New Book – Droughts, Floods, and Global Climatic Anomalies in the Indian Ocean World

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Philip Gooding, ed. Droughts, Floods, and Global Climatic Anomalies in the Indian Ocean World. Cham, CH: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.

Indian Ocean World Studies and Indian Ocean World history are rapidly growing scholarly fields. The reasons for this are several. The resurgence of world history since c.2000, the rise of global history and transnational history, and the need to challenge Eurocentric spatial paradigms such as nation states and area studies, are just a few. But the point at which the idea that the regions surrounding the Indian Ocean represented a distinct “world” took hold among historians was in the mid-1980s, principally with the publication of K.N. Chaudhuri’s Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean.1

For Chaudhuri, as well as many of those who have been inspired by his work, the world around Indian Ocean is bound – in some ways united – by the Indian Ocean monsoon system. This is a complex climatic system of winds, currents, and rains. During the northern hemisphere summer, the Asian landmass heats up, causing air to rise, and for wet air to blow northwards from the Indian Ocean over southern Asia. This is the southwestern monsoon. Meanwhile, during the northern hemisphere winter, the Asian landmass cools and expels dry air over the ocean. This is the northeastern monsoon. In theory, then, the Indian Ocean World, which includes eastern Africa, the Middle East, and southern, eastern, and southeastern Asia, is bound by an annual back-and-forth cycle of changing winds and seasons.

My edited volume, Droughts, Floods, and Global Climatic Anomalies in the Indian Ocean World, seeks to complicate how understandings of the Indian Ocean monsoon system are integrated into history. Chaudhuri and his contemporaries mostly (though not exclusively) focused on the ways in which the Indian Ocean monsoon system facilitated the creation of physical lines of connection across the ocean, firstly through trade, and then through culture. The annual change in direction of winds enabled an annual back-and-forth of travel between different coastal zones by sail. For example, traders on the eastern African coast could use the southwestern monsoon to travel by sail to the Arabian Peninsula, and then use the northeastern monsoon for the return journey later in the year. This early work showed that trade and cultures moved with the monsoon winds.

By contrast, my edited volume focuses on another aspect of the Indian Ocean monsoon system: rainfall, or more precisely, anomalous levels of rainfall, which contribute to droughts or floods. When focusing on this aspect, the idea of an annual back-and-forth cycle becomes unsatisfactory. In normal years, the Indian Ocean monsoon system brings seasonal rainfall across the Indian Ocean World. But sometimes the rains fail, or they are overly abundant. This occurs when the Indian Ocean monsoon system is disrupted, often by one or more global climatic anomalies. These include the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), and migrations of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), as well as those triggered by volcanic eruptions, sunspot activity, and global cooling/warming. Focusing on rainfall, therefore, examines the Indian Ocean monsoon system as a changeable variable at the core of our understanding of the Indian Ocean World.

The volume itself is rooted in climate history, an emerging sub-field of environmental history. Integrating climate reconstructions and climatic models to interpret history makes it highly interdisciplinary. In all the 10 substantive chapters, the authors sought to understand the climatic underpinnings of the droughts and floods under review, often drawing and building on the works of historical climatologists. They then examined the wider picture of the global climatic anomaly they identified, showing how it affected climate across the Indian Ocean World. Once this broader climatic context was established, they then examined the effects of droughts and floods on their regional and time-limited case study. Authors showed how the impact of global climatic anomalies affected subsistence, epidemics, economies, political stability, science, infrastructure, and more in different societies across the Indian Ocean World.

The chapters themselves cover a range of regions and time-periods. They include (but are not limited to) a chapter on the effects of twelfth-century cooling around eastern Asia on regularity of floods and the economy during China’s Southern Song dynasty (Chap. 2); the effects of an extreme seventeenth-century El Niño on subsistence, disease, and warfare on the fringes of present-day India’s Mughal Empire (Chap. 4); the effects of El Niño on vulnerability to typhoons and disaster relief in the mid-nineteenth-century Philippines (Chap. 7); the effects of El Niño-related droughts on social stability and colonial science in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Singapore (Chap. 8); and the effects of the 1883 eruption of the Krakatau volcano on atmospheric circulation and rainfall on equatorial eastern Africa, which contributed to widespread famine (Chap. 10). Overall, they show the centrality of climatic fluctuations to our understandings of the Indian Ocean World over the longue durée.

The findings, moreover, have several implications for the present and future. Many of the climatic anomalies analysed are projected to become more extreme and frequent because of global warming. Thus, the behaviour of the Indian Ocean monsoon system is likely to become more erratic moving forwards. Additionally, the Indian Ocean World contains five of the ten countries in the world most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.2 This assessment is partly measured through the effectiveness of mitigation strategies, population density, and the physical environment, among other things, but it also has a lot to do with how the Indian Ocean monsoon system will be affected by global warming. By showing the often-devastating effects of global climatic anomalies on past states and societies in the Indian Ocean World, Drought, Floods, and Global Climatic Anomalies… demonstrates the need for rapid and robust strategies to limit their effects as they become stronger and more frequent in the present and future.


1. K.N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: An economic history from the rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)

2. Sönke Kreft, David Eckstein, and Inga Melchoir, Global Climate Risk Index 2017: Who suffers most from extreme weather events? Weather-related loss events in 2015 and 1996 to 2015 (Bonn: Germanwatch, 2016).

Feature image: Wilted maize in a Drought. Ben Rodford, CC BY 3.0

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