From Deluge to Drought: The Inescapable Role of Water in the History of South Asia

In his latest book, historian Sunil Amrith describes the ageless link between water and prosperity in South Asia and examines the new challenges of climate change.

Image of water droplets on a taxi window.

By Michelle Nicholasen

The monsoon is often referred to as India’s “finance minister,” writes Faculty Associate Sunil Amrith, because the economy of South Asia is deeply tied to the amount of rainfall the monsoon brings each year—to fill aquifers, irrigate agriculture, and drive hydroelectricity. But climate change is threatening to shift the patterns of the monsoon, making it more erratic, with the potential to destabilize livelihoods throughout the region. 

In his latest book, Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History, Amrith describes the intricate role water plays in the interconnected economic and social structures of South Asia, and tells the stories of people and institutions that have undertaken massive efforts to harness water and control its distribution. 

Q: How would you describe the summer (or Southwest) monsoon to someone who has never experienced it?

A: It feels like the world is dissolving. Both the intensity and the pervasiveness of water during those months of the year are what characterize them. And if you're in a big city like Mumbai, you are certainly in this “floating city” to some extent. 

I think one of the defining features of the monsoon climate is its period of waiting, which is culturally very resonant in South Asia. Going back to the great Indian epic poems, you have this account of waiting for the rains to come, and of course they come after the heat has built and built and built through April and May. The phrase often used is "the burst of the monsoon." 

Q: It’s fascinating to realize that all the rivers that course through South Asia originate in the Himalayas. What is the relationship between the mountains and the monsoon in terms of supplying water to the region?

A: They are such an integrated system. The Himalayan rivers are year-round rivers because they are supplied and fed both by rainwater and by snowmelt from the mountains. But they vastly increase their volume during the monsoon season from April to September, so it really is a sort of feedback loop between the meltwater of the Himalayas and the rains. (The Himalayas also act as a barrier to the southwest winds, concentrating most of the rainfall on the Indian Gangetic plain.)

Increased snowmelt and the recession of glaciers have major implications. A recent study shows that the rate of snowmelt is even worse than we feared. And so it's precisely the interaction between seasonal rainfall, the enormity of the Himalayas—which have such an effect on the world’s climate that they have been called the “third pole”—and the sheer number of people who depend on these waters that positions South Asia at the front line of climate change. The fact that so many of these rivers cross national borders complicates all of this. 

Map of monsoons in South Asia

Q: Which parts of the monsoon system are thought to be affected by climate change?

A: All of it. One of the things that makes the monsoon so unpredictable is that it's not clear how different sorts of impact will balance out. So, for example, if the oceans are warming faster than the land, which many studies have shown to be true, that actually narrows some of the thermal contrast needed to drive the monsoon system. This may be one reason why the monsoon system has not behaved as many models would predict that it should, with many studies suggesting a diminution rather than an increase in mean annual rainfall, despite surface warming. 

Q: During your research, you met many fishermen and farmers who lamented that the monsoon was becoming more unpredictable, that things were really changing. Was there ever a time when the monsoon could be trusted?

A: The monsoon has always been capricious, and that uncertainty has left deep traces in South Asian cultural forms, farming practices, and social life. Yet certain regularities, which oriented agriculture and rhythms of life, could to some extent be relied upon. What is really new is the sense that even those large-scale patterns seem to be scrambled. I heard, time and again, from farmers and fishers I spoke with, that they could no longer “trust” the monsoon—it was striking to me that this was the word many of them chose.

Q: To what extent is there scientific certainty that the monsoon is changing?

A: I am not a scientist, but based on my reading of the climate science, and my discussions with scientists, there's reasonable confidence that the monsoon is changing, but huge uncertainty about exactly how and exactly why and on what timescale. I think the overall patterns around which there is something of a consensus is that there's been a rise in extremes.  

What rainfall there is tends to be more concentrated in periods of very intense precipitation. An important study suggests that there's been a decline in average rainfall about 7 percent since the 1950s, though some suggest this has reversed over the past few years. What is clearer is that the monsoon has been more prone to extremes of wet and dry. 

