Watering the West

Last month I was invited to contribute to a series of articles, titled "Living With Water". This series is an initiative of Foreground, an online partnership between the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, Uro Publishing and industry. Foreground's aim is to provide news and analysis on cities, places and the people who create them. Writing for this series was an opportunity to revisit some of my earlier research on Perth's water history in the context of the current water crisis in Cape Town and to highlight the role of history in contributing to water resource management and policy. 

Watering the West: Perth’s thirsty history and dry future

With Perth's drying climate, successive governments in Western Australia have scrambled to find new water sources. Meanwhile water demand remains stubbornly high – a legacy of the city’s colonial past.

As Cape Town scrambles to avoid “Day Zero”, some commentators have pointed to the Australian city of Perth as an example of how this crisis might have been avoided. Just over a decade ago, experts predicted a similar fate for the Western Australian capital as a run of dry winters, combined with a drying climate and growing population, stretched the city’s water resources to their limit. Only a combination of supply augmentation and demand management saved Perth from running out. But these strategies were not conjured over night, nor was their implementation smooth sailing. Rather, they were the culmination of decades of planning and experience in an unforgiving environment.

Home to over two million people, Perth sprawls across an area of nearly 6500 square kilometres. Since the turn of the twentieth century, a reticulated supply has transferred water from the Darling Range to households and businesses along the Swan Coastal Plain, as well as to the eastern goldfields. Inadequate infrastructure, dry summers and a growing population meant that this network was often under strain, with periodic water famines not uncommon in less affluent suburbs.

In the early 1920s, irate voters finally convinced the state government to invest in a more reliable water supply system, including the Hills Water Supply Scheme, which took nearly twenty years to complete. Early measures to increase water supplies soon proved inadequate, as Perth’s citizens simply pursued a more profligate pattern of water use. These high levels of water consumption point to piped water being more than a conduit for basic sanitation, with personal and household cleanliness associated with white civilisation, morality, and feminine domesticity. Green lawns and English-style gardens upheld the perceived values of a cultivated and ordered streetscape, while also cooling the home and keeping dust at bay. The increasing accessibility to water supplies helped householders, usually wives and mothers, to overcome the difficulties that Perth’s sandy soils and long dry summers posed to meeting these standards. Early measures to increase water supplies soon proved inadequate, as Perth's citizens simply pursued a more profligate pattern of water use.

More water begat more water demand, which successive WA governments were willing to meet after the Second World War. Additional dams on the streams of the Darling Range provided water not only to Perth, but also to some towns of the Wheatbelt and eastern goldfields. These supplies allowed rural households to emulate metropolitan habits and garden styles, which aligned with the state’s vision of settling more families beyond the Swan Coastal Plain. In addition to these agrarian endeavours, more dams – those temples of modernity – also contributed to post-war aspirations for industrial development in the suburb of Kwinana, south of Perth.

 The reservoir behind the rock wall dam at Wungong, Western Australia 1984. Image: Jeff Crisdale

The reservoir behind the rock wall dam at Wungong, Western Australia 1984. Image: Jeff Crisdale

Perth turns to groundwater as the city gets fuller, and drier

By the late 1960s, hydrogeologists had begun to appreciate the extent of the groundwater reserves beneath the suburbs. And not a moment too soon: thanks to the end of the embargo on iron ore, Perth’s economy was booming, attracting a wave of newcomers to the city. The rapidly growing city, however, was entering an especially dry decade. The state’s water utility began to add groundwater to the city’s supplies, sourced from the Gnangara Mound in Perth’s north. Compared to other potential sources, such as piping water from the state’s northwest, groundwater was easily accessible, and therefore, affordable. By the end of the 1970s, nearly half of the city’s water supplies were drawn from groundwater reserves. Today, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that about a quarter of Perth households have their own bore.

At this time, the government imposed voluntary water restrictions, but as conditions worsened a tougher regime was introduced. Much to the ire of local gardening enthusiasts, residents could only water their gardens by hand at specific times. Accompanying these restrictions was a government campaign to encourage households to sink their own backyard bores, which could supply unregulated water for gardening purposes. To reduce the demand on reticulated supplies, subsequent governments continued to promote these unmetered and unmonitored water supplies until 2010, when their use became subject to water restrictions. Today, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that about a quarter of Perth households have their own bore.

