Presentations at the 12th International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS 12)

Japan, Kyoto (24-27 August 2021)


Panel I: From Mud to Monsoon: The Storied Life of Asia's Estuaries

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Chitra Venkataramani, National University of Singapore, Singapore


Estuaries are liminal spaces which fumble the very idea of an edge because of the range of transitions that dwell in it: swamps that mediate land and water, brackish water that joins the salt and freshwater, and the beings that live in this mix. As edges made of mixes and in-betweens, estuaries are moving systems that are threatened by rapid urbanization, developments far inland, changing weather patterns, and by the rising and warming oceans. This panel brings together scholars across different disciplines whose work concerns estuaries across Asia and the multiple forces acting on these complex systems. Through this interdisciplinary conversation, we ask questions such as: How can ecological futures be rethought in places like Mumbai that emerged from an estuarine landscape? How can novel approaches to community-based restoration be used to restore estuarine ecosystems during the pandemic? How do fish and other animals weave into the watery landscape and the weather systems that sustain them? For communities that inhabit the Sunderbans, how are the contours of islands altered due to extreme weather? How have histories of animal movement shaped estuarine landscapes? Though rooted in their particular contexts, these different estuarine narratives speak to larger questions about climate change and climate futures from the Asian context.

Living on the river’s edge: rethinking Sundarbans’ fluid geographies, infrastructural plans and subaltern populations

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Annu Jalais, South Asian Studies,

National University of Singapore, Singapore

One of the particularities of the Sundarbans, an immense archipelago situated between the vast Indian Ocean to the south and the fertile plains of Bengal to the north, between Orissa (India) in the west to Myanmar in the east, is that its geography “moves”; literally. Created by the confluence of the Ganges, Meghna and Brahmaputra and their innumerable distributaries, the Sundarbans region constitutes the southern end of both Bangladesh and West Bengal (India), and denotes both the mangrove forest in the south as well as the 100 or so inhabited islands cleared of mangrove forests in its north, east and west. Born of these rivers, this region sees muddy sandbars surface momentarily, islands changing contours regularly, and rivers altering their courses constantly. Thus rivers, along with tides, storms, and mud, continually redesign these islands’ topographies, sometimes reclaiming them completely only to reassemble them a few kilometres away. Because these islands seem to be at the ‘whim’ of natural processes which constantly unmake and remake them, there has been a new plan introduced by the IUCN called ‘managed retreat’ which proposes to move the population out of the Sundarbans region. However, between Bangladesh and India, nine million people inhabit this active part of the delta. Though rooted in the particular muddy geography of the Sundarbans, this paper seeks to address the larger questions about climate change and climate futures and questions the remedial procedures that are being thought of or being implemented for the Sundarbans people.

When Life Stood Still: The Rise and Fall of Singapore’s Kelongs

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Anthony D. Medrano,

Environmental Studies Program,

Yale-NUS College

Historians have long focused on how Singapore’s waters connected the modern world, from fostering trade flows to facilitating cultural exchanges. As a result, this important scholarship has narrated Singapore’s watery past as urban and circulatory, revealing the industrial and itinerant ways in which an island port became a global city. But rarely figuring in these cosmopolitan retellings of Singapore’s story are matters of mud, monsoon, tides, spirits, and fishes.


In looking at the materiality of Singapore’s estuarine zone, this paper recovers the island’s waters not as a space of oceanic traffic but as a place of protein production. It centers a history of ecological and economic life through Singapore’s kelongs, or fish stake structures. Kelongs have been part of the island’s aquatic scene since the early nineteenth century. Abdullah bin Adbul Kadir (1796-1854), the noted Jawi Malay writer, for example, relayed how it was Haji Mata-mata who introduced the first kelong off Telok Ayer in 1820. By 1952, the island had 310 kelongs, producing 70% of all local fish landings. Yet just a year later, the number of kelongs would begin to fall, marking a pivotal turning point in Singapore’s watery past. It was during this period that the island gave way to an economic future built around overseas imports and container ships rather than inshore fisheries and local kelongs. Drawing on multilingual sources, including oral histories and archival materials, this paper explains why kelongs and their estuarine lives were central to Singapore’s urban rise in the long twentieth century.

Remembering the River: Floods, Infrastructural Capacities, and Coastal Transformations in Mumbai

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Chitra Venkataramani, Department of Sociology,

National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore

In 2005, Mumbai was inundated by a flood that claimed over a thousand lives and crippled the city for several days. Soon after the event, the government released a new plan for Mumbai's drainage systems, at the heart of which was the idea of conserving the city’s rivers that had been “lost” to urban development. While this move to remember and recuperate a heritage of rivers seemed like a step in the right direction, Mumbai was built on complex estuarine systems. This paper explores how by replacing estuaries with a history of rivers, the city’s planning authority could set in motion an agenda to train intricate, expansive, and fickle estuarine systems into governable channels that, instead of opening into vast catchment areas, were contained within the state’s developmental visions. By following one such “re-discovered” river, this paper shows how the emergent calculus of carrying capacities in post-disaster governance, infrastructures such as retaining walls and de-silting programs, together with memory, constructed ecological histories and narratives set in place a new hydrological order in the city.

Pulse in Muscle and Fin: Monsoons, fish and the biological river in 19th century British India 



Rohan D’Souza


Kyoto University, Japan

Rohit Jha



Sometime in August of 1867, the Secretary of State for India called attention to an uncharacteristic communication from the much celebrated colonial irrigation engineer Sir Arthur Cotton, who worried about the probable ‘injury to the coast [al] fisheries’ from irrigation works. Barely a year later in 1868, Surgeon-Major Francis Day (1829–1889), the then Inspector General of Fisheries, was tasked to examine the presumed impacts on fisheries. In his report submitted to the Madras government in 1873, Day’s conclusions, ended up challenging the reigning civil engineering orthodoxy on rivers in Eastern India. By finding an ecological weave between the monsoons, estuaries, lagoons, wetlands, swamps, and tanks, Day revealed an astounding set of linkages between fish migratory routes, aquatic habitats and spawning grounds. The notion of the river, in other words, in Day’s detailed description, comprised soil and water admixtures rather than holding a line between the domains of land and flow. Our paper will discuss the emergence of the notion of the ‘biological river’ in 19th century British India, which, not only viewed the monsoon as being central to producing edge ecologies between land and water but, critically as well, defined the river as a collection of pulses for fish to spawn, migrate and invariably link diverse aquatic niches. 

From roots to reefs: Supporting community-based habitat restoration in estuaries around SE Asia during the coronavirus pandemic 

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Gretchen C. Coffman,

Department of Geography,

National University of Singapore, Singapore

Mangrove forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs fringing estuaries in Southeast Asia’s coral triangle support the highest aquatic biodiversity in the world. More than 500 million people worldwide depend on these ecosystems for food, storm protection, jobs, and recreation. Their ecosystem services are worth an estimated 375 billion dollars annually. However, estuarine ecosystems have been significantly impacted over the last century by coastal development, agriculture, poaching, fish bombing, and climate change. The coronavirus pandemic has created additional environmental impacts, including increased poaching, habitat destruction, and a plethora of plastic pollution. With limited sources of income caused by the pandemic, Southeast Asian coastal communities have reverted back to extractive uses. In this paper, I not only look closely at how the pandemic has impacted the region’s estuarine ecosystems, but also ways in which community-based habitat restoration provides hope for people and wildlife in Southeast Asia’s coral triangle.