Concept Note

The Hydrologic Cycle and Historical Societies: Workshop Concept Note

Prasenjit Duara[1], July 15, 2021

Global Asia Initiative, Duke University

In the social disciplines, the role of water in its various forms—saline oceanic, freshwater, ice, snow, vapor, humidity—on terrestrial life has been under-studied historically and even contemporaneously, particularly in land-oriented societies. Land-centered visions of life persist even though 71% of the planet is water and hold 99% of habitable space for living beings. To be sure, the impact of rivers and lakes on human societies have been studied more extensively, but the role of the entire hydrosphere and hydrologic cycle–where oceanic forces are central– in sustaining terrestrial life is not easily found in the humanistic and social scientific literature.[2]

The urgency to enlarge our understanding derives from the current condition of climate change where the greatest threat to terrestrial lives comes from the oceans and their effects on weather and climate on the earth’s land surface. By centering the hydrological cycle in our analysis, we move from the previous sedentary categories that hitherto neatly described separations such as land and river to one that grapples, within a single frame, process, dynamism and recurring change such as evapotranspiration, condensation and precipitation. No longer is it merely the flat geometry between the terrestrial and the ocean but by acknowledging the hydro-cycle we focus on the perpetual triangulation between land, water and the atmosphere.

Current Scholarship

Based partially on an anthropocentric bias, until recently, most evolutionary scientists believed that water and land-based systems were fundamentally different. Given that water and air (as gas) are both fluid media, scientists have since clarified how fluid dynamics affect the form and function of living things whether in freshwater, marine and terrestrial habitats. Still more recently, evolutionary biologists have determined that marine and terrestrial systems are not fundamentally different when considering the biogeographies of evolution (dispersal, speciation, ecological niches, etc) of marine and terrestrial populations, although there are differences in degree and frequency of evolutionary patterns (Dawson and Hamner). What the McMenamins call the ‘hypersea’ refers to the environmental condition of the sea in which life appeared and this condition carried over to terrestrial organisms as a new type of sea-like environment. The aqueous fluidity of the ocean is obscured by the apparent dryness of the earth.[3]

In the human sciences, a small group of geographers, anthropologists and literary scholars, led by the pioneering work of Philip Steinberg and his colleagues have developed the concept of ‘wet ontologies.’ They draw on the understanding of the ocean less in its surface dimension as a means of travel, livelihood, trade and warfare, and more in its voluminous depths and atmospheric interactions. They seek to develop an alternative epistemological ‘ground’ or perhaps, vision, to generate concepts of volume, scale, and more fundamentally, space as movement and change, that territorial models cannot provide. Similarly, Prasenjit Duara develops a paradigm of oceanic circulations and inter-scalar interactions to study terrestrial historical processes and temporalities which also impact the ocean in the Anthropocene (2021).

Dilip da Cunha advocates inhabiting an ocean of wetness rather than a geographic surface. He argues that the latter, divided with a drawn line between land and water, is a design intervention, introduced for the purpose of controlling the place of water and putting it to work for land, supplying it and draining it. Rivers are essential to this design project. Drawn with lines in a fair-weather moment of the hydrologic cycle, these lines separate water from land and contain it to a channel from a point source or sources to the sea. It follows then, that floods too exist by design. They are water crossing a line imposed by humans.

In place of rivers that flow and flood, da Cunha posits a wetness that soaks, seeps, holds, osmotes, evaporates, and transpires. The ancient Greeks referred to this ubiquitous wetness as Oceanus, the source of all rivers. Indians called it Sindhu, appreciating it as initiated by the monsoons, a rain that they knew as Ganga. Today, Ganga has been made the Ganges River and Sindhu has been made India, a land surface drained by rivers. If India and Ganges have served design, policy and history, Sindhu and Ganga raise the possibilities for an alternative.

In Europe, the notion that precipitation was the source of rivers, groundwater and springs was, however, not well accepted until the 18th century. They were thought to be fed by great underground channels that returned the waters from the seas. Other ancient agrarian societies, such as in China, India, Egypt and the Middle East had a more distinct knowledge of the hydrologic cycle.  Adapting more or less closely with the monsoonal patterns that shaped agricultural livelihoods in these regions, they may have been more attentive to the relationships of rainfall and river levels (Duffy, Biswas).

In Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans, Helen Rozwadowski presents an overview of the mutually impactful relationships between people and the oceans. Pre-historic oceanic migrations can be traced to at least a million years ago; there is evidence that coastal populations moved inland following rising sea levels after the Last Glacial Maximum about 11,550 years ago when the Holocene began; and many settlements reliant on coastal trade developed into inland agricultural empires. Not only have humans been vitally shaped by oceanic changes and ocean-atmospheric patterns and forces, they have also affected the ocean. Coastal communities have for long periodically overfished and impacted the local marine ecology. Yet it is through our present efforts to colonize, territorialize and industrialize the oceans, that humans have come increasingly to alter the planetary ocean and its biota. Although modern scientific understandings of the hydrologic cycle represent great advances over the more experiential knowledge practices of earlier societies, the impact of the contemporary engines of growth and profit also make it more difficult to repair the disruptions we have visited upon the cycle.


Once the planetary membrane is brought within full reckoning, we are compelled to retool existing histories and social imaginations in the context of increased hurricane intensity, changed temperatures, a rise in extreme events and the palpable unsettling between the domains of the ocean and the terrestrial. Will the contemporary hydrologic cycle ─ as expressive of the changed biogeochemical tension between land, water and the atmosphere ─ compel us to reconsider our hitherto sedentary understanding of phenomena such as oceans, rivers, coasts, floodplains and even glaciers?

The goal of this workshop is to explore in a preliminary way the varieties of human understandings, imaginations and practices in relation to the hydrologic cycle in both historical and contemporary societies.  Participants in the workshop who have worked on riverine, coastal or island communities are invited to present their views on how the temporalities –seasonal and changing—of the hydrologic cycle affects their subject. Those who work on inland societies are invited to consider dimensions of the hydrologic cycle and wetness that may have been neglected in the past while those who work on the oceans might consider the effects of terrestrial activities upon the hydrosphere and the hydrologic cycle.

Given that the subject is at a very early stage, the workshop may be seen as an experiment in exchange and collaboration among scholars from different disciplines and backgrounds. Participants should present their thoughts on their projects and how it does or can draw on the hydrologic cycle. Each participant will present a short 10-15-minute presentation (with or without PPT) following which there will be a discussion. We hope to get positive responses from 8-10 scholars at the workshop which we will hold at Duke’s Global Asia Initiative location sometime in the late fall 2021 (perhaps in November) or in early 2022 (January or February) depending on your availability. If you are interested, please also send a short abstract of a paragraph (or more), and email me and cc Rohini Thakkar, Program Coordinator, Duke University Center for International and Global Studies by August 10, 2021.


Amrith, Sunil (2018) Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asias History Camb. MA: Harvard Univ Press.

Biswas, Asit K 1970 History of Hydrology Amsterdam: North Holland Pub.Co.

da Cunha, Dilip 2018 The Invention of Rivers: Alexander’s Eye and Ganga’s Descent (Penn Studies in Landscape Architecture) Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press.

Dawson, Michael N. and William M. Hamner, 2008  “A biophysical perspective on dispersal and the geography of evolution in marine and terrestrial systems” J. R. Soc. Interface  5, 135–150 doi:10.1098/rsif.2007.1089

Duara, Prasenjit 2021 “Oceans as the Paradigm of History” Theory, Culture & Society 0(0) 1–24 DOI: 10.1177/0263276420984538

Duffy, Christopher J. “The terrestrial hydrologic cycle: an historical sense of balance” WIREs Water 2017, 4:e1216. doi: 10.1002/wat2.1216

McMenamin, Mark AS and Dianna LS McMennanin 1993 “Hypersea and the land ecosystem” BioSystems 31: 145-153.

Rozwadowski, Helen M.. 2018 Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans. London: Reaktion Books.

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.

Steinberg, Philip E. 2013 “Of other seas: metaphors and materialities in maritime regions” Atlantic Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2, 156-169,

[1] Thanks to Rohan D’Souza, Chris Coggins, Christopher Courtney and Dilip da Cunha for their most helpful comments.

[2] Sunil Amrith’s Unruly Waters is an important exception and marks a new beginning in the field of Asian studies.

[3] “The chemistry of body fluid carries a historical signature of its marine origin, albeit one that has been greatly modified by the demands of physiology…. Hypersea consists of the body fluids of land-dwelling (i.e. air and soft-dwelling) eukaryotes that have an intimate symbiosis, ranging from mutualism to parasitism, with other organisms”. (McMenamins 1993, 145-6)