Although water restrictions and groundwater combined to ease the pressure on Perth’s water supplies, the state government concluded it was no longer feasible to keep pace with unfettered demand. To further curb consumption, the government introduced a user-pays system in 1978 that contributed to a significant reduction in household water use. In many suburbs, this reduction was focused outside the home, as residents adjusted their watering habits and garden tastes. Thanks to the increasing commercial availability of Australian plants, the government and local nurseries promoted bush or native gardens as a means to reduce household water use. Education campaigns during the 1980s continued this effort to temper domestic profligacy, which went some way to limit public backlash to the introduction of modest water restrictions in the early 1990s.

A desperate government builds Perth’s first desalination plant

On the eve of the twenty-first century, the Millennium Drought had begun to bite in the nation’s east. In Perth, the dry winter of 2001 delivered the lowest stream flows to the city’s dams since the drought of 1914. These conditions confirmed fears among local water managers that the region’s climate was undergoing a drying trend. The average streamflow into Perth’s dams had almost halved since the 1970s, and has declined further since. In response, the government increased its draw on groundwater reserves and tightened water restrictions, but not to the severe extent as elsewhere in the country. This reluctance to curtail water consumption was a legacy of the unpopular restrictions of the late 1970s.

To mitigate such circumstances in the future, the government announced in 2002 its intentions to develop a seawater desalination plant to supply water for Perth. Opposition from environmentalists, rural politicians, and the press led the government to explore alternative options, such as tapping the South West Yarragadee aquifer in the South West Capes region and piping water from the Kimberley. Neither plan held water, however. After achieving a second term in 2005, the Labor government proceeded with its plan to add desalinated water to Perth’s network and the city’s first desalination plant opened in late 2006. Other state governments took note, and before long, desalination plants were planned in similarly drought-affected areas, including the Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Loathe to impose tighter restrictions, the state government commissioned a second desalination plant, which was completed in 2011 – just after another record dry winter.

Meanwhile, the groundwater reserves of the Swan Coastal Plain were deteriorating under the stress of a drying climate and the thirst of the suburbs. Some wetlands had experienced fires and greater acidity, while vegetation had collapsed at others. In an effort to remedy their decline, the government commenced a trial in 2011 to replenish the Gnangara Mound with treated wastewater. This program of aquifer recharge or groundwater replenishment was surprisingly uncontroversial – compared to ‘Poo-woomba’, for example. Following methods practiced in California’s Orange County and elsewhere, recycled wastewater is added to groundwater reserves, which compensates the amount extracted for water supplies. The government has since expanded the program of replenishing groundwater with treated wastewater, with the aim to make Perth’s water supplies “climate independent” by 2022.

 A selection of treated water from the government's groundwater replenishment pilot scheme. Credit: Stephanie Dalzell, ABC. 

A selection of treated water from the government's groundwater replenishment pilot scheme. Credit: Stephanie Dalzell, ABC. 

Despite its hot dry climate, Perth is promised ‘water forever, whatever the weather’.

Although Perth may have avoided disaster, this is no time for complacency. Just last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that Western Australians consumed more water than those in other states – 320kL compared to the national annual average of 205kL. This consumption appears to be relatively unchanged since the late 1990s, which raises questions about the effectiveness of the state’s water conservation campaigns over the last two decades. Perhaps this level of consumption is the unfortunate consequence of Perth’s evasion of a water crisis. After all, the addition of desalinated water and aquifer recharge to the water supply network has ensured little disruption to suburban lifestyles and livelihoods, as long as the household can afford the bills.

Yet neither technology is without economic and environmental costs. Since the city’s rainfall is forecast to decline further, the people of Perth will find themselves increasingly reliant on these more recently developed water sources, unless they are prepared to address their water use. The comparatively high water consumption of Western Australians, compared to other Australians, suggests that slogans such as ‘water forever, whatever the weather’ and ‘climate independence’ are hindering efforts to curb residential water use. In a warmer and drier future, it is unlikely that these levels of consumption will remain sustainable.

