ASA11: Vital powers and politics: human interactions with living things

University of Wales Trinity Saint David, 13/09/2011 – 16/09/2011

(P11)

Living water: the powers and politics of a vital substance

Location Arts Hall
Date and Start Time 14 Sep, 2011 at 09:00

Convenors

Franz Krause (University of Cologne)  email
Veronica Strang (Durham University)  email
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Short Abstract

This panel discusses the relations between humans and water, and how the precious vitality of water is constituted, negotiated and strategically used.

Long Abstract

Human life is both literally and metaphorically unthinkable without water, which permeates and enlivens every form of human activity. Water is equally important for all living organisms, flowing through plants, animals and humans, through places, river systems and ocean currents, and through the entire hydrological cycle, where it constitutes a fundamental aspect of the weather and climate. For many people water epitomises the connections and integration of living processes: as the life-giving element enabling production and reproduction, and as a substance of community and belonging. However, the fluid qualities that enable water to connect mean that it can also be a major medium for pollution and a threat when overly abundant. And, being essential to all productive processes, it can readily become a means of control and domination.

This panel explores the ways the vitality of water is constituted, negotiated and used strategically in various socio-ecological contexts. How does water figure in experiences, narratives and symbols of living, creativity and healing, or in practices and discourses about pollution and destruction? In what ways can water be used to support or undermine particular power relations? How are ideas about 'living water' articulated in property regimes, development projects and conservation strategies?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Rapids on the 'stream of life' as focal point for life, use and discourse on the Kemi River

Author: Franz Krause (University of Cologne) email
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Short Abstract

Examining why the conflicts between different uses of the Kemi River in Finnish Lapland usually focus on its rapids, this paper suggests that for river dwellers, the rapids epitomise the life-giving powers of the river.

Long Abstract

The Kemi River in Finnish Lapland is frequently called the 'stream of life' by its riparian inhabitants, for its central role in the histories of places and people. This paper considers why most attention is focused on the river's rapids. The best fishing places are said to be close to these; they provide the most challenging stretches for boating and rafting; offer a remarkable visual and aural spectacle, and are the most appropriate sites for hydropower dams.

The ethnography suggests that, for many people, the rapids epitomise the river, embodying many intrinsic characteristics: its energy, its fish and its heterogeneous movements. Experiencing and talking about the river means visiting and debating the fate of its rapids. Rapids are also the focus of conflicts concerning river use. In the 1900s, the powerful Timber Floating Association regarded them as obstacles and transformed many into un-obstructive channels. Later, many rapids have been inundated by hydroelectric schemes. And most recently, the Environmental Administration has 'reinstalled' multiple rapids to attract prestigious fish species and tourists.

This paper argues that the pivotal position of rapids in the Kemi River resonates with their display of what river dwellers regard as the specific powers and properties of river water. The river is most 'river-like' in its rapids: it is in their incessant movements, their oxygen-rich waters, their sounds and their force that the 'stream of life' is particularly tangible, exploitable, and contested.

Dam(ning) North-East India for national development

Author: Vibha Arora (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi) email
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Short Abstract

Tribal communities in Sikkim and Manipur in Northeast India perceive hydropower projects as a disguise of an exploitative national development paradigm that will vanquish them.

Long Abstract

Dams have generated local opposition and fuelled social conflict between a developmentally minded state and affected local communities. In 2002 the Department of Development of the North Eastern Region (DONER) openly declared that the Northeast has the potential to be India's future powerhouse. The hydropower initiative for North-east India looks very promising on 'paper' and especially when seen from the power generation and revenue earning point of view. This explains why Sikkim and Manipur have adopted a hydraulic development model for generating funds for their human development.

Baviskar (1995) and Arora (2006, 2009) argue that rivers are not merely water courses, but embody the spiritual connections between people and their 'ancestral' landscape. Using two cases studies of indigenous resistance to the Teesta hydropower projects in Sikkim (2007 onwards) and the Tipaimukh dam in Manipur (2003 onwards), I highlight how tribal communities have embraced environmentalism and used the metaphor of cultural roots and ancestral connections with their land and rivers oppose hydropower projects that will displace, marginalize, severe their connections with their historic landscapes and adversely impact their livelihood. From the activist perspective, hydropower projects are not conceptualized to deliver promised development, but become a disguise of an exploitative national development paradigm that aims to strike at the roots of their indigenous identity and vanquish them.

Floods, hydropower and climate planning in the Indian Himalayas

Author: Kelly Alley (Auburn University) email
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Short Abstract

This paper examines the multiple water plans that government agencies and civil society groups are now writing to capture and use the waters running through the rivers of India’s Himalayan region. This is a region with eight populous Indian states, high water availability from rivers, and a large hydropower source and potential.

Long Abstract

This paper examines the multiple water plans that government agencies and civil society groups are now writing to capture and use the waters running through the rivers of India's Himalayan region. This is a region with eight populous Indian states, high water availability from rivers, and a large hydropower source and potential. All eyes are on the region as actors usher their plans into play; the accompanying projects will chart out the water budget and water needs for society and industry amidst the global discourse on climate change adaptation. While this global framework will justify and provide the funds to drive the planning and its lofty and ideological designs, this frame will also hide or disguise a number of intensive (and non-"adaptive") water projects underway and projected. The paper tries to outline these multiple plans and the accompanying projects, to decode their relevance for climate change adaptation and resilience.

