Should we bet more on historians than engineers to sort flooding?

Need to consider the perspective of the historians who see floods as a naturally occurring event. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Need to consider the perspective of the historians who see floods as a naturally occurring event. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Raging floods swarming great expanses have been a common occurrence in the 21st century in South Asia. The region has seen some of the worst floodings in living memory. The repeated events of flooding in Chennai in 2002, 2005 and 2015, the Mumbai floods of 2005, the Pakistan floods of 2010 and the more recent Kerala floods of 2018 have caused colossal damage to crops, lives and infrastructure. This has exposed the failure of decades of colonial civil engineering measures to control floods.

These events evoke daunting memories of death and destruction in the minds of people for whom it is a lived memory. It also brings concerns and fears about climate change induced floods in near future.

Flood control structures as well as the centralised management paradigm have wreaked havoc on the livelihood security and ecology of the complex flood plains. People trapped between the embankments belonging to the most marginalised sections of society have been reduced to flood refugees.

Some flooding events in India due to the sheer size and scale as well as the massive numbers of people affected have risen above the ranks of a disaster and have been permanently etched in the country’s vibrant history. The Kedarnath flood of 2013 is one such disaster.

Some other floods have been a routine yearly affair, thus earning the flooding rivers the dubious tag of being a source of sorrow. The river Kosi has been labelled as the ‘Sorrow of Bihar’ and the river Damodar the ‘Sorrow of Bengal’. Damodar was later ‘tamed’ by the construction of dams.

Tackling the ‘problem’

In recent years, there has been an increasing incidence of floods in the country. Policymakers and political representatives have difficulty seeing the drivers and lack a clear and shared sense of the ‘problem’. Professor Rohan D’Souza of Kyoto University, Japan threw light on these issues while speaking on the topic, ‘Should we bet more on historians and depend less on engineers to sort out India’s challenges with flooding?’. He was speaking at the #PlanetTalks series organised by Impact and Policy Research Institute, India Water Portal and TERI School of Advanced Studies.

D’Souza looked at whether we should continue depending on the engineers and the colonial agenda of hydraulic control to solve the ‘problem’ of flooding or consider the perspective of the historians who see floods as a ‘naturally occurring event’.

The session began with Dr Simi Mehta painting a very vivid picture of floods and how they have been a negative force that disrupted the life and habitat of people who encroached onto the floodplains. She also highlighted the positive force that floods have been in the natural environment where they have been instrumental in creating habitats, in the growth of civilizations and agriculture.

Differing approaches of engineers and historians

D’Souza opened his lecture by defining engineers and historians to drive home a clear understanding of their diverse approaches towards floods. From the way eminent scholars of the past defined an engineer and a historian, D’Souza said that “Engineers are problem solvers for whom science is a tool that puts nature to work, but they cannot always choose the problem which they need to solve.  Whereas, historians are problem constitutors who can tell us what is valid and suggest a credible problem to focus on.”

He pointed out that for an engineer, a flood is always conceptualized as an event, a disaster, and this leads to an engineering approach on the line of flood control using dams or flood management using embankments. To achieve this control, engineers rely on predictions based on several formulae and mathematical derivations.

To draw a comparison of the historian’s approach against the engineering approach, D’Souza pointed to several books on rivers and floods written by eminent historians who try to delve deep into the understanding of rivers and floods. Historians, according to him, view floods as a natural fluvial process and look towards flood utilization the way it had been done historically like tapping riverine silt and mud for cultivation and by exploiting fish habitats.

Historians call for the development of strategies for adaptation and not models of predication to control and manage floods like the engineers aim to do, he adds. While pitting the engineers against the historians, D’Souza goes the extra mile to make a special mention about engineers like A K Roy, Dr Dinesh Mishra and Prof Jayanta Bandhipadhyay who used history to focus on the alternative view of floods, thus departing from the generic belief of engineers. The views of these pioneering engineers echo those of the historians who believe that the history of our subcontinent indicates flood utilization and not flood control.

“The debate around flood utilization versus flood control has now reached its zenith now that we are living in the times of Anthropocene floods,” says D’Souza.

The recurring floods bear out the fact that there has been a decimation in the ability of engineers to predict these events, leading to a loss of control. To drive home this point, he cites examples of the recent floods in the subcontinent caused by rainfall and river flows that exceeded the predicted quantities. 

To tackle these events of the Anthropocene world of less control, D’Souza postulates a path that embraces complexity, decentres the engineer and brings in the historian’s perspective to engineering.

“The problem constituting abilities of the historian should be utilized to identify the most credible problems that can be solved by the engineers. Historians are equipped to develop plural methodologies that take into consideration various facets like locality, specificity, contingency, chance, surprise and uncertainty. This will help tackle the problem of poor predictability and increased uncertainty of contemporary times,” he says.

Taking up the questions posed during the session, D’Souza shares his concern on how history and other social sciences are being marginalized over the years. He states that the social sciences are an important part of the whole problem constituting exercise and possess the ability to look at various historical aspects of a problem. Hence social scientists must be given a greater role in the problem structuring and constituting space where they will be able to identify the most credible problem, which the engineers can then focus on solving.

In conclusion, D’Souza emphasizes on convergence between the engineering and social science approaches. Social sciences should be an integral part of policy formulation. He closes with the statement that, “Engineers in India must learn ethics, philosophy and have a range of social science engagements so they learn how to construct problems correctly and helpfully.”  


Prof Rohan D’Souza is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies (Kyoto University). He is the author of ‘Drowned and Dammed: Colonial Capitalism and Flood Control in Eastern India’ (2006) and the jointly edited work with Deepak Kumar and Vinita Damodaran ‘The British Empire and the Natural World: Environmental Encounters in South Asia’ (2011). His research interests and publications cover themes in environmental history, political ecology, sustainable development and modern technology. 

Acknowledgements: Nikhil Jacob, based in Goa, is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and is pursuing a Post-graduate Diploma in Environmental Law and Policy from the National Law University, Delhi.

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