Developing new patterns of urban water use is not simply a matter of technology and economics. Making sense of this complexity encouraged the CRC for Water Sensitive Cities to undertake an interdisciplinary approach, drawing on the expertise of historians and social scientists, as well as engineers and planners. Designing the water sensitive city, as we found, must take into account diverse populations and environments, as well as different pasts – that is, the kinds of infrastructure already in place and the cultures that have developed around them. If the past and present are anything to go by, the benefits of the water sensitive cities may not be evenly shared, with factors such as affluence and geography likely to play a role. Guided by this approach, a group of historians from the University of Western Australia, Monash University, the University of Queensland, and the University of South Australia are working together on a project to explore the role of water in the making of urban Australia during the twentieth century.

Every city has its own water history and we need to better understand them to know where we have been and to better inform where we are going.  In the case of Perth, for instance, we will examine the persistence of high household water consumption, and why the city differs from other capitals in this regard. As this brief overview suggests, few Western Australian governments have been willing or able to change this behaviour, and have increased water supplies instead. In contrast to cities elsewhere, such as Cape Town and São Paulo, the residents of Perth have been extremely fortunate in this regard. Hopefully their luck doesn’t run out.

Written for Foreground, thanks to Andrew Uro.

Working with the National Museum of Australia

A little while ago, I joined my colleague Dr Susan Carland to talk about the histories of some of the environmental challenges facing Australia today. These interviews complement the Australian Journey: The Story of a Nation in 12 Objects series, produced by the National Museum of Australia and Monash University. Australian Journey is a free web-based video series exploring the nation’s history through captivating objects from the National Museum of Australia. This series is aimed at high school and tertiary students. 

I spoke about the challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef, while offering a wider historical and cultural context for "Cook's cannon", one of six that Lieut. James Cook and his crew heaved over board when the Endeavour ran aground the Reef in 1770. 

In another interview (after a haircut!), I spoke with Susan about the drying climate of southwestern Australia and its implications for Perth and the wider region. This interview complemented an episode that focused on cultural responses to the continent's aridity, which featured the windmill of Kenya station in central Queensland. 

A Historian Goes to the UNFCCC...

In November last year, I had the opportunity to go to the UNFCCC in Bonn. Just before Christmas, I reflected on these experiences from the perspective of an environmental historian for HistoricalClimatology.com. ('A' historian or 'An' historian?)

  A protest on the eve of the UNFCCC in Bonn .  Photograph courtesy of  Spielvogel  .

A protest on the eve of the UNFCCC in Bonn. Photograph courtesy of Spielvogel.

I joined the most recent UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn with a delegation from Monash University, which also included legal scholars, renewable energy specialists, and science communicators. The opportunity to observe and participate in the activities that accompany the negotiations was too good to pass up. Both personally and professionally, I have closely followed the machinations of international climate politics over the past decade, with particular attention to the work of Australian scientists and policymakers in the past and present. Attending and participating in the conference offered the chance to see firsthand how delegates and other actors negotiate and deliberate to shape the future of our planet. Here, I reflect on the different ways that the past inflected these discussions, and how they resonate with the fields of climate and environmental history.
 
With Fiji presiding, the COP23 had the specific goal of preparing the implementation phase of the Paris Agreement. Having celebrated the achievements of Paris in 2015, now was the time to get down to work to ensure that the rise of global temperatures is limited to 2 Celsius or below. The organisation of COP23 was such that intergovernmental negotiations took place in the ‘Bula Zone’, while about two kilometres away in the Rheinaue Leisure Park was the ‘Bonn Zone’, where governments and all manner of non-governmental organisations showcased their work in events, exhibits, and demonstrations. I was granted access only to the latter; I gathered from colleagues and other participants that the distance between the two spaces was a shortcoming because it isolated negotiators from the energetic atmosphere in this area, while diminishing the transparency and openness of the negotiations. 
 
