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Engineering Edens on This 'Rivered Earth'? A Review Article on Water Management and Hydro-Resilience in the British Empire, 1860-1940s

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This article presents an overview of the management of fresh water in the British Empire from the 1860s to the 1940s. We argue that imperial water management shaped and responded to the imperatives of diverse ecologies and topographies, contrasting political and economic agendas and, not least, different colonial societies, technologies and lay expertise. Building on existing studies, we consider the broader ecological and social effects of water management on irrigated agriculture and cities as well as water supply and drainage, with a particular focus on India and Australasia. Although imperial ideologies of improvement impelled settlement, drove resource extraction and transformed environments, we argue that at times they also diminished the availability, quality and distribution of water. Engineering projects also benefited some groups but not others. We show that normative Anglo assumptions of productive lands and watered environments were often ill-matched with colonial ecologies and water availability, in some cases prompting anxieties about the quality and quantity of water. While these anxieties encouraged further hydrological interventions, we show that they often had unexpected and undesired consequences. We introduce the concept of ‘hydro-resilience’ to demonstrate how interventions in water management diminished the quality and quantity of water in ways that impacted unevenly on peoples and ecologies across the British Empire.

Keywords: British Empire; Water management; canal irrigation; environmental history; flood control; flooding; health; miasma; urban environmental history; water

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2017

More about this publication?
  • Environment and History is an interdisciplinary journal which aims to bring scholars in the humanities and biological sciences closer together, with the deliberate intention of constructing long and well-founded perspectives on present day environmental problems.

    Environment and History has a Journal Impact Factor (2021) of 0.925. 5 Year Impact Factor: 0.902.
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