This panel focuses on water, the resource most central to life on Earth. Presenters will analyze how modern states sought to manage water resources for purposes of human consumption, agriculture, settlement, and public health. The discussion will center around the tensions between human attempts to manage and control aquatic ecosystems and the complexities and flux of these wet environments.
Shoring up Sovereignty: The Influence of Embankments and the Environment on East India Company Rule
Flat, wet, and unstable were the key geographic features of the Bengal Presidency in colonial India. Once-navigable rivers shriveled to sandy shallows and acres of alluvial soil washed away, keeping the landscape in a state of unmappable flux. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the East India Company (EIC) strove to legitimize their sovereign rule by attempting to eliminate the instability of the riverine environment in the name of protecting and improving the agriculture and agriculturalists of the region. They chose embankments, large-scale earthworks, as their chief method of control. Under the direction of EIC employees, thousands of laborers threw up hundreds of miles of embankments along rivers, streams, and canals hoping to retain or exclude monsoon inundations and saltwater storm surges from cultivatable fields. Embankments embodied the sovereign duties of protection and improvement. The imagined link between embankments and sovereignty grew stronger over the decades and by the 1840s zemindar landholders were petitioning the EIC to maintain embankments by enjoining them to do their duty to their subjects. In reading the cycle of repair and abandonment of embankments as a discourse on sovereignty, two themes emerge. The first is the legitimization of sovereign rule through technological achievement. As the EIC grew more confident they took control of more embankments. By Regulation 32 of 1855, a private embankment could become public responsibility if the superintending engineer felt the zemindar was not maintaining the earthwork in a proper, scientific fashion. The second theme is that a Utilitarian sovereign cannot afford to externalize the environment when calculating the ‘public good’. During the 1840s, the EIC abandoned embankments whose ‘public expenditure’ outweighed their ‘public utility’, until a series of saltwater floods broke through the remaining earthworks and devastated entire districts. Through embankments, both technology and the environment influenced the discourse of colonial sovereignty.
Crossing Boundaries: Institutional Flexibility and Local Capacity in Water Quality Research on the Great Lakes, 1906-1941
This paper describes the creation of the first transboundary institutions for management of water quality on the Great Lakes: the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and the first pollution references to the International Joint Commission (IJC). The need for transboundary management of environmental problems drove Canadian and British officials to find new ways for Canada to engage directly with the United States. The first IJC references prompted an unprecedented study of inshore water supplies on the Great Lakes by a team of Canadian and American researchers. Their findings, presented at a time when the germ theory of disease was becoming more widely accepted, drove substantial changes in municipal infrastructure on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in the form of chlorination of drinking water supplies and the installation of sewage treatment plants. This paper is part of a larger project that examines how US-Canadian water management policies on the lower Great Lakes over the course of the twentieth century, with particular attention to how local residents were involved in the international relationship.
From Nature to Disease in Ottoman Iraq: Floods, Marshes, and Infrastructure during the Nineteenth Century
Histories of medicine and the environment complement each other particularly well when studying the environmental origins of diseases. This is an insight that has informed a number of recent works on the environmental history of the Ottoman Empire. This paper draws on such literature to highlight Ottoman efforts to deal with frequent outbreaks of plague and cholera in the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad and Basra during the nineteenth century. It demonstrates how Ottoman infrastructure projects, such as the repairing of dams and draining of marshes, were part of the Ottoman government’s effort to create sanitary environments to prevent frequent outbreaks of disease in these provinces. Moreover, by tracing this development to the 1840s, this paper questions the applicability of the contagionist-infectionist dichotomy as a framework for understanding Ottoman conceptions of disease during the nineteenth century. According to this interpretation, not until the 1890s did the Ottoman government abandon contagionism (which generally argues for the usefulness of quarantines to prevent the transference of diseases between people) in favor of infectionism (which generally argues for the environmental origins of diseases through infections). Nevertheless, evidence from Ottoman and European archival sources suggests a more nuanced interpretation, one in which the Ottoman government applied both approaches simultaneously when dealing with outbreaks of disease in Ottoman Iraq during the nineteenth century. Thus, while the Ottomans maintained quarantines in the region, they also made efforts to create sanitary environments through infrastructure projects, a fact which highlights the importance of understanding the ad hoc nature of Ottoman sanitary policy at the local level and emphasizing the importance of environmental factors specific to particular regions of the Ottoman Empire – in this case the floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
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Image credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum
Image credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum