by Quadrant


Join Susan Mathews for Season Two of The Subverse podcast. In this season, ‘water’ is our main theme. Join us as we explore the multifaceted dimensions of this life giving molecule.


Floating on a Bed of Rights: Water, Sanitation, and Legal Currents

In this episode, we interview Catarina de Albuquerque, Chief Executive Officer of Sanitation and Water for All (SWA), a global partnership which has positioned SWA as a vital contributor to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 6.

In a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke of what human rights as a discourse brings to water and sanitation, the realities on the ground, and the backdrop in which the General Assembly recognised not only water as a right, but sanitation also in 2010. Together, they are vital for reducing the global burden of disease and improving the health, education, and economic productivity of populations.

In this episode, we discussed the need to link the right to water with water injustices, particularly the politics of water governance and equity. If not connected to social movements, the right to water risks being an empty signifier. Commercialisation, privatisation, and the commodification of water have resulted in a situation in which those who can pay for water have it readily, leaving many without affordable, or accessible water sources.

We spoke at length about inequalities, with her outlining issues around access to water and how gender, caste, class, and disability determine access to water. Women often suffer the most from water scarcity, given that the responsibility of collecting water, and managing this scarce resource to meet diverse household needs rests with them.

We also touched upon how the existing legal arena and human rights discourse may not allow for discussions around existential questions, focusing our gaze on narrow, human frames. She also outlined the obligations of states and other actors, including private actors and international organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have often crippled states in terms of allocating towards social and public goods. In fact, Covid-19 has brought more attention towards water and sanitation, in a good way. But human memory is short, and so it is crucial to hold on to any gains made. Towards the end of the talk, she spoke passionately about building forward from Covid-19, and focusing on what we can all do in our own ways to support social movements and the fight against the climate crisis,  in which our water sources are at the greatest risk.

More about the guest

Catarina de Albuquerque was previously the first United Nations Special Rapporteur on safe drinking water and sanitation, appointed by the Human Rights Council in 2008. In 2010, she played a pivotal role in the recognition of water and sanitation as human rights by the United Nations General Assembly. Her work also helped ensure that the rights to water and sanitation were incorporated into the language of the Sustainable Development Goals.

For work of the SWA, please see this link.

You can find Catarina on Twitter.


Subduing Unruly Waters: Learning from South Asia’s Environmental History

From Asia’s mountain core flows ten great rivers that run through 16 countries, serving a fifth of humanity. The struggle for water in modern history is a global story, but nowhere has the search for water shaped or sustained as much human life as in India and China. In this episode, we speak to Sunil Amrith, historian and writer, about his book Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons have Shaped South Asia’s History published in 2018.

Unruly Waters tells the story of how the schemes of empire-builders, the visions of freedom fighters, the designs of engineers, and the cumulative actions of hundreds of millions of people across generations, have transformed Asia’s waters over the past 200 years.

Today, the quality as well as the quantity of water is under strain from a multiplicity of new demands and uses. Despite rising sea levels, deeply contaminated and shrinking groundwater, we continue to subjugate our rivers through building big dams and depending on artificial irrigation for our farming.

The Indian subcontinent is the crucible of the monsoon, and the thread that runs through this book is the monsoon— interconnected with weather and global climate systems, with effects far beyond South Asia. The monsoon has shaped the limits of cultivation and the distribution of crops, and its ecological niches have created economic unevenness, the stuff of which political power is made. The reach of the monsoon also marks the junction, the ecological nexus, between two very different ideas of India. One is as a settled agrarian empire; the other as the outward-looking heart of the Indian Ocean world.

In the conversation, we also cover some of our parched histories, and the histories of the empire. The catastrophes of the late nineteenth century left many people—Indian economists, British administrators, water engineers and humanitarian reformers—with an acute anxiety about climate and water. Climate was at the heart of a new ecology of fear’, something we also face in our contemporary contexts: old and new anxieties and fears. How does reading these parched histories equip us now, or can they?

In this wide-ranging conversation, we also speak about hydro-colonialism, the many names of rain, signs of hope, and taking from Zadie Smith, how there is a sense of loss that climate change brings with it. We also examine our relationship with animals, trees, our kinship, our duty of care, elements now animating environmental history, and his own scholarship.

