Soaked as we are in anxieties about climate change, the great flood in the Book of Genesis offers a defining metaphor. Nature, in this mythological account, plays out as vengeful disaster. The Ark, on the other hand, is a technology that can mitigate and ultimately save lives while Noah, the patriarch, embodies prescient policy. The story of the great deluge, however, for all its compelling elements, gets one aspect of the plot wrong -- the idea of the flood itself as always being an overwhelmingly calamitous event.
Historically, flooding has invoked and spurred an altogether different social and political imagination, in which seasonal inundations have been celebrated for their ecologically renewing and economically beneficial properties. The regular flooding by the silt-laden waters of the Nile, for example, has long been recognized for having sustained and enabled Egypt's ancient civilization of the Pharaohs. South Asia is replete with many similar experiences and it has recently been argued that much of the sprawling Ganga-Meghna river system that courses through eastern India and what constitutes Bangladesh today was tapped by generations of cultivators to create a robust flood-dependent agrarian regime. William Willcocks, the much celebrated hydraulic engineer of the British Empire, termed this unique agrarian arrangement as "overflow irrigation."
In Willcocks' assessment, a large network of such "over-flow canals" irrigated almost 7 million acres of land in these deltas. These broad and shallow inundation canals were, he surmised, designed to siphon off the crest waters of the flooding rivers, which were silt-laden and also carried rich, fine clay. These canals were, furthermore, long and continuous and ran almost parallel to each other. The most striking feature of flood or overflow irrigation, however, was its importance as a fertilizing agent and not merely as a source for water. Willcocks argued that the "rich red water of the river and the poor white water of the rainfall", in fact, had to be combined in order for agrarian production to be sustainable and successful.
If your rice fields have been irrigated by rain water alone, they are weak and cry for irrigation in October with excessive and costly supplies of poor river water. If, however, you have irrigated your rice fields with rain and river water mixed together in the early months of the monsoon when the river water is rich and full of mud, you so strengthen the plants of rice that they resist the hard condition of an early failure of the monsoon in a way rice irrigated by rain water alone has no knowledge of. River water in the early months of the floods is gold.1
Examples, however, also abound of other farming communities that perceive silt as being vital to agrarian production, especially in the case of rice cultivation. In the Yangtze delta in China, cultivators have long considered the deposition of a thick layer of "steamed cake silt" (Cheng ping yu) by the rivers as being of utmost importance. British scientist Joseph Needham concluded that it was only through the constant renewal of the soil by silt that the "permanent agriculture" of China was made possible, which involved intensive cropping without recourse to mineral fertilizers.2 It was, in fact, a general practice amongst cultivators in the Yangtze delta to regularly tap seasonal inundations for silt-laden water, and instances have been recorded of embankments being frequently cut to divert muddy flows onto agricultural land.3
In the flood plains of west Punjab (today's Pakistan), alluvial land inundated by sailab (silt) was referred to as hither and extensively cultivated with autumn crops which neither required irrigation nor artificial fertilizers. In the flood plains of the Jhelum River, sudden freshets bearing silt were of regular occurrence and these inundations called kangs were valued by the cultivators for their fertilizing qualities.4 In portions of northern Italy, the term colmata (literally to 'heap up') or colmate di piano referred to the process of depositing silt on low-lying lands for the purpose of fertilizing the latter. This practice, which started as early as the Middle Ages and continued well into the twentieth century, was developed to fairly sophisticated levels. In the case of silt being applied for fertilization, the waters of the rivers were tapped only during a rise in the flood level and not when it was either in full height or when falling. This technique ensured that only the organic and lighter particles that were suspended in the upper crests of the waters were diverted onto the fields. On the other hand, when the lowlands needed to be raised the waters were applied at any stage of the flood.5 During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, in particular, a substantial amount of the lower lands in Tuscany were raised through the technique of colmate di piano.6
In South Asia, however, a decisive turn away from flood-based agriculture and social organization was begun in the nineteenth century with the consolidation of British Colonial rule in the region. At the level of technology, the British transformed some of the largest flood plains from previously being watered by seasonal or inundation canals to becoming sites instead for large-scale perennial irrigation works involving the construction of permanent head-works across river beds with modern barrages and weirs.7 These perennial systems were technologically unparalleled in the subcontinent and the canal networks were made operable through a corpus of social rules, economic practices, rationalities about property and colonial administrative disciplines. These perennial canal schemes, however, were assembled not merely as channels commandeering river flows, but were intended at fundamentally reorienting ecological relations between land, water, and people. That is, the canal schemes represented not merely the commercial and revenue calculations of empire, but were interventions that initiated the profound ecological transformation of once flood dependent agrarian regimes into flood vulnerable landscapes.8
The South Asian subcontinent today lives the reality of these dramatic changes brought about by the region's many colonial hydraulic legacies. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, flood control has often been the immediate and central response of the governments to recurring floods. The long history and the complex collection of practices for flood utilization -- be it in the form of cropping strategies, unique plant varieties and even prudent location strategies -- has all but been forgotten and deleted from the memory of official water management policies. Initially, flood control was sought to be effected through what was often referred to as structural engineering responses, such as large dams and embankments. The belief was that a river's flow could be either stored in huge reservoirs or kept firmly contained within its channel by having the banks walled on both sides. This hubris, however, in recent decades has given way to flood management policies aimed at a much softer set of actions involving tactical retreats from the river bed to some structural engineering efforts aimed at containment.
