Concept Note

Histories and Society in the Hydrosphere
April 28-April 30, 2023

The life of communities, historical and contemporary, is penetrated and encompassed by the hydrosphere. Land-centered visions of life persist even though 70% of the planet is water and holds 90% of biotic life. Moreover, land is more dependent on water than the other way. Oceans shape land forms not only through tectonic and volcanic activity but also, as do rivers, with currents, erosions, sedimentation and the building of rocks with deposits and waves. Insolation of the hydrosphere together with the atmosphere generate and distribute heat and energy that enables life. We look at water in its various forms and states beyond the liquid – as vapor, snow, and ice.  Water envelops, soaks, seeps, swamps, stores, floods and drains. We will also see its prevalent role within individual human and social bodies as the source of sustenance, power, and meaning —enabling and destructive of life. We will explore histories and contemporary society in the hydrosphere; i.e. from the view of how water conditions social activities, and how in turn, these activities alter, consciously or not, hydrologic processes.

In the Humanities and the Social Sciences of the 20th century, hydrological processes are mostly taken for granted, and they have tended to relegate its study largely to the specialized sciences.  However, from the beginnings of history– in ancient water cosmologies, natural philosophies that reduce all substances to water, mythic mixing and separation of salt and fresh waters, flood myths, sea dragons, rain maidens, and so much more– humans have paid particular attention to water as it shaped human life and community.

The onset of volatile climate change in recent years is likely to have contributed to the explosion in the study of water in these humanistic disciplines during the last decade.  While the hydrological cycle had been changing slowly enough to enable human ecological adaptation, which in turn enabled humans to record and recognize themselves as societies and civilizations, at least in some places and times, these out-of-cycle climactic events are beginning to disrupt that self-understanding. Certainly, paleo-climatologists working with historians have shown how these wild cards or ‘jokers’ have wiped out civilizations just as much as they have brought them – and in particular, the state—into being. Accounts of water-related collapse may be more alluring than creation stories this time around, when the threats are envisioned as planetary. Water history operates for the most part in between such accounts of creation and collapse, in regions and on timescales where different human groups and associated creatures gain the water access and control necessary to thrive.

We focus our view of water as having an interdependent force and agency on the planet with which humans interact in different ways. Over time, water and humans act and react upon each other in an “ongoing spiral of challenge-response-challenge, where neither nature nor humanity ever achieves absolute sovereign authority, but both continue to make and remake each other” [1] differently in space and time. Today, with great disturbances in the hydrosphere, the principal threat to populations are thought by many to emerge from the tumults and turbulence of the ocean.  In this project we will consider when and where the hydrocycle and the local hydrosocial process are deemed to be well matched and where and how water determines its own course of action.

Modern societies have often thought of water as a natural resource to be measured, controlled, regulated and extracted for purposes of growth and expansion.  For much of the twentieth century, research on water resources focused on increasing water use efficiency in physical, economic, and administrative terms.  Water institutions, equity, ethics, and politics were important but smaller fields, though in some regions water became a specialized subfield of legal research.  Water historians are likewise few in number but influential in the field.

Emerging Views.  The focus and language of water research is shifting in the 21st century.  The modern ideal of mastery over nature that seeks to utilize and commodify the many dimensions of water has produced mixed results and can often be destructive of planetary life forms. It is surprised by hydrologic “anomalies,” “extreme events,” and “hazards,” and strives for escalating levels of natural and social control. Critiques of water as a resource have taken a range of historical and philosophical approaches.  A related shift is occurring from institutions and policy to politics and governance. What Jamie Linton has described as ‘modern water’ is a scientific way of knowing and representing water, H2O, apart from its social context.[2]  Jeremy Schmidt argues for stronger historicizing of such critiques in Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity.[3]

Cosmologically, some non-modern societies had a more holistic understanding and, often, religious respect for water in its various aspects, even while they sought to practically manage flows and energy for various purposes. The pre-modern paradigm was more concerned with how waters were different and particular, rather than as a universal resource object. At the same time, historians of ancient, medieval, and pre-colonial water regimes have cautioned against romanticizing such views, citing instances of social oppression and environmental instability, for example, in medieval southern India.[4]  Although the binary we have posited is over-simplified, it gives us a handle to grasp how various local hydrosocial processes combine these paradigms in their activities.