More about the guest

  • Sunil Amrith is the Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History at Yale University. His books include Crossing the Bay of Bengal (2013), and Unruly Waters (2018). He is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, and has recently been awarded the A.H. Heineken Prize for History (2022). Amrith is currently writing a new book on environmental history.For more details, please see this link.You can find him on Twitter.


A story made of water: of incantations, mermaids, and moonlight

In this episode, we talk to Sharanya Manivannan, who writes and illustrates fiction, poetry, and non-fiction for children and adults.  She is the author of seven books, and her work has won a South Asia Laadli Award, and has been nominated for The Hindu Prize, The JCB Prize, The Neev Book Award and other honours. Her two most recent books are the graphic novel, Incantations Over Water, and the picture book, Mermaids In The Moonlight. Sharanya grew up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia and currently lives in India.

Ila is the mermaid protagonist in her two recent books, and the stories are set in Mattakalappu (Batticaloa), on the northeastern shore of Sri Lanka. We are introduced to a lagoon teeming with magic. For those who live there, the idea of fish-tailed women is not out of the realm of possibility. And yet, while these mermaids appear as motifs throughout the lagoon, their stories have been erased. In these books, Sharanya breathes new life into these tales and other accounts of mermaids from all over the world, challenging the often eurocentric focus of these myths.

Ila’s journey extends through the war on the island and the silence of those years, and the tsunami of 2004, when “the water stripped back like linen to reveal its bed and afterwards, beings that would resist record lay stranded briefly.”

It is the capaciousness of water, and the hybrid and fluid body of the mermaid that really offers us a beautiful escape in these books. It gives us a whole new world, a whole subverse for us to partake in.

There is also joy and grief in equal parts. As we have learnt from myths and folklore, loving and living between worlds is a tenuous, precarious thing. With mermaids forfeiting their fishy limbs for a mortal existence, and the existence of curses, black magic, trickery, blood betrayals, bewitchery, and broken covenants.

Unfortunately, there is a twist in this tale. Incantations over Water, which was published in December 2021 is now out of print, and so is Mermaids In The Moonlight. Westland, the publisher that released both books was closed by Amazon earlier this year. So, for now, we will have to wait with the patience of Ila, for this book to return to us. Some magic conjured up by the sea we hope will do the trick.

More about the guest

Follow Sharanya Manivannan on Twitter and Instagram.


A River Dammed: Oral Histories from the Narmada River Valley

In this episode, we talk to Nandini Oza about archiving oral histories around the struggles against dam projects in the Narmada River valley. The former President of Oral History Association of India (2020-22), Nandini is a researcher, writer, chronicler, and an archivist.

For over a decade, she was an activist with the powerful people’s movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). In 2004, Nandini began recording the oral histories of prominent leaders and activists of the NBA—both local and from outside the Narmada valley—and of impacted women and men belonging to adivasi, farming, and other natural resource-dependent communities.

The Narmada is India’s longest west-flowing river, and it makes its way through the three western states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat. The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) is the terminal dam on the river in Gujarat, and is part of the Narmada Valley Development Plan (NVDP) which includes 30 big, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams on the river and its tributaries. In an article published in The Hindu in 2016, Shiv Viswanathan wrote, “To me, the most important historical event of the last two decades has been the battle over the Narmada dam. The battle over the Narmada dam reflects a journey, a pilgrimage, and a recollection of 30 years of resistance. It demands a different kind of storytelling. This struggle is about a collective history of a people challenging the official history of a nation state.”

For Nandini, oral history is people’s history—the history of the marginalised and exploited, narrated in their own voice, which is often actively suppressed by mainstream history. Even in people’s movements, when history is written, it often focuses on the key issues, programs and strategies, or on known faces, and the people who form the backbone of the resistance and their battles do not find a place of prominence. These interviews also help us understand how turning a free-flowing river into a reservoir of stagnant water by building a mega dam destroys the very way of life of people who belong to one of the oldest river valley civilizations.

More about the guest

Follow Nandini Oza on Twitter and Instagram.

