s, the dam building was seen as an ability to tame nature by the Asian leaders (p. 177) and enthusiasm for dam construction was a global phenomenon. The addiction to large dams was cultural as well as political. The reflection of cultural aspect is evident in hindi films such as Mother India which is a great water epic (p. 198-199). Similarly, Manto’s story ‘Yajid’ depicts the fate of rivers in the wake of partition and highlights the ‘indifference of nature to human suffering’ (p. 182). At a political level, dams were about an image of the country in the world and obviously quality and quantity both mattered a lot.

By the late 1970s came the disillusionment with growing number of dams due to its consequences such as massive displacement and ecological impacts. Way back in 1930s and 1940s, one of the early environmentalists viz. Kapil Prasad Bhattacharjee[ii] warned that the worst impact of Damodar projects would be to silt up the Hooghly river. Similarly, the debate between Meghnad Saha with his modern scientific logic and R K Mukherjee arguing for restoring forests as a necessary measure seems so poignant for even the contemporary situation in India. It is remarkable that Mukherjee’ argument that deforestation affected rainfall was considered absurd by Saha. Even today, the debate over dams often gets polarized around pro and anti-development. With dam-building as an industry[iii] (p. 224) and the countries willing to harness their ‘hydroelectrical potential’, the number of dams is increasing at fast pace. At the same time, there is also a widely growing anti-dam movement in countries like India and Brazil to name a few.

Politicizing Water in Indian Context:

My first encounter with Sunil Amrith’s writing was through his interview[iv] in a newspaper and then I read few reviews[v] prior to reading the book recently. The experience of reading the book was interesting but distressing at the same time. The specter of water crisis looming large is evident throughout the book with factual details along with historical and causal analysis. The book does not take any ideological position, but it does bring the Gandhi-Ambedkar discourse, their take on water and also Nehru’s range of views on water viz. his take on dams in India and his affinity with the River Ganga[vi]. The author highlights that through the Salt Satyagraha (1930), Gandhi used ‘water as a symbol of unity’ and Ambedkar in Mahad Satyagraha (1927) drank a symbolic cup of water which signifies that he ‘focused on water as an indicator of profound social inequality’ (p. 154-155). Even today, water does remain an issue of social inequality and with the ongoing privatization in water sector, it has acquired new forms (water ATMs, water parks, etc.) but the book remains silent about that.

The book mentions about the traditional water harvesting techniques in India and China. Amrith mentions China’s director of water conservancy named Hao’s story of ancient tradition of water management in China consisting of ponds and dikes (p. 221) and I was wondering how did he miss to take a similar account of India and Anupam Mishra’s pioneering work Aaj bhi khare hain Talaab[vii]. This surprise also came partly due to the book’s detailed mention of works done by Mishra’s contemporaries such as Anil Agarwal, Sunita Narain, Ramaswamy Iyer and Vandana Shiva. To my mind, it is unjust to ignore Mishra’s writings on water while making sense of politics of water in India because he was quite vocal not only about the ingenuity of traditional water harvesting techniques[viii] but also in his ruthless criticism of inter-linking of rivers in India[ix].

To sum up, Unruly Waters is a significant book due to various reasons. As a lucid read, it delves deep into the complexities of politics of water as well as the biographical sketches of numerous scholars[x] of fields such as oceanography, meteorology, etc. The book rightly points out that water as an element has the potential to unite and to divide, be it countries (India-Pakistan, India-Bangladesh, India-Nepal, etc.) or the states (Cauvery, Periyar) within the same country. With its interdisciplinary orientation, it bridges the gap between science and social science. The book helps us visualize the paradox of imaginative power of water to evoke the sacred and dams as symbols of hydraulic power.

Dr. Ruchi Shree is Assistant Professor at the PG Department of Political science, Tilka Majhi Bhagalpur University (TMBU) in Bhagalpur, Bihar.

End Notes:

[i] Amrith writes that Babur Nama is one the earliest autobiographies in the Islamic tradition. Babur was a lover of nature and the text is filled with references to water.

[ii] Kapil Prasad Bhattacharjee was a Bengali engineer trained in France in the 1930s but the book refers to him as Bengali journalist (p. 205). Ashis Nandy considers Bhattacharjee as one of the early environmentalists of India since he began his career as promoter of Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) but soon got disillusioned with dams. Nandy (2001), ‘Dams and Dissent: India’s First Modern Environmental Activist and His Critique of the DVC Project’, Futures 33 (2001): 709-731.

[iii] Dam building is the Global South is a massive project for almost a century now. Various companies of countries such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan are involved in construction of dams worldwide. With Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), massive literature on ill effects of dams has come up from the academia as part of social science research and also from the various civil society organizations.

[iv] One may read the interview at

[v] In The Hindu, in Himal South Asian

[vi] Seventh chapter titled ‘Rivers Divided, Rivers Dammed’ has interesting details on Nehru’s view on water. His passion for big dams as modern temples to his realization of ‘disease of gigantism’ (p.213). In 1954, Nehru sent Kanwar Rao (Chairman of India’s Central Water Commission) and K L Rao ‘on an official mission to China to inspect and to report back on China’s water projects – flood control in particular’ (pp. 216-220). The chapter ends with a mention of Nehru’s will and testament reflect his attachment with the Himalayas and the Ganga (p. 228).

[vii] Anupam Mishra’s book Aaj Bhi Khare hain Talaab (Ponds are Still Relevant) is about traditional water harvesting techniques in India. To know more about him and his works, one may read

[viii] Anupam Mishra’s TED Talk is available at

[ix] For details, please read

[x] A special mention is needed for Sir Arthur Cotton (1830-99) who is said to have saved the Godavari delta with his engineering skill. Throughout the book, references to Cotton keep coming and Amrith argues that the idea of river-linking is partly his brainchild. To name some other prominent personalities who shaped the study of monsoon in the South Asian region are James Rennell, Proby Cautley, Henry Blanford, Elizabeth Isis Pogsan, M. Visvesvaraya, Watsuji Tetsuro, etc.

2 thoughts on “Review Essay on UNRULY WATERS: How Mountain Rivers & Monsoons have Shaped South Asia’s History

  1. I haven’t read the book yet, but from the review written by Dr. Ruchi Shree it is obvious that the writer doesn’t have minimum understanding of rivers as ecological systems that don’t recognize the political boundaries. It appears that the writers saw the rivers through the Indian lens and did not have any idea that most of the major rivers in the Indian subcontinent have a geographic dimension that extends beyond the geographic territory known as the country India. The control of the rivers as a means of political leverage and weapon is not even mentioned in the writing, which is not forgivable. What about the India-Bangladesh transboundary issues, what about the Nepal-India or Bhutan-India dynamics? Do the rivers stop at Indian border? What about the quality issues in the Ganges that also affect people and ecosystems in downstream region? How can a writer be so myopic? For a book on river to be accepted by scientific community and by all stakeholders, a much broader understanding of river science or hydrology is needed. Obviously, he doesn’t have such understanding.


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