Imagining the future of Asia through the prism of water

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Imagining the future of Asia through the prism of water

Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s history by Sunil Amrith, Basic Books, US $35.00, Pp 416, December 2018, ISBN 978-0465097722

Rains, rivers, and seas — water — have shaped and reshaped Asia’s history along with its geography and demography. More than half of the world’s population lives in Asia but water has been scarce in Asia as compared to other parts of the world — less freshwater than any continent except Antarctica. A fifth of humanity lives in China, a sixth in India; but China has only 7 percent and India 4 percent, of the world’s freshwater — and within both counties that water is distributed unevenly. Asia’s two most populous countries — China and India — are racing to build dams to bring water under control without realizing the havoc it will play with the global environment as well as Asia’s demography and its future. In Unruly Waters, Sunil Amrith tries to imagine the future of Asia through the prism of water. Amrith says that 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 and made undrinkable and unhealthy by salinity.

The effects of climate change are already manifest. Amrith says that they compound the water-related risks that Asia’s peoples already face. Most predictions hold that the Himalayan rivers will swell as the planet warms and the ice thaws; and then, around the middle of this century, they will start to dry out for part of the year. Existing inequalities will deepen. Wet regions will get wetter, and dry regions will get drier. Within that broad pattern, there will be an increase in vulnerability and a rise in extreme weather. The effects of planetary warming have already begun to interact with regional drivers of climate change — changes in land use, aerosol emissions, and “brown clouds” — to multiply uncertainty. Amrith says that the coastal regions in particular face a cascade of threats: heat stress, flooding, rising sea level, and more intense cyclonic storm. Particularly at risk are the coastal crescent at the southern and eastern edge of the Eurasian landmass, home to the greatest concentration of the world’s population. All twenty cities in the world with the largest populations vulnerable to rising sea levels are in Asia. Most threatened, because numbers are compounded by high levels of poverty and inequality are Mumbai and Kolkata in India, Dhaka in Bangladesh, Jakarta in Indonesia, and Manila in the Philippines.

All the while, statesmen and engineers plot water’s final subjugation by technology. Amrith says that, over the next decade, more than four hundred large dams will be built on the Himalayan rivers — by India, China, Nepal, Bhutan, and Pakistan — to feed the region’s hunger for electricity and its need for irrigation. New ports and thermal power plants line the coastal arc that runs from India, through Southeast Asia, to China, India and China have embarked on schemes to divert rivers to bring water to their driest lands: costing tens or hundreds of billions of dollars, they are the largest and most expensive construction projects the world has ever seen. Amrith argues that at stake is how these plans unfold in the welfare of a significant portion of humanity. He writes, “At stake is the future shape of Asia, the relations among its nations. Each of these risks, each of these responses, is rooted in ideas, institutions, and choices that earlier generations have made — that is to say, they are shaped by Asia’s modern history.”

As the world debates the emerging dangers to the global environment, historian Sunil Amrith sees a bleak future for Asia, describing how Asia’s water problem is shaping its history. In this seminal study of Asia’s water issues and how they shape its history, Amrith looks at the history and future of the Asian continent in a new perspective. Amrith has a new way of interpreting history. This meticulously-researched book will change the way you study history. His findings are spine-chilling and mind-numbing. Everybody who cares for our world and its inhabitants must read this beautifully- and brilliantly-written book.

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