Podcast Episode 2: History and geography of a city soaked in water

In the 2nd episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews Anthropologist Nikhil Anand on the concept of wet cities. Professor Anand focuses on Mumbai, a city built in and out of the Arabian Sea. He encourages us to think about the long history of engineering cities as dry lands devoid of wetness, and how that is contributing to the current climate events.  


SP: Can you tell our listeners about your ethnography of ‘wet cities.’ I was wondering how did you become interested in the concept and what do you really mean by the term?

Professor Anand: I recently finished my fieldwork for a new book project called Urban Sea and the primary provocation for this project was to rethink cities and urban processes from the sea and from the ongoing work that’s taking place everyday by fishers and scientists in and around Mumbai seas. I came to this project inspired by Dilip da Cunha and Anuradha Mathur who in 2011 had an exhibition in Mumbai called Soak. The exhibition has since become a book, Soak: Rethinking Mumbai in an Estuary, where they called on not just planners but also city residents to reimagine Mumbai not just as a series of seven islands but as an estuary—a city that is in the sea. It was tremendously influential in my thinking about this project.

The project is focused on the work of fishers and scientists as they encounter various urban material in the sea but also fishers and scientists who are already seeing a climate changed sea in and around the sea. So, the project is very much focused on trying to learn–not just trying to see and work with fishers and scientists—how to inhabit cities, many of which are actually in wetlands and the seas.   

SP: The idea of amphibious places and terraqueous places has become very prominent in the environmental humanities, which talk about land that was taken away from water bodies such as sea and rivers for building roads, bridges and for rapid urbanization. I was wondering if this idea of wet cities and reclamations of land from sea then peculiar to your research site, Mumbai, and if not, how do we come to understand the historical geography of these wet environments?

Professor Anand: That’s a great question. So, you know all cities are wet. But cities may be more wet or less wet. But they all have and hold water. So Mathur and da Cunha like to say that, “water is everywhere before it is made somewhere,” and I think it is a very generated provocation because many of our cities have been made dry through different kinds of projects that are cartographic, representing the city as dry land but also through engineering, of making cities dry land. Perhaps in Mumbai this is a very extreme case but to an extent it is true of many other cities around the globe, especially coastal cities, and cities built on flood plains and rivers where the project of drying cities is always already an ongoing operation—one that is more and more difficult to do today because rivers and seas and lakes don’t act as planners would like them to, they don’t stay in their place; the place that planners and governments have made for them. So, in some ways to start with that provocation that cities are already wet, as you say amphibious—and if it is, how can we imagine inhabiting gradients of wet cities, and the gradients of wetness in cities becomes the project. And so, in the work of Kohli fishers it was especially exciting to see the ways in which they live in dry homes but also navigate these intertidal spaces using them for different purposes at different times of the year where wetness is a condition and not something to be avoided or cast aside—wetness is the very possibility of life. So, how is that place navigated and associated is something that I was especially interested to follow.

SP: I am also thinking about how we increasingly find ourselves in such situations where climate change has become so visually obvious. In November, for example, the Delhi government announced a “pollution lockdown” where schools were shutdown to protect students from the toxic smog in the air. I am also thinking about the recent discussions about rising sea level, flashy floods and in the context of Mumbai, there was a storm in the year 202. Keeping all of this mind, how do you locate your own research with the challenges of contemporary society, which in the context of climate change are global in nature and not just a problem of South Asia?

Professor Anand: You think about the problem in cities as multiple and manifold. Some are long-standing problems. So, for example, because Mumbai has been built in and out of the sea, it has a long history of flooding. Growing up in Mumbai I cannot remember a year when the city did not flood—it was just a part of the [landscape]—you have a snow day, you have a flood day. It was very much part of being in the city. I think what has changed now is that floods are taking place more frequently and in different locations not just what were wetlands but in other spaces in the city. And that is of some concern. That is a direct consequence of the more intensive rain events that are happening in the city on account of climate change. The recent spade of flooding events in the city are a result of very heavy rain events which are the consequences of climate change. So, there is an intensification, here, of what people have long seen in the city. But to think of environment as city is that these are anthropogenic environments made with and through humans living in the city and generating waste in the city. You talk of air pollution in Delhi and that’s a direct consequence of the choices that the government and citizens have made about prioritizing certain kinds of living over others. But the desecrated waste of the Anthropocene are now bearing down heavily on not just cities in India and South Asia but more broadly around the world. In Mumbai the work we are doing is focusing particularly on accretion of plastics in the sea around Mumbai. Plastics that are frequently returned by the sea to the city through a phenomenon that is being called a garbage tide. So, in some sense these are challenges of living in and on desecrated waste of anthropogenic waste—that is also becoming a problem in cities. It is entangled in other climate events even if they don’t have some same direct line to them that great events have or cyclones are having now, in cities of western in India, and all of western coast of India.

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