A related set of movements challenge modern water constructs that objectify water bodies, e.g., rivers, lakes, oceans, and assumptions about their boundaries and boundedness.  Sometimes associated with ontological arguments about the pervasiveness of water in beings and being, some argue for a philosophy of wetness present in varying amounts in all domains of atmosphere, soils, and life itself.[5]  These ideas resonate with, could engage more with, but attempt to go far beyond, scientific models of the Soil-Plant-Atmosphere Continuum (SPAC).  At a global level, they view the hydrosphere as pervading all other spheres.  Locally and regionally, they argue for ways of living-with-water or living-in-water that go beyond current progressive proposals of “making room for the river”, “sponge city,” and “nature-based solutions.”  In a related vein, several lines of feminist research have offered arguments about relationships between water and the feminine, in addition to contributing critiques of oppression and domination through water. [6]

The authors in this volume are principally experts in the study of Asian societies and waters—particularly ‘Monsoon Asia’, but while their empirical work is centered on East, SE and South Asia, they reference a global context and we believe that their findings will be relevant to understanding histories and contemporary society ‘in the hydrosphere’ in many other parts of the world.   They disclose how the hydrosphere is a key agent in the construction of political and economic power, uneven global relations, social structures and even intimate relationships.

Outline of Conference. Our project seeks an aqueous perspective on history and how the drivers in contemporary society have led to changes and effected adaptations to the hydrosphere.  By convening multiple writing workshops and working with the groups of essays listed below, authors seek to speak with one another to address the overarching argument of each section and of the volume as a whole. 

With these initial thoughts in mind, we begin our study of the hydrosphere with Part I,  “Ocean” because humanistic studies have explored its relation to terrestrial histories and societies largely as a means of transport and connection, and not as a primary condition of life – human and non-human. Monsoons, cyclones and storms and drought– all tied to changing understanding of global ocean-atmospheric conditions—catch our attention because of rapidly changing climactic conditions that de-stabilize their status as background conditions.  This awareness has grown in part from new knowledge of the “vertical” from early balloon and radiosonde to satellite climatology and robotic bathymetry (Amrith) Just as important are the ways in which the changing temporalities of ocean currents complicate capitalist fishing enterprises (Hee); or the changing states of ice and snow that transform the Arctic into a land-like resource and territory (Steinberg).  Increasing concerns about consequent sea level rise and coastal storm hazards call for new historical investigation of human experience with, and in some cases effective adaptation to, with typhoon events (Alejandrino).

Part II turns to the convergence of oceanic and atmospheric waters on land to considers how inland waters – from the continuous flux of soil-plant-atmosphere continua to resultant flows through rivers, reservoirs, wetlands, among others—have interacted with human communities seeking to utilize them for productive, political, military and social purposes.  The organization of water use, as is well-known, involves the creation of institutions and beliefs and behavior, both at the level of the state and community. Political power, as we see in this volume, is often closely associated with the control of water for sustenance and energy, while communities beyond or remote from centralized control often develop communal and ritual means to organize water use.  This large part of the volume has three sub-sections:  A.        The Agency of Water and Human Responses, B. Managing the Basin and  C. Water, Cosmology and Power.

Part III is called “Embodied” water histories. These papers explore human bodily waters in their physiological, immediate, health, intimate and yet increasingly financialized drinking water services – all but the latter shared with all organisms on the planet.  This section briefly reviews the early affinities and later divergence and attempts at convergence between medical and scientific hydrology at the turn of the last century, and the need to rediscover largely subconscious or semi-conscious aspects of human water experience (Wescoat).  In addition to focusing on human thirst and fluid flows within the body, these papers explore atmospheric humidity and dehumidifying air conditioning as expanding spatial extensions of the body with transformative effects on social experience and urban public space (Courtney).  Emerging bottled water markets in Asia connect human perception, taste, and taboo with larger hydrologic cycles in the island nation of Singapore and beyond (Kaplan).  Along with new water markets, there is increasing awareness of enduring indigenous views of human bodies as belonging to larger communal sacred spaces where watersheds encompass all aspects of life and belong to the larger bodies of earth and cosmos (Coggins).  This progression cycles back to and further deepens our understanding of the “oceanic” in human experience.



