Flood: An Engineer’s Disaster or a Historian’s Natural process?

Simi Mehta and Amita Bhaduri

Floods have been a common occurrence in 21st century South Asian Subcontinent. The repeated events of flooding in Chennai in 2002, 2005 and 2015, the Mumbai floods of 2005, the Pakistan floods of 2010 and the more recent Kerala floods of 2018 are a case in point. These events usher in daunting memories to the minds of people for whom it is a lived memory, while it brings fear to the minds of others who expect such an eventuality in the near future owing to Climate change and its many implications.

A few flooding events in India have risen above the ranks of a disaster to more of a permanently etched episode in the country’s vibrant history. The Kedarnath flood of 2013 is one such disaster. Some other floods have been a routine yearly affair, thus earning the flooding rivers the dubious tag of being a source of sorrow. The river Kosi a.k.a. ‘Sorrow of Bihar’ and the river Damodar which was once known as the ‘Sorrow of Bengal’ but hence tamed by the construction dams are notable examples.

In the light of such increasing incidence of floods in the country, different ways to tackle this ‘problem’ are being explored by the policymakers and political representatives. One such prominent debate, of whether we should continue depending on the Engineers to solve the ‘problem’ of flooding or we should consider the perspective of the Historians who see floods as a ‘naturally occurring event’ was discussed by Professor Rohan D’Souza of Kyoto University, Japan.

#PlanetTalks_Prof Rohan D'Souza_Should we bet more on Historians and depend less on Engineers to Sort out India’s Challenges with Flooding _
#PlanetTalks_Prof Rohan D’Souza_Should we bet more on Historians and depend less on Engineers to Sort out India’s Challenges with Flooding _

Professor D’Souza was speaking on the topic, ‘Should we bet more on Historians and depend less on Engineers to sort out India’s Challenges with Flooding?’ at the 13th Episode of The State of the Environment – #PlanetTalks series with Dr Simi Mehta, organized by Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD) at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and India Water Portal.

Through the short but thought-provoking lecture, Dr D’Souza emphasized the difference between the Problem-solving approach of Engineers and the Problem constituting approach of the Historians. He made a strong argument for how we should no longer depend on the limited engineering approach and rather bring in the historians who have good acumen for problem constituting. He draws emphasis on the fact that the Social sciences should be an integral part of policy formulation through his talk.

The session began with Dr Simi Mehta painting a very vivid picture of floods and how they have been a negative force that disrupted the life and habitat of people who encroached onto the floodplains. She also highlighted the positive force that floods have been in the natural environment where they have been instrumental in creating habitats, in the growth of civilizations and agriculture.

Dr D’Souza opened his lecture by defining who are Engineers and Historians to drive home a clear understanding amongst the participants about their different approaches towards floods. From the way eminent scholars of the past defined an Engineer and a Historian, Dr D’Souza derives that, “Engineers are problem solvers for whom science is a tool that puts nature to work but they cannot always choose the problem which they need to solve”. Whereas, “Historians are problem constitutors who can tell us what is a valid and credible problem to focus on.”

He pointed out that for an engineer, a flood is always conceptualized as an event, a disaster, and this leads to an engineering approach on the line of flood control using dams or flood management using embankments. To achieve this control, Engineers rely on predictions based on several formulae and mathematical derivations.

To draw a comparison of the historian’s approach against this Engineering approach, Dr D’Souza enlists several books on rivers and floods written by eminent historians who try to delve deep into understanding rivers and floods. Historians, according to Dr D’Souza, view floods as a natural fluvial process and look towards flood unitization the way it had been done historically like tapping riverine silt and mud for cultivation and by exploiting fish habitats. The Historians call for the development of strategies for adaptation and not models of predication to control and manage floods like the Engineers aim to do, he adds. 

While pitting the Engineers against the Historians, Dr D’Souza goes the extra mile to make a special mention about Engineers like A K Roy, Dr Dinesh Mishra and Prof Jayanta Bandhipadhyay who used history to focus on the alternative view of floods, thus departing from the generic belief of Engineers. The views of these pioneering engineers echo those of the historians who believe that the history of our subcontinent indicates flood utilization and not flood control.

This debate around flood utilization vs flood control has now reached its zenith in the event of the arrival of the Anthropocene floods, says Dr D’Souza. He adds that these recurring floods bear out the fact that there has been a decimation in the ability of Engineers to predict these events, leading to a loss of control. To drive home this point he cites examples of the recent floods in the Subcontinent, few of which are named at the beginning of this event report, which was caused by rainfall/ river flows that exceeded the predicted quantities. 

To tackle these events of the Anthropocene world of less control, Dr D’Souza postulates a path that embraces complexity and will decentre the engineer and bring in the historian’s perspective to engineering. The problem constituting abilities of the historian should be utilized to identify the most credible problems that can be solved by the Engineers. Historians are equipped to develop plural methodologies that take into consideration various facets like locality, specificity, contingency, chance, surprise and Uncertainty. This will help tackle the problem of poor predictability and increased uncertainty of contemporary times, Dr D’Souza mentions.

Taking up the questions posed during the session, Dr D’Souza shares his concern on how history and other Social sciences are being marginalized over the years. He states that the social sciences are an important part of the whole problem constituting exercise and possess the ability to look at various historical aspects of a problem. Hence Social scientists must be given a greater role in the problem structuring and constituting space where they will be able to identify the most credible problem to have, which the Engineers can then focus on solving.

Concluding his argument and responding to Dr Arjun’s question, Dr D’Souza lays emphasis and reiterates that there should be a convergence between the Engineering and the Social science approaches. He closes with the statement that, “Engineers in India must learn ethics, philosophy and have a range of social science engagements so that we can learn how to construct problems correctly and helpfully.”  

Acknowledgements: Nikhil Jacob, based in Goa, is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and pursuing post graduate diploma in Environmental Law and Policy from the National Law University, Delhi.

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Picture Courtesy: Duetsche Welle


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

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