In observing how national interests shape global climate policies, I was especially interested in representations of economic development, adaptation, and climate justice, and how these informed the discussions at the COP23. These issues are inherently historical in nature, processes spurred by global configurations of imperialism, capitalism, and (de-)colonisation since at least the eighteenth century. With the small island nation of Fiji as co-host of the meeting, these concerns were front and centre for the duration of the event. The strong cultural presence of Fiji in both the Bula (meaning ‘welcome’) and Bonn Zones ensured that there was both a sense of place and a sense of urgency to the negotiations. As the Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama reminded attendees on the eve of the conference, we are ‘all in the same canoe’.

  COP23 hoardings outside the building that once hosted the Deutsches Bundestag. Photo by author.

COP23 hoardings outside the building that once hosted the Deutsches Bundestag. Photo by author.

Here, the inequities of anthropogenic climate change were palpable. Among the worst-affected by the increased frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events of a warmer planet will be those former colonies, such as the low-lying islands of the Pacific, that comprise the Global South. There is a dark irony, as Dipesh Chakrabarty and others have argued, that these peoples and places are bearing the brunt of a planetary phenomenon to which they have contributed little. They have received little of the benefits from economic growth associated with increased carbon dioxide emissions, but face the most immediate costs with the fewest resources to adapt. Having recently relocated the village of Vunidogoloa in the face of flooding and coastal erosion, and with plans to relocate many more, Fiji symbolized just what was at stake in Bonn.

  The  Adi Yeta  on display in the Bula Zone. This  drua  is an 8-metre long traditional double-hulled, open ocean sailing canoe. Made from tropical hardwood and coconut fibre, the  Adi Yeta  was built in Suva, Fiji several years ago and was shipped to Bonn from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK. This  drua  will be permanently displayed in their new Pacific Encounters gallery in late 2018. Photograph courtesy of  UNFCCC COP23 .

The Adi Yeta on display in the Bula Zone. This drua is an 8-metre long traditional double-hulled, open ocean sailing canoe. Made from tropical hardwood and coconut fibre, the Adi Yeta was built in Suva, Fiji several years ago and was shipped to Bonn from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK. This drua will be permanently displayed in their new Pacific Encounters gallery in late 2018. Photograph courtesy of UNFCCC COP23.

The display and performance of the nation’s culture and history in both zones reinforced this symbolism. Each day, members of the Fijian delegation danced, sang and practiced traditional crafts and ceremonies, enlivening the conference with these colourful and moving expressions of ‘bula’ (also meaning ‘life’). The adoption of the Fijian and Pacific word ‘Talanoa’ to describe forthcoming facilitative discussions (the ‘Talanoa dialogue’) will hopefully ensure that this presidency leaves a lasting local impression on the UNFCCC process. 
 
The attention to material culture continued on the conference fringe, with public art in the Rheinaue Park providing a meaningful connection between the Bula and Bonn Zones that underscored the urgent need for climate action. One striking piece created a ‘sign forest’ of rallying cries from past and current social and environmental campaigns. Suggesting the connection between these movements and the current climate crisis highlighted a sentiment I heard expressed throughout conference that ‘people power’ (and non-state actors) can give ‘confidence’ to governments to act on climate change. Another moving sculpture was ‘Unbearable’, by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, which depicted a polar bear impaled on an oil pipeline curved upwards to represent increasing carbon emissions. These works, together with the fascinating Wetterbericht (‘Weather Report’) exhibition at the nearby Bundeskunsthalle, reinforce the important role of the arts and cultural institutions in ‘supporting conversation about and action on’ climate change, as the editors of Curating the Future argue. 

