(photo from main page credited to Jason Patinkin / Al Jazeera.)


This page presents images created or collected for an ongoing research project of mine about geographies of fording and wading during floods.

A modern perspective tends to assume that transportation during floods ought to occur by way of boat – or perhaps helicopter or even temporary bridge. But actual flood conditions can make these options highly unworkable or impractical. For boats, water has to be sufficiently and predictably deep and clear of debris. Building a whole floodtime makeshift bridge system, for an area from which waters may recede in a few days or a few hours, may prove a costly waste of time, energy and resources. The dream of infinite fleets of personalized flying craft whizzing around overhead dates at least as far back as mid-20th century futurist imagery, but seems implausible even in today’s era of drones (which would, at any rate, have to contend with midflood rain and wind conditions).

Forms of transport premised on wading and fording – what I like to call “vadological” kinds of movement (from the Latin “vadum," which refers to fording, wading or to shallow water) – can take on primary importance in dynamic, transient landscapes where water expands and recedes and where both fixed infrastructure and navigable water are not viable. Such physical zones might be found in marshlands, or along tidal coastal areas, or river basins where water courses tend to shift and meander, or lakebeds which dramatically expand or contract depending on the season. During an urban flood, when a city’s hydraulic infrastructure becomes overwhelmed, city streets can take on this vadological character too.

Above: An early depiction of “vadological” transportation taking place. Decoration from Tomb of Ti at Saqqara Necropolis, Egypt, some 4,500 years old. Note the unpainted calf on the right, who is being carried by a human wader. (Yorck Project, via Wikipedia)

Below: A street scene in Houston, Texas, United States, following 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. Note that majority of people in the scene are getting around by wading (photo: Joe Raedle).

Below: Regular transport to and from Neuwerk Island, which is some five miles off Germany’s northwestern coast. During much of the daily tidal cycle, the strait of the Wadden Sea between Neuwerk and the mainland is too shallow or exposed for boats. When the water is present, it creates more of an obstacle for heavy wheeled motor vehicles than for these horses and the specially designed wagons they haul (photo: Jürgen Benner).

Below: Camels with bags of mined salt cross Lake Karum, a seasonal endorheic lake in northern Ethiopia (Jason Patinkin / Al Jazeera)

Below: Netting birds in Lake Texcoco, the seasonally wadeable lacustrine hinterland of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, 16th century. Note visual analogy between two species of bipedal waders (Florentine Codex, Book 11: Earthly Things).

Below: Bird netting in Chimalhuacan, in one of the remaining lakelets of Lake Texcoco (by this point over 90 percent drained and filled in), on the outskirts of Mexico City, circa 1948 (from Linné).

As the preceding images suggest, vadological mobility can be quadrupedal or bipedal.
Arguably, some birds, like herons or sandpipers, are unipedal waders, preferring to stand or hop about on one leg when in shallow water. Asian elephants are some ways quintipedal waders, purposing their trunk as both support limb and feeler when crossing tricky water courses.

This is a core theme of my 2019 book “Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants” (New York: WW Norton).

Elephants ford a river in Indo-Burmese borderlands, 2016 (Jacob Shell).

A temporary log bridge along Sissiri River, Arunachal, India, dry season of 2016. When the wet season comes, the bridge will wash away and the river will be crossed by elephant (next images) (Jacob Shell)

Elephants carrying passengers across Sissiri River, wet season 2017 (Ayem Modi)

Burmay-Moti the elephant carrying passenger with bags of rice across Sissiri River, wet season 2017 (Jacob Shell)

Hpakant jade mining region, Kachin State, Burma, 2011 (Hkun Lat)

Kachin refugees with elephants fleeing their village in Hukawng Valley and crossing river during May 2018 violence (Jerome Palawng Awng Lat)

Kachin Independence Army (KIA) elephants ford the Tawang Hka (river) in the Hukawng Valley, Kachin State, 1989 (Shelby Tucker)

Elephants’ clearing post-tsunami debris, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, 2005 (Chris Stremmer)


Limerick, Ireland, during winter 2014 flood (Sean Curtin)

2017 Hurricane Maria flooding, San Juan, Puerto Rico (Ricardo Arduengo)

1853 Flood, Cork, Ireland. Note how horses and boats are presented as “rival” modes of transport during the urban flood (London Illustrated News)

1912 Flood, Norwich, UK (City of Norwich, Illustrated Record of the Great Flood)

1910 Flood, Paris (gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

1908 Moscow Flood (Wiki Commons)

1908 Flood, Moscow (РИА Новости)

1908 Flood, Moscow

1908 Flood, Moscow

1909 Flood, Sioux City, Iowa, USA. Note the human riders' standing position (Mary L. Martin Postcard Shop, Ltd.)

1894 Flood, Portland, Oregon, USA (Portland City Archives)

In many cases, the preceding urban horse imagery is showing conditions in these cities prior to the development of more sophisticated and reliable local hydraulic systems. "Progress," from a certain point of view, means transitioning away from having to splash through flooded streets and towards investing in reliable levees, runoff channels and pump stations to keep city streets flood-free. Yet, with volatile local impacts due to climate change, and increasing numbers of people living in flood-prone terrain, I would suggest that some of these older, vadalogical methods of moving through floods merit reexamination. Indeed, widespread geo-engineering projects aimed at hydraulic stabilization may be contributing to environmental volatility and biological destruction in more ways than is generally appreciated.

Diagram from John Lewin’s 2010 study of medieval fords in England and Wales (Geoarchaeology 25-3 267-311)