However, the consequences of sticking to versions of either flood control or flood management was made painfully evident when a massive and unprecedented deluge overwhelmed Pakistan in 2010. In July of that year a "blocking event" occurred, which technically refers to an entire jet stream being halted. In this particular case, it was the blocking event hovering over the western Himalayas that ended up colliding against the then oncoming and heavily laden summer monsoon clouds. The collision led, predictably enough, to an intense precipitation episode. Immense volumes of water hurtled down the Himalayan slopes and rapidly overwhelmed and smashed through every conceivable channel of the Indus system. Such was the intensity that by one estimate, four months worth of rainfall fell in the span of a few days. Parts of northern Pakistan, in fact, even received more than three times their annual rainfall in a matter of 36 hours.9
Following the downpour, the oversaturated channels violently burst their banks and Pakistan's flat flood plains were, in a flash, literally roofed over with enormous sheets of seemingly unending waters. Such has been the severity of the devastation brought on by the "great floods" of 2010 that even estimates of the overall damage continue to escape a credible count. Some rough approximations by various government agencies, international organizations, and relief bodies suggest a stunning picture, to say the least. In one careful survey of the various estimates, it is indicated that 21 million people overall were affected. Close to 1,700 people or more perished and 1.8 million homes were damaged or destroyed. In its wake, the floods also rummaged through 2.3 million hectares of standing crops and brought about a loss of US $5 billion to the agriculture sector and around US $2 billion each to the physical and social infrastructure. These disturbing numbers, nevertheless, do not cover or even indicate the long-term costs for recovery and reconstruction that will be involved in meaningfully rehabilitating both the social and economic infrastructure in the region.10 However, the flood-devastated realities of Pakistan, as Daanish Mustafa and David Wrathall argue in a recent insightful essay, point to a far more striking conclusion: that the floods were aggravated and its impacts made even more ferocious because of vulnerability. Beginning with the dramatic hydraulic transformations in the colonial period, independent Pakistan persevered in creating "a mismatch between the design assumptions of the infrastructure, such as embankments and barrages, and the dynamic reality of the channels' carrying capacity."11 That is, Pakistan's hydraulic and social designs were geared to "ignore the river system's natural rhythms, in return for agricultural productivity and prosperity." Overcoming the potential dangers in such a trade-off for them, therefore, would require a better tactic which was to adapt to the Indus basin's hydro-meteorological regime.
In effect, recovering experiences on flood dependence and flood utilization may become crucial for evolving future responses to freak and irregular climate events. Conceptualizing sustainable development as a form of engagement, not necessarily with a mythological past but as a careful dialogue with environmental histories of the region may be the new way to remember the Ark and Noah's prescience.
1 Sir William Willcocks, Ancient System of Irrigation in Bengal, (Delhi,1984), p.32.
2 Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, vol.4, Part III, (Cambridge, 1971), pp.224-230.
3 Ch'ao-Ting Chi, Key Economic Areas in Chinese History: As Revealed in the Development of Public Works for Water-Control (New York, 1963), pp.15-24.
4 Indu Agnihotri, 'Ecology, Land Use and Colonisation: The Canal Colonies of Punjab', Indian Economics and Social history Review, 33 (1), 1996, pp.42-45.
5 C.H. Hutton, Report on the Utilization of Silt in Italy, (n.p, 1909), pp.3-6.
6 Emilio Sereni, History of the Italian Agricultural Landscape, (Princeton,1997), pp.247-48.
7 Herbert M. Wilson, Irrigation in India, Delhi, 1989 (reprint) pp.78-81; D.G. Harris, Irrigation in India, H. Milford, (London, 1923), pp.5-7.
8 Rohan D'Souza, Drowned and Dammed: colonial capitalism and flood control in eastern India, (New Delhi, 2006).
9 Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, 'Indus floods, 2010: why did the Sindhu break its agreement?' September 1, 2010. See http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/ blogs/southasiamasala/2010/09/01/indus-floods-2010-why-did-the- sindhu-break-its-agreement/
10 Daanish Mustafa, and David Wrathall, 'Indus basin floods of 2010: Souring of a Faustian bargain?' Water Alternatives 4(1), 2011, 72-85.
11 Ibid., p.7.