Societies & Histories in the Hydrosphere 

Part I: “Oceanic” water histories

  • Sunil Amrith, The Conquest of Vertical Space
    • Phil Steinberg, Ice in the Hydrosphere Nadine Heé,
    • Nadine Heé, Oceanic Temporalities and Terraqueous Work
    • Clark Alejandrino, Typhoons: Between Historical Time and Historiographical Time

Part II: Coastal and Terrestrial Waters: Because of the multifold dimensions of terrestrial and coastal waters, we divide this part into 3 subsections.

  1. The Agency of Water and Human Responses  In this sub-section we view how rainfall, inundation, glacial melt, river sedimentation, dam-building and subsidence continuously create its own environment and how humans respond, adaptively and creatively.
  • Ruth Mostern, Political Economy, Climate, and Erosion Discourse on the Loess Plateau
  • Yan Gao, Making Land Livable: Water Regime and Ecological Strategies in Late Imperial Central China
  • Jerome Whitington, Water as a moral relation: riparian solidarity and sustainable hydropower along Laos’s highland rivers or


  1. Managing the Basin: This sub-section evaluates the impact of modern engineering and regulatory designs on the waters. These papers explore the impact of modern canal and dam building–both small-scale and gigantic dams– upon different communities and ecologies and emphasize emerging human efforts to save the river.
  • G Mathias Kondolf, Developing ‘whole basin’ measures to address Mekong delta subsidence
  • Arunabh Ghosh, Small hydropower and region formation in Jinhua County, Zhejiang
  • Ling Zhang, To Reunite a Fragmented River: The Experiment of Trans-Basin Ecological Compensation in East China


  1. Water, Cosmology and Power: The papers in the final sub-section explore water in cosmological conceptions of communities, large and small. How did the physiographic conditions of water access guide attitudes towards water and in turn shape social and power relations? To what extent did modern ideas of hydraulic engineering or rational choice reshape the behavior of these communities?
  • David Gilmartin, Sovereignty, the Hydrosphere, and the Modern Cosmopolis
  • Chandana Anusha Haunting and Imminent Rivers
  • Rohan D’Souza, Fins in the inland Ocean: How modern rivers discovered their pulse in British India


Part II “Embodied” water histories

  • Jim Wescoat, Body Fluid Circulation: From Medical Hydrology to Gandhian Hydrotherapies
  • Chris Courtney, An Embodied History of Humidity in Wuhan, 1950-2020
  • Martha Kaplan, Trust in science, trust in nature: Drinking water’s meanings (conscious and unconscious) in Singapore and the US
  • Chris Coggins, Village Sacred Forests as Hydrological and Carbon Resource Commons: Spectral Flows and Life Currents in Monsoon Asia and Beyond


Epilogue: Finally, although the papers are principally about the hydrosphere as it effects communities in Asia, yet by exploring how these societies make and re-make themselves in the hydrosphere well into the present, we hope to show how they have circulated in transnational historical processes, and how collectively they create a body of knowledge to serve as a basis of comparison with other societies and histories in the hydrosphere. Our epilogue will depend upon insights from the final papers individually, in relation to one another, and as a whole.  However, the progression of papers from the planet to region to body leads initially to the mind, with its limited awareness and understanding of waters circulating within the brain that enable its operation, and despite that its extraordinary ability to store knowledge about historical water experience and imagine oceanic processes.  This paradox, of ignorance and imaginative capacity, may help understand persisting regional water problems.  Papers in this volume shed light on relatively little-known aspects of historical water experience and cultural insight in ways that lessen the gaps to what is known and imagined.  They will certainly transport us beyond the mind into the lived realities and materialities of water in all its forms and many of its manifestations in histories of Asia in a changing global context  (JW and PD).

