Transboundary Coastal
and Marine Resources


The Indian Ocean world is one that is connected not just by its oceans but by a number of transboundary, transoceanic entities. These might be termed ‘resources’, but are equally seen as circulating or shared , living and non-living beings. The term “resources” is usually reserved for things that appear to have value for humans. Acknowledging this, we see these resources first as constructions of meanings around objects and beings, and further, as everything being codependent on each other. For instance, coastal beach sand becomes a resource in relation to its presence (and demand, for its function in coastal livelihoods and protection from natural disasters.

Sea Lexicon




Presentations at the 12th International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS 12)
Japan, Kyoto (24-27 August 2021)
The following papers were presented at the 21st ICAS conference in Kyoto as a double panel entitled “The Storied Life of Asia’s Deltas and Estuaries: Pluralizing Southern Waterfronts.”

From Mud to Monsoon: The Storied Life of Asia’s Estuaries

(Convenor: 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.


Anthony D. Medrano
Environmental Studies Program
Yale-NUS College

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

Paper Abstract
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.


Chitra Venkataramani
Department of Sociology
National University of Singapore

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

Paper Abstract
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.


Rohan D’Souza (ASAFAS, Kyoto University)
Rohit Jha (Researcher, TAPESTRY)

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

Paper Abstract
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.


Gretchen C. Coffman
Department of Geography
National University of Singapore

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

Paper Abstract
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.


Annu Jalais
South Asian Studies
National University of Singapore

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

Paper Abstract
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.

Pluralizing Southern Waterfronts: Affects, Politics, Transgressions

Convenors: Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa, Postdoctoral researcher, Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research, Bremen, Germany and Alin Kafak, Postdoctoral researcher, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden.

The unifying feature of this panel is its distinct focus on the lived materialities of/around littoral waterfronts in all their diversity, while remaining distinct to the Indian Ocean world(s). Oceanic waterfronts are more than just the sum of their edges, boundaries and peripheries. Socio-spatially, waterfronts are continually contested and remade as cultural “coasts” and human “shores” (Mack, 2011; Gillis, 2015), presenting lively margins, hubs, and conduits of immense change and flux. First, considering the multiple ways in which their depths and voluminalities play out (of land, sea, tectonic and atmospheric interactions), they stand as sites of intense socio-ecological hybridity, liminality and dynamism (Sammler, 2019). Second, it is the inherent instability of fluid waterfronts that render them sites of contestation where relations of power play out, as diverse user groups endeavor to interpret these ambiguities to their own advantage and wellbeing. Contemporary policies and approaches to coastal planning attempt to fix, stabilize and terrestrialize waterfronts for real estate, enhance land productivity and industrial development. In material-symbolic terms, the waterfront could be read as a culturally morphing/shape-shifting “scape” in itself, in which its groundedness (e.g. through dredging, reclamation)., remains overwhelmingly acknowledged, whereas its ‘fluid’ shapeshifting counterpart remains barely studied. Therefore, our panel invites theoretically and empirically-grounded contributions that inspire varied ways of pluralizing southern waterfronts. We foreground our conversations around questions of how southern waterfronts are imaginatively framed, materialized, embodied, and lived – in ways that make them continually evolving spaces for socio-environmental change across diverse regions of Indian Ocean.

Gillis, J. R. (2012). The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mack, J. (2013). The Sea: A Cultural History. Reaktion Books.
Sammler, K. G. (2019). The rising politics of sea level: demarcating territory in a vertically relative world. Territory, Politics, Governance, 1-17.


Alin Kadfak
Postdoctoral researcher,
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden

Paper Title
Theorising the waterfrontscape: Exploring social injustice in urbanising cities of the Global South

Paper Abstract
Waterfront is a particular interesting geographical space where land meets water (river or sea). The instability of waterfront in urban context simultaneously marks the point of contention between different waterfront users, often consisting of a mix of urban rich and poor from various social groups. In Global South, often the urban poor have less access to the state with reduced ability to uphold legal land titles which depends on having extensive resources and strong political connection. The habitats, and in many cases the livelihoods, of the urban poor rely on fluctuating spaces on the land/water boundary but also straddling ambiguous legal criteria. The urban rich may have the upper hand on land titles and legal procedures but are far from superior in these uncertain and highly contingent processes. This article aims to theorise waterfrontscape in Global South to help unpacking complexity of water-land hybrid nature, historical attribute and social processes during urbanization processes. To theorise waterfrontscape, I draw on three bodies of literature; ‘land-water nexus’, ‘waterscape’ and ‘everyday politics’, which allow to discuss unsettle issues of hybrid nature of land and water, contestation, marginalisation, everyday practices and governance. I attempt to make a conversation between Urban Political Ecology scholars, whom involve socionatural understanding of urban making with historical and geographical of space, and Urban Studies scholars, whom centre their arguments in the everydayness and contestation of diverse urban dwellers. Waterfrontscape can provide a lens to study fragmented social injustice in urbanising space of the Global South.


