Drowned and Dammed

Sören Köpke

The book deals with the politics of water management in the Orissa flood plains under British colonial rule. It discusses how the flood control regime implemented by the British had far-reaching consequences to the transformation of the watersheds in the region. D’Souza clearly positions his work within the scope of a historically informed political ecology, as he establishes from the outset. The author hence approaches hydraulic engineering and its social-ecological impacts from a political economy perspective.

But – and this is the strength of the work – he does take the physical geography of the topic very serious. The introductory chapter, as so often the case with books based on dissertations, is a bit heavy on literature review and could have been shortened. After all, the study’s contribution to the discourse of water management politics is less theoretical than empirical. It is also noteworthy that the book has been first published in 2006, and that the debate on water politics has since been progressed through the works of authors like Patrick McCully, Lyla Mehta or Erik Swyngedouw.[1]

Flood control as a political project of colonial capitalism

The environmental history of the Orissa Delta provides a fascinating case study for the landscape and watershed transformations in British-ruled spaces, driven by the logic of colonial capitalism and the British ruler’s perception of the region’s challenges and potentials. D’Souza emphasizes the volatile nature of the Delta; a non-equilibrium ecosystem that the British hydraulic regime finally sought out to control and to adapt to its own purposes. Before massive flood control systems were erected, agriculture in the Delta followed a logic that incorporated the constant threats of both floods and droughts into its practice, thus distributing risk throughout the area cultivated. The result was a remarkable degree of adaptation to the volatility of the specific environment. Yet the paradigm shift in water management led to the profound change from a flood-dependent agricultural production system, as D’Souza (p. 48) phrases it, to one that was flood-vulnerable.

The study lays out in great detail how the above-mentioned hydrologic change was motivated by the notions of private property in land, as privileged by the British system of land tenure. Here D’Souza delves deep into the agrarian social history of India, a field he seems to feel particularly indebted to. He manages to clarify that extraction of rents and taxes made up the main rationale for securing arable land against seasonal inundation. This rigid system of revenue extraction also informed the British perspective on the hydraulic systems in operation. The colonial rulers misread and misunderstood the flexible, complex and historically layered water management systems of Indian origin, a tendency that was also mirrored in the context of colonial Ceylon/Sri Lanka, for example. In the Orissa Delta, the main prerogative now became the construction or fortification of bunds or embankments for flood control. Interestingly, the fortification was mainly the work of military engineering. Which underlines another central point of the author: That the desire to control the waters, on the side of the British administration, coincided with the need to control the local rural population. Hence the built structures took on a dual character as material and political inventions to reinforce colonial hegemony. However, these efforts of retaining control constantly created contradictions: runaway maintenance costs being one of the central concerns.

Colonial roots of India’s water crisis

The contradictions of hydraulic engineering and the way it was embedded in the modes of British colonial rule finally led to even more drastic reconfigurations of the watersheds by ways of a large dam on Mahanadi River, the Hirakud Dam. Ironically, the damming of the river has eventually led to more violent floods, increasing vulnerability. In D’Souza’s words, the rivers of the Delta were ‘remade’ and, in this manner, ‘produced’. The author at times tends to indulge in the jargon of critical political economy, which may obstruct the very meaning he wants to convey. Yet, overall he presents a narrative that brings home his message on the political-economic logic of colonial hydraulic engineering.

The work has the merit of uncovering the deep colonial roots of the Indian hydrocracy. In India, as in a number of other countries, high modernist, developmental efforts have historically converged with large-scale hydraulic engineering. Nowadays, India is among the nations with the highest number of large dams globally.[2] These dams are associated with displacement – a violent process that has time and again provoked fierce and longstanding resistance. Two of the most conflictive dam projects – Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat in Western India, and Indira Sagar (Polavaram) to the south of Orissa (now called Odisha) – have their origins in late colonial planning.

India is in a perpetual water crisis – one that has been caused as much by harsh climates as by non-inclusive, exploitative capitalist development. Drowned and Dammed is an impressively detailed study that traces a part of the long environmental history of the specific Indian water crisis, highlighting the many controversies that continue to surround water management schemes.

[1] Patrick McCully, Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, London and New York: Zed Books, 2007. Lyla Mehta, The social construction of scarcity: The case of water in Western India, in: Richard Peet, Paul Robbins, and Michael J. Watts (eds) Global Political Ecology, London: Routledge, 2011. Erik Swyngedouw, Liquid Power: Contested Hydro-Modernities in Twentieth-Century Spain, London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.
[2] World Commission on Dams, Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making, London: Earthscan, 2000, 370.