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Environment and History

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Environment and History

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

James Beattie and Ruth Morgan

Environment and History 23 (2017): 39-63. doi: 10.3197/096734017X14809635325593

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

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