Liquid Geographies, Uneven Worlds: How Do We Talk About Placing Water?

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This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars in environmental history who identify as women, trans and non binary people.

Tears. Sweat. A rain-drop. A ripple in the stream. A wave on the ocean. Tap water.

As I sit in my home in Serampore, India, flanked by the river Hugli and waiting for the already delayed Monsoons to arrive and bring with it some relief in what has been a record-breaking and extraordinarily hot summer in India, I recognize that writing about water in place-based research is a self-defeating endeavour. To that end, I begin with a few questions: What makes it difficult to write about water in place-based research? What does it mean to think about water through its absence (for instance, in case of a drought) or through an excess (think, floods)? I believe that a part of the problem in writing about water stems from the scale, in which we are thinking about its various forms: physical, material, natural, catastrophic.

The problem intensifies as water is essentially a trickster element; malleable and porous that constantly creates an illusion of flow and fluidity, an oft-used metaphor which, although generative in challenging the Eurocentrism of water and place, is inadequate in capturing the contemporary realities of water crisis and conflict in the Global South. Perhaps an example would help in clarifying the point that I am trying to make. I encountered this map of the river Hugli, drawn by the river pilot Malcolm H. Beattie, while working on my M.Phil thesis, where I attempted to understand how the river served as an instrument of imperial governance in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries in colonial Bengal in India.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Map-1.png
Map of the River Hugli in Kolkata, India; by Malcolm H. Beattie,
On the Hooghly (Great Britain: Mackays Limited, 1935).

The primary importance of this map lies in the fact that there are not too many maps that exist that were drawn by navigators themselves of the river Hugli, serving as a guide in the easy navigation of the river which was known for its hazardous channels that were difficult to pass. Although the map is representative of the river in the late nineteenth century, it is unfinished. Because a map, by virtue of its nature of representational politics, captures a place at a specific moment of time. It is not reflective of the changes (material, physical, political in the sense of divisions, bifurcations or naming) that occur to the place. Hence, map-making as a form of spatial practice is constantly evolving just as the place is always emerging. In this way, while the map is structured around fixities, it carries the imprint of the unrepresented. One needs to adopt a cautionary stance here because I am in no way suggesting that the place of the river is palimpsestic in nature. This is because palimpsestic layering refers to the history of a place and not the contemporary nature of a place. Therefore, a more viable approach to this riverine space is to consider it as open-ended, methektic where the riverscape is narrated, experienced, and not described or seen, the river is mobile and not static. Thirdly, I believe that the fluidity of the river challenges the classical Western map (with its pre-occupation of surfaces) not only by disorienting the coherence and stability of the map, but also its refusal to be pinned down by any specificity, because of the waves and its constant motion.

However, having emphasized the importance in considering that the metaphor of the fluid or the flow is inadequate because it carries with it an impression of abundance or excess, it still has its limitations. For one, it is not reflective of the declining ground water levels in many parts of South Asia—e.g. resulting in reported cases of riot breaking out in this region.[1] Besides, if one takes into account the image of the migrant boat on the Mediterranean, it might conjure up the image of the “flow of the refugees” into Europe, but in fact, as Amitav Ghosh puts it in his latest novel The Gun Island in relation to the migrant boat, “[…] it has become a symbol of everything that’s going wrong with the world–inequality, climate change, capitalism, corruption, the arms trade, the oil industry.[2] Furthermore, considering that current geopolitics and manufactured borders between and among nations have made it imperative for countries to share water resources (especially if two countries have a river running between and through them), it is likely that the metaphor of the fluid might be co-opted to justify unequal distribution of water resources. Thus, what I am gesturing towards is how the metaphor of the flow is ultimately paradoxical because it points to an uneven world that hangs precariously between scarcity and abundance.

The second problem in writing about water is that of identification: What constitutes the “place” in research on water? It could very well be the waves, the ecological niche, the sediment deposited at the bottom of the rivers, the infrastructural mesh of hydraulic pumps and pipes that supply the water to your home, or the littoral communities from Sunderbans to Miami who are vulnerable to sea-level rise. I think that a more productive approach would be to approach the “place” in water as a complex and dynamic conglomeration of elements that are simultaneously constitutive of particles of water and an ecosystem that gives form to this place. Having a perspective about the varied nature of interactions makes it possible to conceive of the “place” and it also enables us to rethink how we use language that places the personal and the affective at the heart of watery reflections. This too acts as a key method of decolonial politics that counters the instrumentalism which guides the current formulation of the UN Declaration of the Human Right to Water. There is an urgent need for a framework in hydro-criticism and water-histories, where we simply do not write about water but think with water, allowing the metaphors, verbs, and phrases that generate from water to shape our understanding of the inequalities perpetuated through water. Because at the end of the day, a just world is what we strive for as scholars and individuals and, therefore, it requires us to be alert in how we use language pertaining to water.[3]

To watery reflections and just worlds…

[1] See also “Water Riots begin in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand,” India Today (accessed on June, 16 2019).
[2] See Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019), 199.
[3] The field of literary studies has seen some amount of work that places thinking with water at the heart of the project on water. See e.g. Thinking With Water, edited by Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis (Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).

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Sritama Chatterjee

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