Further reading and links

We play some compelling clips, and invite listeners to hear the clips and see the translations as follows:

  1. Short clip of Pervi – Oral History Narmada (time 0:01:30)
  2. Short clip of Rehmat
  3. Short clip of Champaben Tadvi
  4. Short Clip of Sitarambhai Patidar

The oral history archive can be found at:

To buy The Struggle for Narmada: An Oral History of the Narmada Bachao Andolan by Adivasi Leaders Keshavbhau and Kevalsingh Vasave, Nandini Oza, Translated from the original Marathi by Suhas Paranjape and Swatija Manorama, With a Foreword by Indira Chowdhury

  • For readers outside India, Orient BlackSwan posts the same and it can be
    ordered here.
  • The book can be purchased from Amazon at a discounted price.


From the stars to the tidepool: water as the matrix of life

In this episode, we talk about the molecule of life, the matrix of the world, cosmic juice — water.

As Barbara Kingsolver writes, “It is the gold standard of biological currency.” She says, “Water is life, it’s the briny broth of our origins, the pounding circulatory system of the world, a precarious molecular edge on which we survive. It makes up two-thirds of our bodies, just like the map of the world; our vital fluids are saline, like the ocean. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

This episode is part tribute, part meditation on the journey of water from the stars to the tide pool. John Steinbeck wrote in The Log from the Sea of Cortez about how all things are one thing and that one thing is all things — plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. He advises us to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.

For the remainder of this podcast season, we will cover various dimensions of water — from history to folklore, to the impact of big dams, to the challenges of providing drinking water and sanitation, and more. This episode is also an introduction to the remainder of the season and how we can speak of our current crises in view of the space of water as an urgent territory of engagement.

From the stars to the tide pool is a tale of magic, of diving into a wreck, of embracing differences, articulating agency and accounting for our water wounds. It is a journey from the outer to the inner space of water, to coming to terms with our fishy beginnings, and our watery selves and learning to swim towards unknowable futures.

Credits for the Rig Veda quote and Paracelsus quote: H2O: A Biography of Water, Philip Ball , 2000

Special thanks to Tushar Das, who added the wonderful effects and sound designed the episode.

Further reading and links

In preparing this episode, there are lots of wonderful works we relied on, but a few sources really propelled and added richness and depth to this monologue. See below the following:

  • H2O: A Biography of Water, Philip Ball , 2000
  • Water, A Biography, Guilio Boccaletti, 2021
  • Bodies of Water, Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology, Astrida Neimanis, 2017
  • Fresh Water, Barbara Kingsolver, National Geographic, April 2010
  • What is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction, Jamie Linton, 2010
  • Diving into a Wreck, poem by Adrienne Rich


Art as resistance: the future of activism in a changing climate

In this episode, we talk about art and activism with Kumi Naidoo, a seasoned activist in South Africa during its struggle against apartheid who is recognized internationally as a forceful advocate for human rights, gender equity, economic justice and environmental justice. He headed Civicus, Greenpeace and Amnesty International and continues to serve in an honorary capacity as Global Ambassador for the Pan-African civil society movement, Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity.He is presently a fellow at the Robert Bosch academy in Berlin, Germany.

Having been on the frontlines of social and environmental justice for decades, Kumi spoke of the aftermath of the Conference of Parties 26 (COP 26) in Glasgow which was the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the over-representation of the fossil fuel industry and how close we are to the cliff on climate change action, Recent IPCC reports speak of the dire situation we face and the shrinking window of action, something referred to in this conversation. While in Glasgow, he had a discussion with Olafur Eliasson, an artist based in Berlin, on how art and activism can learn from each other. Art is a way of making visible that which is invisible or maybe even rendered invisible and activism can learn much from art. James Baldwin once wrote, “the artist must always know that the visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and our achievement rests on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” We need to move beyond the limitations and entanglements of political activism as it stands now, and the hierarchies and intrinsic hegemonies built into our institutions and our norms. Art, fiction activate our imaginations and are important forms through which we can imagine other forms of human existence and other futures.

Kumi spoke compellingly of the need for youth to take the reins of leadership and not wait for it to be handed over, along with continuing to celebrate life, to love, laugh, embrace joy, to go down fighting, see these fights as marathons not as sprints and ensure accountability and justice in the process.

More about the guest

Follow Kumi Naidoo on Instagram and on Twitter.

Further reading and links

Read the Working Group II contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report which assesses the impacts of climate change, looking at ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities at global and regional levels.