Review of Unruly Waters by Sunil Amrith

A review of Sunil Amrith, Unruly Waters:  How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia’s History (New York:  Penguin, 2020), 397 pp., maps, photos.

     This sweeping history of India from the nineteenth century to the present focuses necessarily on agriculture, climate, and engineering.  Unlike the United States, where agriculture has not been dominant for a century, agriculture “employs 60 percent of India’s population,” and India’s “population will continue to be predominantly rural by the mid-twenty-first century” (p. 14).  Therefore, climate matters less in U.S. history, and it would be difficult to imagine a comparable history of the U.S.  In India the uncertainties of the monsoon and its effects on the country have long been a national preoccupation.  Water in India is “unruly,” and that is the point of this book.  In the U.S., on the other hand, after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the penetration of the Appalachian barrier by trade, migration, and commerce, water was not a major focus until the settling of the arid West was made possible by the Bureau of Land Reclamation (founded in 1902) and its great irrigation projects.  Certainly, Americans have never been as a nation transfixed by hydraulic engineering, but India’s very national identity after independence was wrapped up in enormous projects for damming rivers (which we may find difficult to square with the anti-technology image of Gandhi sitting at his spinning wheel).

     Floods, droughts, and famines have marked the area’s history indelibly.  India was traumatized by the drought-induced famines of 1876-1878 and of the late 1890s.  A million people died in the latter and even more than that in the former (p. 86).  Times were tough in the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the only comparable event I could think of, but estimates of deaths lie at 7,000 (according to Google).  A historian would be hard-pressed to demarcate American history by climate catastrophes, but such events are essential for understanding India, as Sunil Amrith makes clear.

     The history of flood and drought and famine inflicted on an agricultural people by a monsoon climate gives Amrith’s account a rather different cast of characters from those who dominate American history.  Political figures do not occupy front and center in his Indian history, and meteorologists, hydraulic engineers, and similar technocrats do.  Readers will learn about Gandhi, Nehru, and Indira Gandhi, to be sure, but their reputations may surprise.  Indira Gandhi, in particular, showed an eloquent and sensitive understanding of her country’s place in the world.    

     As the subtitle of the book indicates, It covers more than India—China plays a substantial role—but ultimately this is Indian history, and China as well as Pakistan and Bangladesh are seen largely from India’s point of view.

     To realize India’s situation as a rare agricultural country among modern major world powers is not to say that the peoples of the Indian subcontinent are any better able to cope with climate change than the rest of us.  Despite their heavy dependence on the vagaries of the weather, Indians did not know about the fossil fuel causes of climate change any earlier than we did.  Amrith says an important turning point came in 1991 with the publication of an influential pamphlet written by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain and entitled Global Warming in an Unequal World.  The authors famously described the world’s expectations that India and China “must share the blame for heating up the earth and destabilizing its climate” with the developed nations as “an excellent example of environmental colonialism” (p. 285) 

     Amrith describes and analyzes the role of imperialism in India’s long struggle with its unruly waters, but for an even stronger sense of the modern preoccupation of Indian politicians and intellectuals with the searing legacy of colonialism and the effect of that on their encounter with climate change, readers should take a look at the beautifully written but somewhat mystical book by Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse:  Parables for a Planet in Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2021). Still, it must be said that Unruly Waters is the essential book to read for science, policy, national myth, and modern history.

     The lesson seems obvious:  despite the unique importance of agriculture and therefore of the monsoon in its history to this day, India has not proven to be any better than others at confronting the problem of climate change.  Put simply, the demands of nationhood and the powerful allure of nationalism got in the way of climate solutions.  Like the U.S., India has lacked the political will to deal effectively with climate change.

     But politics may be changing.  As I wrote this review, Press Information Bureau Delhi, in an announcement dated August 3, 2022, described “enhanced” Nationally Determined Contributions aimed at reaching 45% reductions of CO2 emissions by 2030.  Moreover, the government has come up with a slogan “LIFE”—urging a “Lifestyle for Environment” program to prepare the people to meet this now more ambitious goal.

     Amrith’s excellent book makes us realize why it has proved difficult to reach this point of resolution in the Indian government.

Mark E. Neely, Jr.

Member, State College chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby

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