But experientially for the local societies in Pakistan/India, average flows were meaningless, as were cubic metre numbers. To them, rivers were living entities with their moods and regimes, with no two days the same. People lived and interacted with rivers like they lived and interacted with their families. The vernacular knowledge, however, was as much underpinned by empirical observations and understanding of hydrology, geomorphology and meteorology as its modern counterparts; except that it articulated that knowledge in terms of a living, sentient nature instead of an inanimate physical entity subject to human constructs and principles imposed upon it.
Learn to embrace uncertainty
Floods are part of the natural rhythms of a river, as are extreme rainfall events. They do not care about staying within the statistically derived limits of average flows and precipitation that modern humans have come to expect of them.
Decolonising water will mean decentring the modern expectations of average volumetric flows for rivers and centimetres of rainfall, and recentring vernacular experience of uncertainty, dynamism and hazardousness in thinking, policy and practice about water.
No scientist worth their salt will ever ascribe any specific event only to climate change. Climate models will tell many different stories about what the future will look like. But one thing every climate scientist will agree upon. Climate change is happening and under it, past expectations of averages and normality are simply not going to hold.
In such a scenario, decolonising water becomes doubly urgent, to bring back the habits of mind and practice that have helped humans become the most successful species on the planet. Science and the decolonising water agenda converge under climate change.
Since colonial times, the expectation that rivers will have average annual flows, or that rains will be within normal monthly parameters, has driven very expensive and unsustainable engineering practices and infrastructural development in the Indus Basin. This year, as mountain streams flooded, they swept away the hotels and residential buildings that were built up in Pakistan’s mountainous tourist destinations. Down south in Balochistan and Sindh, intensive rains and resultant runoff swept away more than 30 dams and inundated thousands of square kilometres of land.
As the water flowed towards its natural drainage in the Indus River in Sindh, its flow was interrupted by artificial embankments in the form of levees along the river, and road, railway and canal berms in the low-lying flat relief of the Indus plains. As of early September 2022, millions are still stranded on elevated roads and canal banks in Sindh and Balochistan, on the very bunds that are keeping impounded the water that is drowning their homes and land.
Decolonised water offers an effective critique of modern water. But does it offer any promise of relief and future protection to the millions in Pakistan? That will be subject of my next article in this two-part series.