Lakshmi Pradeep Rajeswary
PhD candidate, South Asia Studies Programme,
National University of Singapore (NUS), Singapore

Paper Title
Between land and lagoon: Oscillations of life on Lakshadweep Islands in the Indian Ocean

Paper Abstract
In tune with the relational thinking in island studies, this paper engages with the fluidity and viscerality of the sea in an island world (DeLoughrey, 2007). It is derived from snippets of ethnography conducted on the Lakshadweep Islands in the Indian Ocean. On Lakshadweep, the boundaries of habitation are imagined under water, unlike estimations on land. It gets determined through the grains of sand that keeps shifting within the lagoon encapsulated by each coral atoll. According to the islanders, the floating sand leads to island growth whereas a rupture in the reef wall can lead to erosion. The aqueous and porous nature of the reef co-constitutes island life. The lagoons are a lively space for recreation, fishing and community activities. The lagoon waters do not insulate an island from its sand banks or neighboring islets. This fosters a deterrestrialised understanding of an island. The paper further argues that the lived materiality of the islanders constantly oscillates between erosion and accumulation of sand, fragility and resilience of corals and subsequent hope and despair on island growth and submergence. These ambiguities addressed in the paper are significant in situating an island in the Anthropocene by challenging the existing terrestrial tropes of isolation and marginalization.


2.c.) Paper Presenter
Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa
Researcher, Department for Social Sciences,
Leibniz Center for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT), Germany

Paper title
The bi-polar waterfront: The making of antipodal shorelines in Colombo’s Port City

Paper Abstract
One of the most visible and enduring features in the history of urban planning since the 1950s has been the unparalleled expansion of metropolitan waterfronts around the world. While much has been written on practices of place-making, aesthetics, and of the broader politics steering local waterfront initiatives, scant attention has been paid to the transcultural knowledge(s) and embodied sensibilities of living with (or without) the presence of water, particularly in maritime city spaces that have often evolved through distinct colonial and neoliberal historiographies. This presentation explores the dichotomous meanings of metropolitan shorelines themselves – through what can be termed as the “bi-polar waterfront” in contemporary Asian cities. They embody both sites of leisure and of excess consumption on the one hand, and of danger, squalor and deprivation on the other. Here, I draw on the case of Sri Lanka ́s politicized Chinese-funded foreshore reclamation project, the Port City in its commercial capital. First, I ask how symbolic meanings of shored place-making have historically evolved particularly in relation to its post-colonial and democratic socialist trajectory of coastal (re)development. Second, through a cultural studies perspective, the divergent meanings of water, crosscutting fluid and the grounded are explored by asking with what consequences these have challenged and re-produced dominant narratives of complicity and resistance for and beyond the urban littoral.


Aarthi Sridhar
PhD Candidate, University of Amsterdam
and Programme Head, Dakshin Foundation

Paper title
In the Wake of Law: Legal waterfronts and its effects on maritime environmentalism in India (1980-2020)

Paper Abstract
In the Indian Ocean region, state-led coastal planning and management is only a few decades old but has shaped ideals and values regarding coastal waterfrontscapes. Through the emerging marine environmentalism of the late twentieth century, in developing countries such as India, the waterfront, the foreshore, the coast, sea and other marine aquatic elements attracted a flotsam of meanings created through specialist laws, policy practice and environmental activism in and outside courtrooms. Each engagement with law led to successive actions that fix, modify or revise the nature and function of these elements. The widespread impression among environmentalists and green courts in India is that environmental laws are poorly implemented, not taken seriously and have had little consequence. However, this paper argues that the effect of coastal legislation in India has had far reaching effects producing new maritime environmentalisms and in producing facts about marine nature and imaginations of our relations with these spaces. The paper draws from a rich repository of legal judgements and environmental advocacy and activism on coastal space use, tracing its after effects and influence into the lived experience and environmentality among coastal communities and local conservation NGOs decades thereafter.


Moyukh Mahtab
Programme Organiser, Documentation and Communication Team, Nijera Kori

Paper title
Agency and Solidarity in the 1990 Anti-Shrimp Movement of Polder 22, Khulna, Bangladesh

Paper Abstract
From the 1980s, due to the rising global demand for shrimp, coastal Bangladesh has witnessed profound transformations in terms of access to and use of land and water, affecting coastal communities’ livelihoods. While the Blue Revolution discourse, combined with national development priorities, has incentivised the expansion of shrimp aquaculture, with promises of livelihood opportunities for communities, the industry has caused severe environmental destruction and widespread human rights abuses. Through an empirically grounded study of how the Anti-Shrimp movement of Polder 22 in the Khulna area of Bangladesh took off, my paper will highlight broader issues of coastal communities’ politics—aspiration, motivations regarding access to and use of natural resources—in conflict with national and international development priorities. The 1990 Anti-Shrimp movement of Khulna witnessed the murder of a landless woman, Karunamoyee Sarder, during a protest march against the industry’s expansion. This culminated in a mass movement, drawing supporters from political and civil society actors. Using oral narratives, the microhistory of the movement highlights the complexities of peasant and fisher community agency, and the solidarity that constituted their act of resistance within the broader socio-economic and political context of the time. This paper will also look at how the southern waterfront of Bangladesh remains a continually evolving spaces of socio-environmental change where subaltern resistance keeps fighting brutal capitalist demands.