Appendix I

Current debates in comparative international water research. 

Globalization of water programs and politics – the literature on post-war water policies is enormous and is increasingly the subject of historical as well as social research. Early interventions included bilateral projects, international development bank (including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank) and U.N. water programs.  These coalesced in the 1990s into the Global Water Partnership (GWP), World Water Commission (WWC), and city-based initiatives based in Stockholm and Singapore.  They produced and sought to disseminate an International Water Resources Management framework, broader in environmental and social scope than previous resource management approaches, but subject to increasing critique.

Neoliberal water policies, their critics, and successors – disillusioned with state failure and prodded by private sector interests, many international water institutions promoted a suite of water policies aimed at privatization (of water and facilities ownership), commercialization (of water business operations), and commodification (of water prices and products). This agenda combined and often conflated economic (welfare) and financial (cash flow) arguments.  At a global level, the declaration that “water is an economic good” generated enormous debate. Academic and popular backlash in specific sites of contestation highlighted their theoretical and experimental flaws (Bakker, An Uncooperative Commodity), which has led in the 21st century to greater emphasis on hybrid arrangements along the quasi-public to quasi-private spectrum, and to current reflection on where these post-neoliberal variations and trends might lead.

Rights, duties, and ethics – Parallel to these globalizing structures and policies are debates about water rights, which signifies a shift from water as a property right to water and sanitation as human rights (Sultana and Loftus, The Right to Water, Water Politics). After many years of activism advocated internationally in the U.N. Mar del Plata conference in 1977, 122 countries in the U.N. passed resolutions in 2010 that declared the human right to water and sanitation and its vital role in securing other human rights (A/RES/64/292). While the human rights literature on water has grown dramatically, recognizing and securing those rights is another matter. of 2015.   A 2015 study showed recognition in East Asian and South Asian countries but not in Southeast Asian or Central Asian countries.  However, some regions like North America which does not recognize a human right to water have higher standards of water access and service than regions that claim such recognition.  The former often assert strong principles of water duties of the state and/or of water providers vis-à-vis rights.  In the context of these intense disputes, it comes as a surprise that research on water ethics is a surprising small field with limited impact in international forums (Brown and Schmidt; Doorn; Feldman; Groenfeldt).

Comparative transnational theory and methods – surprising in light of the Wittfogel debate and globalizing trend is the relatively limited intellectual development of comparative theory, method, and substantive case studies. Literature reviews are increasingly rich and sophisticated, including bibliometric research syntheses. And limited comparisons abound in maps, tables, and case studies. But its theorization and analytic rigor remain limited.  In a study of flood hazards programs on large rivers in Asia, Jacob and Wescoat (1994) found surprisingly little comparison or citation of experience in basins like the Ganges-Brahmaputra in other Asian countries. Mollinga and Gondhalekar (2014) distinguish among small-n, medium-n, and large-n comparisons, where anthropologists and others employing intensive and longitudinal ethnographic methods in less than five case study areas predominate in the first category, and social scientists employing quantitative methods on more than case studies predominate in the third category.  The Oregon State University Transboundary Freshwater Dispute database of 600+ agreements is a good example of the latter. However, many comparative international water books lie in between with 5 to 25 cases that require a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods.  Collaborative projects like ours include that many studies, though most of the individual contributions are small-n qualitative studies, which presents interesting comparative challenges.

Hydro-humanities and posthumanist debates – global water and environmental movements have also sparked increasing interest and attention across the humanities (e.g., de Wolff et al., Hydro-humanities, 2021). And indeed in humanistic studies beyond the humanities, whether in science-technology-society rubrics or in new imaginaries of posthumanist plant, animal, insect, and soil lives, lifeways, and shared habitats.  These movements figure prominently in our essays, so they are only briefly mentioned here, with the hope of advancing effective communication with other water disciplines as part of the project.

