Understanding the Himalayas and our fraught relationship with water: Dr Ruth Gamble

Understanding the Himalayas and our fraught relationship with water: Dr Ruth Gamble

Dr Ruth Gamble is a historian of the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalaya. She is focuses on the region’s environment, its inhabitants’ relationship to it, and the communities who worship and fight over its precious threatened water sources — the ‘river critters’, namely, us.

Exploring the intersecting histories of rivers and people

As an environmental historian of the Himalaya, I research and write about its ecologies, climates, people, cultures, societies and politics. It is a region that plays a critical role in human (and more-than-human) wellbeing. It’s home to an ice sheet that we call the ‘third pole’, and this ice sheet feeds eight of Asia’s major rivers. The mountains also stabilise the monsoon, which brings the rest of south, southeast and east Asia’s water. Billions of people rely on this water for survival.

Recognising that humans are ‘river critters’

The Himalayan Watershed stretches from northern China, down through most of mainland Southeast Asia, through South Asia and up to Afghanistan. Nearly half the world’s human population depends on these climate-water systems. I find the scale incredibly compelling.

We tend to talk about the Himalayan Watershed region through geopolitics or economics and break it into pieces (e.g. China is making claims in the South China Sea; India has suffered horrendously from the Delta outbreak; There has been a crackdown again in Myanmar).

But when you look at it through its climate and water cycles and the long-term history of the region, you begin to appreciate both the biodiversity and human populations these systems support. We get a different picture of the region, one I believe is more helpful.

We can see how all these things are interconnected. How climate, other earth systems, and human histories stretch beyond the boxed-in ways we tend to think about Asia.

This approach tells us that humans are river critters; we need fresh water, and rivers are our best source.

Loads of humans live in the Himalayan Watershed because it houses many perennial river systems. These river systems pass through borders, the life they support isn’t just human, and we are fundamentally dependent on them. This means we cannot ignore the multiple crises (climate, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution) occurring within them. When climate and ecosystems are threatened, hazards increase. Hazards like cyclones, floods, droughts, and even zoonotic disease outbreaks like we saw with the coronavirus will occur, and these, in turn, make politics and geopolitics more fraught. They all feed into each other.

Ease the climate crisis by fixing the impacts of colonialism

Colonialism and imperialism removed many resources from the Himalayan watershed and created inequalities and environmental legacies that continue. Fixing our multiple ecological crises makes no sense without undoing those systems.

We may fix one, but others will emerge while those systems are in place. We could, for example, transition the globe away from fossil fuels, only to push vulnerable beings to open lithium mines that poison rivers.

To deal with human problems, problems created by humans and problems that humans face, we need to get to grips with the places where humans live — and loads of them live along these waterways.

I think a big part of my job is telling histories and other stories that remind humans where most of them live! One of the most pernicious legacies of colonisation is that we have ignored this. And an even more significant part is reminding them that they are not independent of the climate systems and ecologies they live within.

Addressing gender inequality through the lens of environmental history

In the regions where I work, traditional colonialism and exploitative, contemporary trade networks are—to quote my friend Charisma Lepcha—layered. There are international trade systems that exploit the resources or needs of the majority of humanity and transfer their wealth to more affluent countries, like Australia.

International resource exploitation that favours rich countries sits on top of national systems that favour the mainstream of countries like India and China. Then there are even localised forms of exploitation, which take from women to give to men.

I don’t think it should be me, as a non-local, who fixes this. By intervening, I’d probably make things worse. But what I can do is act as a support to any of the women I know from local communities who ask for help. I’m most committed to knowledge exchanges through both mentoring schemes and by working directly with universities in the Himalaya that don’t have the same resources as we do at La Trobe.

What advice do you have for a young person who wishes to follow in your footsteps?

Nine out of ten times, cooperation is better than competition. Take on thoughtful criticism of your work; ignore (fiercely!) judgement of your person.

I don’t know if this would work for others, by I try to ask myself repeatedly, who are you doing this for? I try to remind myself that this work is, first, for the beings in the mountains whose stories I am telling, second, for my colleagues, friends and family, and thirdly, for better relationships between all the world’s critters.

Who do you find admirable or inspiring that is helping to work toward building a more sustainable and equitable future?

Most of the people that inspire my work are women! I’m consistently blown away by women scholars from the Himalayan region (or Himalaya adjacent): Dolly Kikkon, Mabel Gergen, Charisma Lepcha, Anwesha Dutta, Yudru Tsomo, Yangmotso, Ambika Aiyadurai, Sonika Gupta, Swati Chawla, Mona Chettri, Zianab Khalid. I’ll stop myself there, but there are others. As a historian, I’m also a bit obsessed with Priya Satia’s work, which is amazing, and although this is international women’s day, I’d also have to say Arunabh Ghosh. Oh, and I should mention all the members of the Australia Himalaya Research Network.

I’m also repeatedly inspired by people making a difference on mountain grounds, like Tsechu Drolma from the Mountain Resiliency Project, and, historically, the women of the Chipko movement, anti-dam movements and the like.

There are two women that aren’t scholars or activists that I think probably inspire me the most. These are my friends Kunga Tsomo and Dechen Wangmo. I’ve known them for about twenty years, and I’m constantly inspired by the way they are in the world. They are kind to people, animals, and the environment, don’t take more than they need, and give more than they have been given.

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