Reviewed by Kian Goh, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Reigning the River: Urban Ecologies and Political Transformation in Kathmandu, by Anne Rademacher, Duke University Press, 264pp

Exploring the conflicts surrounding plans for the ecological restoration of the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers in Kathmandu, Anne Rademacher deftly weaves a complex story of Nepal’s monarchical and religious history, development as a nation state and contemporary political fractiousness. Looking at the rivers as “biophysical” sites, Rademacher unpacks the competing agendas and stakes around them – between state and development experts, cultural heritage activists and housing advocates for migrants settled along riverbanks.

Rademacher focuses on links between ecology and polity, the ways that “urban nature was experienced […] through claims about cultural meaning, history, and territorial belonging” (13). She unravels multiple intertwined histories, from the ecological degradation of the river and loss of national history and identity (19), to the formation of Nepalese middle-class anxiety. Her sensitivity to the temporal shaping of both the physical and social brings her to the “competing definitions of degradation” (57) of the river. “Facts” themselves were controversial. “What was the problem?” she asks (57), beyond what was known, scientifically, in reports issued by development consultants. Scientific knowledge here becomes simply another political facet.

Political incongruities abound. Rademacher traces the irony when, rather than expressing disapproval at heavy-handed state-run beautification projects during a period of state emergency, NGO groups working for river restoration expressed relief (127). When environmental degradation is equated with democratic dysfunction, such beautification provoked a suspension of disbelief, hopes of a more perfect democracy, a more perfect river. She illuminates the persistent denigration of the landless migrants, considered not simply illegal, but obstacles in the path of river restoration, people and places of “ecological illegitimacy” (144).

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