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  • Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia's History by Sunil Amrith
  • Richard P. Tucker
Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia's History. By Sunil Amrith (New York, Basic Books, 2018) 397 pp. $25.35

Rapid advances in the study of climate, in counterpoint with onrushing climate distortions, are being reflected in transformations of traditional historiography, with new dimensions of insight. Today's challenge is to integrate traditional archive-based studies into more multidimensional narratives that speak to rapidly destabilizing climate patterns, their anthropogenic causes and consequences, and the often grossly inappropriate trends in political economy.

Climate history is emerging as a major segment of environmental historiography, in recognition of the world's onrushing double crisis of declining clean fresh water and rising sea levels. Water history has a rich heritage, but recent technological developments, especially in climatology, have enabled far better integration of human and natural dynamics, notably for monsoon Asia. Across the monsoon arc of Asia, the history of water management has long been narrated in detail. Regimes, societies, and cultures have perennially adapted to and managed their rivers. China's immemorial efforts to manage the rivers that flow from Tibet and central Asia are at the center of its history. It has now become possible to write multidisciplinary syntheses of that ecological region as a whole.

Unruly Waters, Amrith's first major foray into climate history, is an impressive step in that project. His previous books have provided important dimensions of the human story, exploring public health and mass labor migration, in the context of European colonialism and the post-1945 transition to independent or fully autonomous regimes. As he defines this book's theme, "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" (6).

This book is innovatively anchored in the new era of climate science, made possible by satellite imagery and the technology of massive data management. Using hydrological cycles as his fulcrum, Amrith integrates a region-wide perspective from the Tibetan highlands to melting Himalayan glaciers, the great river basins' depleting ground water, and coastal zones with rising sea levels, from Pakistan to China. Throughout the major river basins, he writes, "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" (3). Along coastal zones, rising waters cause flooding, erosion, and degradation of wetlands. Coastal fishing is depleted, and villagers are forced to migrate to urban areas. Massive pollution and rising sea levels threaten coastal cities (many dating from early global, colonial, capitalist times). Yet hundreds of expanded coastal cities and towns further distort coastal-zone dynamics across the region. [End Page 631]

Amrith's narrative centers on the Indian subcontinent and the "crucible of the monsoon" (13), one of the determining regions of global climate. The book's long historical perspective is also enriched by recent advances in archeology, ecosystem dynamics, and toxics chemistry. Amrith's reports of extensive travel and interviews with everyone from scientists and urban planners to farmers, fisherfolk, and environmental activists, add vivid and intimate detail to the story. These reports illustrate the social and economic impacts of accelerating change on regional institutions and socioeconomic elites, and on village-level farmers and fishermen and women who struggle to adapt to the consequences.

Unruly Waters establishes Amrith as a major environmental historian, presenting an environmental challenge to Asian and especially Indian historians, as well as introducing a range of Indian scholars to Western environmental historians and activists. More broadly, this engaging narrative is forceful, vivid prose for the intelligent reader. "The history of how Indians have understood and coped with the monsoon may have wider lessons at a moment when climate...


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pp. 631-632
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