Appendix II

Related Contributions. Other edited volumes have addressed water issues, and it is useful to survey a selection of them to indicate how this collection builds upon, complements, or disputes with them. Post-war discussions and debates about how social formations were organized around water were, of course, initiated by Karl Wittfogel’s provocative ‘hydraulic civilization’ hypothesis in his book Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. An early collection edited by anthropologist Julian Steward (1955) Irrigation Civilizations: A Comparative Study contributed, sympathetically to the Wittfogel debate.  A second, more critical, generation of irrigation volumes shifted to comparisons of community-based and bureaucratic water systems in Asia.[7] Comparative study of irrigation societies and systems continues.[8]

This sectoral approach has expanded from agricultural water use to comparative urban water studies like UNESCO’s Urban Water Series (2008-9).  Thaisa Way has edited a volume of historical essays on river urbanism (River Cities, City Rivers 2018) that includes four of fifteen chapters on Asian rivers.  An emerging genre of edited water volumes curate the work of environmental designers several of them with a focus on Asia (de Meulder and Shannon, Water Urbanisms East, 2013; Mathur and DaCunha, eds. 2014. Design in the Terrain of Water; McGuire and Henson, eds. 2019, Fresh Water: Design Research for Inland Water Territories; and Margolis and Chaouni, eds., 2015, Out of Water: Design Solutions for Arid Regions, Birkhauser).   A large proportion of edited volumes focus on specific water topics and problems, such as water resource economics, transboundary water conflicts, water and gender dynamics, or  water and sanitation as a human right.  Others like the designers focus on reforms, including the Integrated Water Resources Management paradigm of international organizations.

Broader historical and cultural collections of essays are more recent, which invites reflections on why now?  Perhaps it signals a desire to share ideas across ways of thinking and writing and eventually to remap the field of water inquiry.  An early collaboration by cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove and physical geographer Geoff Petts sought to bridge hydrologic and historical studies of water landscapes (Denis Cosgrove and Geoff Petts eds., Water, engineering and landscape, Belhaven Press, London, 1990).  Terje Tvedt and Oestigaard (2010-) have produced a massive multi-volume History of Water structured historically and thematically, which is a valuable though eclectic body of work.

Water collections with a regional emphasis on Asia, on more than one country, are also expanding in number and scope.  Amita Baviskar’s (2007) Waterscapes: The Cultural Politics of a Natural Resource extends political economic approaches through three bodies of historical and cultural inquiry: 1) politics of creating and regulating scarcity; 2) imagining communities; and 3) state projects and waterscapes.  Essays in Rila Mukherjee’s (2017) Living with Water: Peoples, Lives, and Livelihoods in Asia and Beyond emanate from the Bengal littoral across the Indian ocean and into the Pacific. Ray and Maddipati’s (2020) Water Histories of South Asia: The Materiality of Liquescence engage art and architectural historians on themes of “liquescence” in South Asia from the 16th century onwards.  A volume that addresses several of the themes in this volume – oceans, basins, and bodies – though not in Asia is De Wolff et al. (2022) Hydrohumanities: Water discourse and environmental futures.

[1] Donald Worster,  Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Pantheon

Books; 1985. P.22

[2] Jamie Linton, “Modern water and its discontents: a history of hydrosocial renewal” WIREs Water 2014, 1:111–120. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1009

[3] Jeremy J Schmidt, Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity New York: NYU Press; 2017.

[4] David Mosse, The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2006.

[5] Steinberg, P., & Peters, K. (2015). “Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: Giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 33(2), 247–264.   Dilip da Cunha  The Invention of Rivers: Alexander’s Eye and Ganga’s Descent (Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture) Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press; 2018

[6] Jessica Bardsley, “Fluid Histories: Luce Irigaray, Michel Serres and the Ages of Water” philoSophia 2018, 8.2

[7] Coward, E. Walter, Jr. 1980 Irrigation and Agriculture in Asia: Perspectives from the Social Sciences. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Coward, E. Walter Jr., and Norman Uphoff 1986 “Operation and maintenance in Asian irrigation: reappraising government and farmer responsibilities and rights.”  in Irrigation and Drainage Systems. Volume 1, issue 1, February; pp 31-44.

[8] G. Shivakoti et. al, Asian Irrigation in Transition: Responding to Challenges N. Delhi: Sage India; 2005.