AUC member Fiona Williamson spoke recently at the 2017 Association for East Asian Environmental History conference in Tianjin, China on the theme of historic urban flooding. Her paper, titled ‘Cities and Disasters: Floods and Urban Development in Colonial Singapore’, explored urban development and social responses to floods in the city between the late 19th to the early 20th century. It paid close attention to how the British authorities and the city’s inhabitants understood and reacted to serious inundations, and in turn, how these responses shaped the city’s social and physical development. Based on data collected from primary archival sources relating to governance and urban life in the British Straits Settlements, municipal records, and contemporary newspapers, it also argued that the lessons learned (or not) by cities facing disasters in the past can be useful in addressing urban disasters in the modern world.
The paper noted how urban development (especially with the spread of infrastructural projects and industrial growth across the landscape) and the clunky processes of colonial administration hindered, rather than advanced, progress in flood mitigation for much of this time. For instance, although river management was considered important for economic reasons, flood control for its own sake was given lower priority. In all the flood disasters to have affected Singapore during this period, it can clearly be seen that human, rather than natural, exigencies exacerbated their severity. Within a social framework, what we witness over the 19th and 20th centuries was a major shift in how floods were viewed. In the 19th century, floods were disliked but normalized within urban society, and people accepted that there was little to be done. Emphasis was on the individual or the community to tackle the immediate issues surrounding floods, with the government later stepping in to provide financial aid and longer-term solutions. But by the early 20th century, there was an expectation for the government to assume a more proactive stance, to take more responsibility in providing financial and technical preventative solutions. What this shows is less revealing of the nature or trends of floods themselves, but more revealing of a changing culture and society– especially the relationship between government and society and notions of social justice and expectation.
Some of Fiona’s work on these themes will be available to view in the forthcoming publication titled: ‘Crossing Colonial Borders: Governing Environmental Disasters in Historic Context’, in M. Miller, M. Douglass, M. Garschagan, eds., Crossing Borders: Governing Environmental Disasters in a Global Urban Age in Asia and the Pacific (Singapore: Springer). She also has a recent article titled: ‘The Great Flood of 1926: Environmental Change and Disaster Governance in British Malaya’, Journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, Environmental Impact of Disasters – special issue, 2:11 (2016).