 What When  by British artist collective  Stan’s Café . Photo by the author

What When by British artist collective Stan’s Café. Photo by the author

These exhibits combined with reports of a spike in carbon emissions this year, to remind us of just how far we had come and how far we had to go. At the Bonn headquarters of the UNFCCC, an exhibition celebrated over two decades of international climate change diplomacy, with Paris the crowning achievement to date. But others argued we had not come far enough: Uppsala University’s Zennström Professor Kevin Anderson despaired at the failure of “his” generation to curb emissions and to convince governments of the urgent need for action. Speakers turned to the past to reinforce their message. For Anderson, only an international effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan (1948-51) would come even close to meeting the aims of the Paris agreement. Others pointed to the Montreal Protocol (1989) and its impacts as an example of what could be achieved through international cooperation. These examples left me uncertain as to how instructive they might be for our current condition. On the one hand, they buoy our hopes that change can happen, while on the other, their circumstances suggest the key to action is an agreed threat – whether communism or CFCs.  Amid the diffusion of expertise and authority that currently typifies Western liberal democracies, just how we can reach that common ground remains to be seen.
 
At the very least, these references to historic examples provided temporal markers to accompany the conference’s emphasis on the materiality of climate change. Fiji’s presidency and the displays of material culture that accompanied many delegations reminded participants that climate change, while a planetary crisis, manifests at the local level. The ‘sea of islands’ of the Pacific, the littoral, coastlines, were all sites where climate change was manifesting. Together, their evocation also suggested the importance of the physical properties of the ocean in our understandings of the climate crisis. 
 
Although there was certainly plenty of techno-optimism in the air, many speakers and observers emphasised the importance of engaging with other forms of knowledge. One project involved sharing the fire cultures of Aboriginal Australians with local peoples in Botswana. This initiative was one of many that reflected the meeting’s more inclusive approach regarding First Peoples, whose care for country was finally acknowledged as vital for climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, meanwhile, lamented the impact of the Green Revolution on the ‘old ways’ of agricultural production. Both moments spoke to the urgency of redressing the troubling legacies of ‘improvement’ and Western hubris, and for the empowerment of local peoples at home and abroad.
 
For many participants, such empowerment lay in their faith. Church leaders from the Pacific, Californian Governor Jerry Brown, and former Irish President Mary Brown, for instance, all reflected on the importance of their faith to themselves and to their communities. Worship offered a culture of coping that connected them to each other and to a higher power, while providing an existential framework to make sense of environmental challenges. They and others invoked Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment as a source of inspiration and hope that emphasised climate justice for all.   
 
COP23 was not without its contradictions. Just fifty kilometres away from the host city, for instance, is the site of one of Europe’s biggest sources of CO2 emissions: the large open-cast lignite coal mine near Cologne. Thousands of demonstrators converged there to urge the German government to phase out the mining activity and to deliver on its progressive climate rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Australian government proudly announced further contributions to climate change adaptation measures in Oceania, but were less inclined to discuss the future of the Adani coal mine or the health of the Great Barrier Reef. These examples alone speak to the complex knot of labour, energy and conservation that continue to stymie climate action.
 
Perhaps the greatest contradiction of them all was the sheer size of the meeting, and its accompanying carbon footprint. So great were the demands of hosting such a conference that Fiji was unable to hold the event at home. To the enormous infrastructure required for the meeting itself, add the toll of international travel of some twenty thousand delegates and observes – it all makes for an eye-watering sum. Many scholars in the sciences and humanities have long questioned the environmental ethics of conference travel (particularly by air), and are exploring alternative ways for meaningful and productive scholarly exchange.  Geography certainly presents something of a challenge for Australian academics, but taking a more strategic and judicious approach to the frequency of my own travels will be an important start. Attending COP23 made it clear to me that learning how to live and work more lightly is a challenge I can no longer afford to ignore.  

Gender and Environmental History

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to respond to a 'provocation' by Austrian environmental historian Verena Winiwarter about the place of gender in environmental history for the White Horse Press Blog. This was my response: 

 The New York branch of the national group Women Strike for Peace mobilised around the issue of chemical contamination of milk from nuclear testing, raising awareness and staging consumer boycotts. Image Info: Women Strike for Peace, 1962; New York SANE, 1964, Courtesy Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Women Strike for Peace Records and SANE, Inc. Records. Available:  Activist New York, 2017 .

The New York branch of the national group Women Strike for Peace mobilised around the issue of chemical contamination of milk from nuclear testing, raising awareness and staging consumer boycotts. Image Info: Women Strike for Peace, 1962; New York SANE, 1964, Courtesy Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Women Strike for Peace Records and SANE, Inc. Records. Available: Activist New York, 2017.

