Engineering Edens on this ‘rivered Earth’? A review article on water management and hydro-resilience in the British Empire, 1860s–1940s

James Beattie, Ruth Alice Morgan

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

    6 Citations (Scopus)


    This article presents an overview of the management of fresh water in theBritish Empire from the 1860s to the 1940s. We argue that imperial watermanagement shaped and responded to the imperatives of diverse ecologiesand topographies, contrasting political and economic agendas and, not least,different colonial societies, technologies and lay expertise. Building on existingstudies, we consider the broader ecological and social effects of watermanagement on irrigated agriculture and cities as well as water supply anddrainage, with a particular focus on India and Australasia. Although imperialideologies of improvement impelled settlement, drove resource extraction andtransformed environments, we argue that at times they also diminished theavailability, quality and distribution of water. Engineering projects also benefitedsome groups but not others. We show that normative Anglo assumptionsof productive lands and watered environments were often ill-matched withcolonial ecologies and water availability, in some cases prompting anxietiesabout the quality and quantity of water. While these anxieties encouraged furtherhydrological interventions, we show that they often had unexpected andundesired consequences. We introduce the concept of ‘hydro-resilience’ todemonstrate how interventions in water management diminished the quality and quantity of water in ways that impacted unevenly on peoples and ecologiesacross the British Empire.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)39-63
    Number of pages15
    JournalEnvironment and History
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017


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

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