‘Frontier’ research: a century of change in South Asia

13/06/2013

“The next war will be fought over water, not politics,” predicted United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1991. But environmental changes and pressures also have impacts that – though just as important – may be slower and more difficult to spot. Dr Sunil Amrith is using an ERC Starting Grant to study environmental effects on migration in the Bay of Bengal – from the late-19th century to today. By sheding light on the local history of coastal peoples, his findings may offer clues on ways to develop littoral economic activities, based for instance on sea's products or tourism.

© Photos courtesy S Amrith. Local vessels on the Tamil Nadu coast

“One of the reasons the Bay of Bengal is very interesting is that it is one of the regions that is most vulnerable to climate change,” explains Dr Amrith. “It is low-lying, with geographical features that contribute to its vulnerability, and communities there have always lived close to water.”

“I have worked on this part of the world for most of my academic career,” he continues. “My research to date shows a complex relationship between migration and environmental change, so the question is: how have coastal communities experienced this in the past and how might they be affected by crises arising from future environmental and climate change?”

International scale, local voices

The scale of the question is huge: 500 million people live on this coastal rim – and one in four people in the world live in the countries bordering the Bay of Bengal. Dr Amrith’s ‘Coastal Frontiers’ project is investigating via classical historical research – archives of South Asian government records and personal papers – combined with a more anthropological approach – oral history interviews in communities along the coast.

“People who make their living from the sea – such as fishing communities and dock workers – are well-placed to talk about environmental change,” says Dr Amrith, “as are migrants and migrant communities, such as the small coastal towns along the southern Indian coast. Older people have memories of migrations, floods and disasters, and how climate has changed, but I am also interested in what is passed down to young people. What is the nature of this communal memory?”

Postdoctoral research associate, Dr Debojyoti Das, will assist with this community-based anthropological research. With Dr Amrith working in Tamil and Malay, and Dr Das working in Bengali, the two researchers have complementary language, academic and regional expertise.

“With just two team members, this is an unusual ERC project,” says Dr Amrith, “but it is exploratory and unpredictable – I don’t think I could have done it without the ERC.”

New questions

“After the first 18 months, we’ve found that the archives are much more scattered than we expected,” he says. “But we’re getting an idea of where to look further. For example, the London National Maritime Museum has been researched intensively by British naval historians, but it also holds records on the Bay of Bengal, such as changes in weather conditions and river traffic on the Ayeyarwady River in Burma.”

Environmental history – with its overlaps with social, economic and political history – is a growing field. Dr Amrith hopes to share some of his findings across such disciplines, and with climate, environmental and political scientists, via the project’s first conference and its blog.

“We are looking at the frontiers of ecological change, between empires and nations, rivers and seas, and between terrestrial and maritime law,” explains Dr Amrith, “as well as the risks to the communities, such as fishermen and migrants, who cross these frontiers.”

Environmental change is no respecter of such borders, and with so many great Asian rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal, the high-level international politics of water are at stake.

“India, Bangladesh and China are all staking claims to water resources, so I was tempted to focus the research on conflict and crises,” he says. “But our experience so far is that the scope should be wider than this – some of the imperceptibly slow, ‘silent’ changes are probably the most interesting.”

"I want to ask: how does history as a discipline react to the phenomenon of climate change?” he concludes. “Do we have something to offer? And my answer is: yes!”

  • Project details:
    Researcher (PI): 
    Sunil Amrith
    Host institution: 
    Birkbeck College - University Of London, United Kingdom
    Project: 
    Coastal Frontiers: Water, Power, and the Boundaries of South Asia, (CFRONTIERS)
    ERC call: 
    Starting Grant , ERC-2011-StG, panel SH6
    Max ERC funding: 
    606,655 €
    Duration: 
    Start date: 2012-01-01, End date: 2015-06-30