‘Where is gender in environmental history?’ That’s the question that my Australian colleague Katie Holmes and I pondered last year. Three decades after Carolyn Merchant’s provocative 1990 article on gender and environment in the Journal of American History, it remains an under-developed area of inquiry. There is even less in work on gender and technology in environmental history. Keen to contribute something on this theme, and to find out who else was interested in the role of gender in environmental history, we circulated a call for panellists to join us at the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference in Zagreb. We tentatively titled the panel, ‘Gender, Technology and Environmental History’, and hoped to stimulate a discussion about gender in environmental history by focusing on the intersections of gender and technology, and their environmental consequences.

We waited. And we waited. We were surprised (and even a little bit embarrassed) that only one person responded to our call. Perhaps this lack of interest was because colleagues working on these themes might have already found other avenues for their research, or were not intending to travel to Zagreb, or preferred to present with people they already knew. But still!

By the time the conference began, we were back to where we started – just the two of us. Thankfully our panel chair, the indefatigable Dolly Jørgensen, kindly agreed to act as a discussant of our papers. In our papers, we both studied the role of masculinity in agriculture and irrigation engineering in Australia at the turn of the twentieth century. We aimed to illuminate the tangled web of relationships between technological knowledge, ideas about environmental control and nation building, and the impact of mechanized labour on the bodies of men and the environments in which they worked. But would anyone come to listen?

I am happy to report that, yes, they did. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our fellow environmental historians from Europe and North America were interested in our panel after all. And they wanted to know more – not just about the Australian context in general, but also how histories of masculinity were related to histories of women, femininity, motherhood, nationhood, and domesticity. They asked about the place of whiteness and race in our work, and identified similarities with their own work on household energy use, migration, and the Anthropocene.

Certainly, we were comforted by our colleagues’ enthusiasm and engagement. But the question remained, where was gender? No other panels at the ESEH were explicitly focused on ‘gender’. No other papers referred to terms such as gender, women, femininity or masculinity in their titles. The only reference to gender across the entire conference program was the Women’s Environmental History Network reception, sponsored by the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH).

But it’s not just women who need to think about gender in their professional lives and in their research. Gender analysis is a project for all of us studying environmental history.

Everyday Empire's Tools

In May I had the opportunity to participate in the Everyday Empires: Trans-Imperial Circulations in Multidisciplinary Perspectives conference, hosted by Past & Present, the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures, and the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Birmingham. The convenors Simon Jackson and Nathan Cardon encouraged us to synthesise the themes of our panels in posts for the Past & Present blog. This is my two cents from what was a stimulating meeting with a great group of researchers. 

The combined forces of engineering and imperialism still often conjure images of heroic enterprise on a vast scale and across long time periods, resulting in the enormous transformation of places and peoples for empire’s ends. Collectively, the papers of “Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire”, sought to redress this grand narrative through the exploration of engineering and engineering works as sites for everyday encounter.[1] Drawing on David Edgerton’s case for “technology-in-use” and David Arnold’s concept of “everyday technology”, we each focused on a tool or infrastructure that advanced and sustained colonial mobilities within and across European and North American empires in Africa, Asia, and Australia.[2] Typically understood as machines of modernity that revolutionised time and space, in our panel, ships, rickshaws, canals, and railroads became spaces for excavating colonial power relations of labour, race and gender.

Late nineteenth century Australian settlers’ admiration for the feats of British engineers in “irrigated India” was the focus of my paper. Seeking measures to overcome the agrarian limits of aridity, pastoralists and politicians from the colonies of South Australia and Victoria undertook their own “observatory tours” of British India.[3] Although they marvelled at the scale of the waterworks they encountered, the hydrological and labour conditions of their own settler colonies meant that there was little likelihood of replicating these engineering schemes. Across the Pacific, they saw the irrigated agriculture of California as a more favourable model for their ambitions of closer settlement and the formation of a white settler Commonwealth. Their conclusions in this respect reflected Australia’s general turn towards the United States in terms of natural resource management at the turn of the twentieth century.[4]

 J.W. Lindt, “Irrigation at Mornington plantation”, Mildura, 1890.  H96.160/1915, State Library Victoria, Australia .