Q: In order to redirect water from the rivers, India and other countries in South Asia went through a period of dam building in the 1950s and 1960s. Subsequently, it went through an extensive period of well digging to access groundwater in the 1970s, which led to the so-called Green Revolution. Which of these two approaches had the most impact?

A: Dam building did not play a major role in the Green Revolution. It was mostly driven by access to groundwater (digging wells, pumping water out of the ground).

I think we can accept two things about the Green Revolution as both being true. One is that it saw absolutely astonishing gains in food production. So, for the first time in the 1970s, India became self-sufficient in food, which it hadn't been since the late nineteenth century—if not before that. China too saw enormous increases in agricultural production without any expansion of the amount of land given over to agriculture. 

And, alongside this, I think we need to acknowledge two negative effects of the Green Revolution. One was dramatic deepening of rural inequalities, so that the gap between those farmers who benefited from the Green Revolution and those that did not grew ever sharper in India. The poorest farmers today in India are those who still have access to no irrigation whatsoever. So that is probably more than 50 percent of Indian farmers who still rely on rain-fed agriculture, compared to those who managed to benefit from that combination of technologies such as groundwater extraction but also the hybrid seeds which are at the heart of the Green Revolution. So, there's the inequality question, but there's also the sustainability question. At the forefront of our minds are those regions of India that most benefited from the Green Revolution: the northwest, Punjab, parts of western India, parts of southeastern India. But if you look at the satellite maps of their water tables today, they're critically depleted. So it is not clear whether that model of agricultural expansion is inherently sustainable. 

Image of Grand Anaicut Dam in India

Q: As meteorology and climate studies grew in the nineteenth century, you explain that it gave people a new framework for thinking regionally and expansively—especially in terms of weather systems, cyclones, monsoons, and droughts—affecting multiple South Asian countries. Counter to this view, you say the critical need to control water consequently sharpened national boundaries. 

A: That's really one of the key tensions in this book. There are two intersecting stories that push in completely different directions. One story is the history of monsoon science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that has its ups and downs, but the broad tendency is towards the recognition of a kind of planetary scale on which the monsoon operates. There are moments at which the story expands and contracts. At different points—the 1880s, the 1920s, and after satellite technology of the 1960s—the understanding of the monsoon evolves beyond a regional phenomenon in terms of both its causes and its effects. 

On the other hand, the attempt to control water and to control the unevenness that comes from the climate is absolutely territorial. That's the other story to tell in the twentieth century—the idea that water becomes more and more a form of property or territory. Water policy takes place within these very clearly demarcated borders even when that has all sorts of unwanted consequences downstream. 

Q: What are examples of “downstream” consequences?

A: In many ways the control of water was part of the post-independence project of democratization in India. The idea was that harnessing water would liberate Indian farmers from being prisoners of the monsoon. And that they would be able to access irrigation water year-round. This was a liberatory sort of project, and it was one that was shared by quite a range of people—not only political leaders like Prime Minister Nehru himself, but by engineers and ordinary people, too. One of the things I illustrate in the book is how even in Hindi cinema in the 1950s, the dams had this very symbolic value as representing and epitomizing a better future. 

Things didn't turn out that way, and I think one of the tragedies of the story is that those large dam projects ended up deepening inequalities. If you think of the vast numbers of people displaced by these large dam projects in India—that's not random. It has tended to be people from marginalized Adivasi communities who lose their land, because it is taken over by the giant reservoirs that dams create. They are not compensated; they are uprooted from their lives and their livelihoods because they are denied the political power to negotiate with the state. Some of the largest social and political movements in Indian history in the late-twentieth century have had to do with large dams and mobilizing against some of their effects.

Q: Do people in India today have to pay for water?

A: Some do and some don't, and that's part of the question of inequality. Groundwater is essentially a free resource for those who own the land and who have the technology to drill—and there are many lawyers and activists who argue that that shouldn't be the case because, in a sense, groundwater is a public good. A public good that is captured as a sort of private gain for those who own land. On the other hand, many of the poorest people in India do have to pay for their water, particularly those who live in underprivileged urban neighborhoods. They pay the so-called “tanker mafia” for access to water. So, the question is who pays for water and who pays for electricity. One of the stories behind India's so-called groundwater revolution is that large farmers have enjoyed heavily subsidized energy which they used to power the pumps that dig wells. That has had perverse effects in terms of inequality.

Q: What are the most recent efforts to harness water in the region?

A: Looking back, the 1980s were something of a turning point, after which we see the growth in the ambitions to dam the Himalayas, which had previously been seen as too remote and inaccessible to make such engineering schemes financially viable. Today, one sees an increasing number of conflicts over water that come from the sheer ferocity of dam building that's going on in the Himalayas, where India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are all involved in trying to harness water. And now, of course, given the scale of Chinese dam building in the Tibetan plateau, you have Indian fears of what that's going to do to the Brahmaputra river; and in turn, Bangladesh suffers from Indian water engineering, as in the case of the Farakka barrage. So there is a cascading effect from the sheer number of competing projects to dam those upper reaches of the Himalaya rivers. 

I worry profoundly about dam building in the Himalayas, for multiple reasons. One is the cross-border conflict these dams are going to cause. One is the effects of climate change on the flow of those rivers and what implications that might have on the safety of some of these dams. And it's a very seismically active area. There are many reasons why those tensions are certainly on the rise there. 

Image of monsoon flooding in Mumbai

Q: Thinking about our current global climate crisis, what lessons can we draw from South Asia’s experience that might suggest a way forward?

A: There are different levels of lessons one can learn. South Asia is interesting for one simple reason: this is an example of a large and complex society that has always lived with and has devised many distinctive ways of managing climatic uncertainty, long before anthropogenic climate change. The experience of living with an uncertain monsoon is something that we can learn from if we study the ways in which Indian society has developed all sorts of institutions to deal with that. 

I think much more immediately, progress made in South Asia has always been as a result of political pressure and mobilization. One of the features of the history of South Asia since the 1970s and 1980s is its powerful environment movement—one that has been an inspiration to movements in other places and which might continue to be so. By no means have they always been successful—probably more often than not they haven't. 

Finally, the history of water in South Asia adds weight to the many voices in the debate about global climate change saying to us that we really have to think more about inequality. Yes, climate change is a shared problem on a planetary scale. But it affects some people much more profoundly than others, and some people have many more resources to deal with or mitigate it than others do. That, for me, is the biggest lesson that comes out of my book and my work on South Asia. We need to put inequality at the heart of the story when we are thinking about climate and climate change. The other lesson, and the note on which I end Unruly Waters, is a conviction that the sharing and harnessing of water never has been, and never could be, purely a technical question. It is a political, moral, and economic issue. There is no quick solution to these problems, and yet we remain addicted to technological fixes.

—Michelle Nicholasen, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Faculty Associate and Harvard Academy Senior Scholar Sunil Amrith is the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies and chair of the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. His recent book, Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia's History, is available at Basic Books. His research on migration in South and Southeast Asia garnered him a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship


1. Satish Krishnamurthy, Don't need no wipers. Image of rain droplets on a taxi window, Mumbai. Taken on June 14, 2010. (CC BY 2.0)

2. A monsoon is defined as an annual shift in the prevailing winds that, laden with moisture, bring abundant rains. MAP OF SW MONSOON: The southwest or summer monsoon from June to September brings 70–80 percent of South Asia’s annual rainfall. The southwest winds are driven by the temperature differential between land and water. As the land heats up in April and May, the hot air above it rises, allowing the cooler, most air to rush in from over the ocean, bringing large amounts of rain. The Himalayas form a barrier concentrating the rain south across the Ganges plain. MAP OF NW MONSOON: The lesser known winter, or northeast monsoon, from October to April, brings dry air in a reverse pattern, coming from China and Mongolia. The Himalayas block the cooler, moist air from reaching the southernmost countries like India and Sri Lanka, keeping those areas hot and dry and susceptible to drought. However the winter monsoon does bring rain to southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Credit:, accessed June 25, 2019

3. Thangaraj Kumaravel, Grand Anaicut. The Grand Anicut dam on the Kaveri River in India is believed to be one of the oldest functioning dams in the world. Taken on November 14, 2012. (CC BY 2.0)

4. Michael Kohli, JVPD Flooded. On Sunday with just a little rain, the JVPD area was flooded. Taken on June 28, 2009. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

5. Video: Aug 29 2017 Mumbai Floods.