What Have I Learned About Water

Floods are not acts of God.

Ajaya Dixit, a friend, colleague, and mentor approached me the other day to ask me to write a short piece reflecting upon the journey we’ve had as South Asian water researchers. It turned out to be a harder enterprise than I had imagined. There are so many places I have been to intellectually, with water. My journey started with thinking of dams, levees, and irrigation canals as paragons of development and prosperity. I seemed to have a lot of company in that childhood fascination with the awesome visual of Mangla turbine jets, or the water roaring through Rasool Barrage’s gates. Seemed to me, the power of water thus enhanced could be a source of prosperity and development for a poor country. This simplistic narrative didn’t survive much beyond my 3rd-year basic physical geography training. I seemed to have lots of adult intellectual companions as a child. But soon into my young adulthood, I seemed to have launched myself into lonely desolation, when it came to thinking about water. This essay is about that journey from feeling alone, to finding a tribe of fellow travelers to going beyond water justice and ecology to affect and poetics of water.

Sukkur Barrage @Daanish Mustafa

My first dive into water research was through the lens of water as a hazard, specifically flood hazard. Just researching floods in Central Punjab brought together so many strands of politics, culture, infrastructure, developmental visions, hydrology, and geomorphology to paint a variegated picture. The picture was so rich in its startling detail, that it was impossible to unsee the colors. It wasn’t that floods were acts of God. Even the supposedly illiterate farmers and housewives in urban Pakistan knew that. Only the engineers didn’t. Those with less power understood that rivers are alive and have their rhythms. The point was to respect them, not get in their way, and learn to live with and through those rhythms. The floods and the damages they caused emerged more from engineering and capitalist hubris than any natural process. Those who suffered the most also had the least choice in where they lived and how regulated river systems, like Pakistan’s, worked.

The most important insight for me was that we didn’t live in landscapes but rather in hazarsdcapes. In a landscape, the ones with the gaze of power perched themselves, analytically or physically on higher ground to aesthetically behold the panoramic vistas. But those visas were also living spaces of men women and children, who engaged in often back-breaking labour to make a living. As an old man in Matiltan, Swat Kohistan once said to me:

‘Why would anyone come here? What is there to see? Just these mountains, stones, and water.’

What to me was divine alpine scenery was his workplace, and he didn’t quite share my longing and perspective on his living space. Equally in Rawalpindi/Islamabad the Rawalpindi Development Authority, the CDA, and the federal flood commission had a perspectival vision of their engineering drawings and satellite images of the Lai basin. But for the poor, particularly the women living on its banks, it was not a recalcitrant stream. It was a place where their children bathed; where they got their domestic water—a place where they could have a better life if only the state took care of solid and liquid waste and didn’t allow land mafia’s to encroach upon its banks.  Where the engineers only saw floods to be fixed with engineering interventions, people experienced multi-layered vulnerabilities and hazards. Their solutions too were multi-faceted, like the problem. The hazardscape approach that recognizes the tension between the technocratic and lived experience of hazards, to my mind, could go a long way towards making visible the infrastructure of power that distributes risk to different people to the advantage of the powerful.

The 2010 floods in Pakistan were an affirmation of my long-held view that river engineering really is about exchanging high-frequency, low-intensity events for low-frequency high-intensity events. In Pakistan, like many other regulated river basins, they have practically engineered away low and medium floods out of existence. In return, they’ve managed to make medium floods into high floods and high floods into not just disastrous, but catastrophic floods.

The political economy of water management, which privileges irrigation and power generation over-improved water supply and sanitation; flood control over adjusting to floods; mega-surface storage projects over groundwater storage and wetland restoration; reflects a masculinist view of the world. The concern with the integrity of fresh streams, the aquatic life, and human health that they sustain are primitive at worst and romantic at best, to the masculinist heroic thinking. I used to be a little on the defensive when accused of being a romantic. But more recently I have concluded that the only thing that gives meaning and joy to our lives is romance—why is it pejorative or impractical? Why not the romance of water? Is it because it is feminine? Or primitive?  If emotions and feelings make us human, to not have those for the basis of life—water, sounds like a call to be not human.

So, from investigating the realm of the political economy of water and its spatially uneven patterns of access and vulnerability to its hazards, I find myself in the even more ephemeral and affective world of emotions and structures of feeling around water. Two important things happened for my thinking to take the affective turn—one was my research on Karez irrigation in Balochistan and Azerbaijan and the other…we will get to that in a minute. I have to say that I fell in love with these beautiful structures and even more so with the social arrangements and ecologies these water aqueducts spawned. And after many years of writing and advocating for Karez preservation, I held conversations with my friend James Caron, who introduced me to the idea of eco-poetics. A penny dropped. All the poetry and music I had always felt around karezes, streams, rivers, and springs, was not some early onset of dementia, but was something that was felt and articulated by many! I was not insane, and it was not stupid to know water in a poetic register—intellectual life was not going to be the same again.


A qanat is an open channel below ground that carries water over a long distance. A series of vertical shafts tap water in the ground and feed the flow. The shafts are created for ventilation when the underground channel is dug. Qanats originated in Armenia around 1000 BCE but have also been found in western China, northern Balochistan, Central Asia, and West Asia. Some were built two thousand years ago.  A karez brings water to an oasis in the desert. A karez is usually 3 to 5 km long, but the longest is 10 km. At the bottom of the tunnel a channel about 80 cm wide and 30 cm deep, supplies water. Snowmelt and groundwater seep into and collect in each shaft and then collect in the channel. Even today, in some villages karez are the main sources of irrigation and drinking water.

Source: Dixit. A. Basic Water Science

The second thing that happened during COVID lockdown was that I started taking lessons in classical music. And my God—suddenly the notes in everything, from the crass heavy metal of traffic on Murree Road to flicking of the humming birds’ wings showing up in the clean lockdown air, became perceptible and even audible to me. Who says that that’s not a legitimate register for knowing water—or life? Why does scholarship and intellectual contemplation have to be dry and unromantic?

I have reached a point where the fullness of human experience and emotions must engage with the human and the non-human world. It’s not like we have a choice to not have emotions. We have a choice, however, to be honest, and open about them. Hence a different journey begins, and its rallying cry might be—with due apologies to Shakespeare—if music of life be water, flow on….

This piece has also been published in Naya Daur Pakistan.

Dr. Hassan Abbas

Low level of Tarbela Lake

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