J.W. Lindt, “Irrigation at Mornington plantation”, Mildura, 1890. H96.160/1915, State Library Victoria, Australia.

What their travel accounts of colonial South Asia also revealed was their observations of the colonial hydrology of India and the nature of the colonial hydrology they sought to forge in the Australian colonies. South Asian environmental historian Rohan d’Souza has proposed the concept of ‘colonial hydrology’ to describe the social worlds of water and to reveal ‘the broader dynamics of colonial rule’.[5] D’Souza’s concept can be used to read the writings of Alfred Deakin, one of the Australian observers, who wrote expansively on the labour processes required to engineer India’s great rivers. The regulation of a river, Deakin believed, was the reward for an ever-vigilant Anglo-engineer, while failures in the system were solely attributable to the poorly skilled Indian workers. The task of the Anglo-engineer was an especially challenging one, so Deakin explained, for the engineer, an avatar of modernity, had to manage both an unruly river and a backward people, who lived “in practically another age”.[6] Framing Indian subjects in this way justified the need for paternalist government in India, while suggesting that white Australians might best follow the example of the United States and its “restlessly inventive and progressive Americans”.[7] Deakin’s account of “irrigated India”, therefore, emasculated subaltern labour in order to celebrate the labour of white men – British and North American engineers and the Australian yeoman farmer: a white brotherhood based on technical mastery. It was these men, their wives and children, who would be the foundation of the “white man’s country” that Deakin would help to forge through the federation of the Australian colonies less than a decade later in 1901.

The colonial allure of American expertise was a theme explored in Steve Tuffnell’s paper, which examined networks of “trans-imperial” engineering in Britain’s African outposts at the turn of the twentieth century. The investment of US capital and engineering expertise in colonial rail projects, Tuffnell argued, encouraged the co-production of colonial rule through coercive and extractive forms of labour discipline developed in the plantation south and the western frontier. Charles Fawell, meanwhile, took us below deck on a steamship voyaging from Marseille to Yokohama in the early twentieth century, where he teased out the volatile labour relations of trans-imperial transit. The focus here was not the glamour of steam travel, but the politics of cohabitation that were produced in a place that was effectively both a hotel and a coal plant. Finally, Chao Ren navigated the “rickshaw zone”, a network that linked China and Japan to the British outposts of southeast and south Asia through the proliferation of this form of passenger transport. The rickshaw fostered intimate imperial encounters between elites and the subjects upon whose physical labour their mobility relied.

Our shared concern with the everyday operation — as opposed to the macro-historical mythologies — of colonial engineering and infrastructure led us to question “whose everyday” featured in these case studies. The written and pictorial sources that informed our studies were intended mostly for elite audiences, both in the colonies and the metropole. Reading these sources against the grain revealed that empire’s civilising mission and the hierarchies that it structured were embedded in these everyday technologies of imperial mobility, and should be grasped accordingly by historians.

Footnotes

1. The other panellists were: Chao Ren (University of Michigan), “Everyday Mobilities: A Trans-Imperial History of the Hand-Pulled Rickshaw, 1870-1930”; Stephen Tuffnell (Oxford), “Transimperialism, Inc.: US Expansion and the Making of British Africa”; Charles Fawell (University of Chicago), “The Colonial Steamship ‘East of Suez’: Conflict and Collaboration in the In-Between Spaces of Empire, 1880-1918”.
2. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, London: Profile Books, 2011; David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
3. Alfred Deakin, Irrigated India: An Australian View of India and Ceylon, Their Irrigation and Agriculture, Melbourne: E.A. Petherick, 1893, p. 5.
4. See for example, Ian Tyrrell, True Gardens of the Gods: Californian-Australian Environmental Reform, 1860-1930, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
5. Rohan d’Souza, “Water in British India: The Making of a ‘Colonial Hydrology’,” History Compass 4, no. 4 (2006): 621.
6. Deakin, p. 25.
7. Deakin, p. 147.