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."... Read more about From Deluge to Drought: The Inescapable Role of Water in the History of South Asia