The Dammed Serpent: undercurrents in Australian water policy

Author: Veronica Strang (Durham University) email
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Short Abstract

Comparing diverse visions of ‘living water’ and its place in social and ecological processes, this paper examines dominant and subaltern biopolitical relations in Australia. It considers how such relations and their ideologies are expressed through differing aspirations for hydrological control.

Long Abstract

For indigenous Australians, the Rainbow Serpent encapsulates a vision of hydrotheological order, ensuring the movement of water and spiritual being through invisible and visible dimensions of the world. Invasions of its underground/underwater domain and the stemming of its flows are believed to contravene the right way of doing things. In a different idiom, conservation groups envisage an ecological order which also requires the free flow of water to all species. Yet Australian water policy requires only minimum 'environmental flows' to be maintained in aquatic ecosystems, and in times of drought these controlled (and much debated) 'allocations' are often sacrificed to the needs of domestic and agricultural water users. In valorising creative 'productivity' through water, State governments and major industries remain keen to initiate new dams and water diversions.

In the 'biopolitical economies of vitality' few things express dominance over - and disregard for - other species as fully as the appropriation of water to meet the needs and desires of human communities. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research in Australia, this paper suggests that such appropriations represent a desire to direct 'life itself': a way to seize vitality and control the inexorable flow of time. The discussion highlights a notion of 'culture' as an application of human agency, and casts 'nature' as the alternate agency of other species and environments. In this sense, the groups that oppose dam building, or whose lifeways eschew such intensive material direction of the environment, may be said to espouse more cooperative biopolitical positions and, perhaps, a greater willingness to 'go with the flow'.

Water, water everywhere: perceptions of chaotic water regimes in northeastern Siberia, Russia

Author: Susan Crate (George Mason University) email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores applied anthropological research examining perceptions, understandings and responses to increasing water on the land, one of the major effects of global climate change for native Viliui Sakha agropastoralist communities of northeastern Siberia, Russia.

Long Abstract

This paper draws on fieldwork investigating perceptions, understandings and responses to the local effects of global climate change for native Viliui Sakha agropastoralist communities of northeastern Siberia, Russia. For Viliui Sakha, global climate change translates locally into a highly altered climate system and water regime. 2008 fieldwork shows Inhabitants observing warmer winters, increased snowfall, excessive precipitation, changed seasonality, and the transformation of their ancestral landscape due to increased water on the land and degrading permafrost. One urgent change is how the increased water on the land is turning hayfields into lakes, inundating households and ruining transportation networks. The increasing water on the land interferes with subsistence and threatens to undermine settlement. Beyond these physical changes, what does the increased water on the land mean to Viliui Sakha? Inhabitants expressed not only concern about their future but also common fear that they would 'go under water.' Water has visceral meaning to Sakha, based on their historically-based belief system, their adaptation the their environment, and knowledge system. In response, 2009 field research looked in more depth at communities' perceptions of water, and worked to bring those perceptions and beliefs into our 2010 knowledge exchange exercise. This paper will present our initial findings and make suggestions on how these findings can be understood more broadly for other peoples unprecedentedly affected by water crises in the face of global climate change.

Water as a vital substance in post-Socialist Kyrgyzstan

Author: Stephanie Bunn (University of St Andrews) email
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Short Abstract

This paper considers water in Kyrgyzstan both as a source of power contestation and as a source of power in itself. Used both in political leverage, and perceived a cleansing and protecting substance, the paper explores what relationship there is between these two modes of understanding water among Kyrgyz in the region today.

Long Abstract

In Kyrgyzstan, water can be a highly charged substance. Coming from snow-melt and glacial sources in the mountains and associated with all that is clean and cleansing, it is both politically significant and has the power to heal. Compared to other Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan, there is almost an abundance of water in Kyrgyzstan. Although regulated, it is generally available for people in villages and town, and is not generally a source of conflict. However, its use in hydro-electric power creates significant tension between Kyrgyz and down-stream Uzbeks who both lack water, negotiating for it in exchange for gas, and suffer the effects of the new inland sea created by Kyrgyz use of their water to make electricity.

But as well as being negotiated for power, water has its own power. At mazars such as Abshyr Ata, people come to the waterfalls and springs to drink holy water for healing, carrying wheel-chairs across the rocks, and taking the water away in bottles. In the Soviet era, healing springs were transformed into sanatoria, or hot baths, the minerals contained in the water listed on posters to reinforce the 'scientific' reasons for them being beneficial for health. In contemporary Kyrgyzstan, healers can imbue water with power, but it can also have its own force and affect people, cleansing and protecting them.

This paper explores the range of manifestations of power in water, and the different kinds of reasoning people give to explain its potency in the region.

Making Water Quality on the Mystic Watershed: a Multi-Species Ethnography of Advocacy Science

Author: Caterina Scaramelli (Amherst College) email
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Short Abstract

Water is constitutive (dis)connections of spaces, of human and non-human entities, and of values and quantification. This paper analysis three forms of water quality as they emerge in advocacy science efforts in Boston.

Long Abstract

In the Boston area groups such as the Mystic River Watershed Association have been reclaiming urban water bodies through community-based advocacy science that strives to operate at the watershed scale. The interactions and translations conjured up in grassroots monitoring of water quality in the Mystic Watershed suggest that water quality as a category and a subject is itself constituted of particular artifacts, life-forms, engagements, and knowledge-making. I identify three different forms of water quality: the first pertains to a bacteriological understanding of pollution, and it is formed by the engagement with bacterial entities, engaged with both scientifically and sensuously in an interplay of (in)visibility and (un)perceptibility. The second understanding of water quality mobilizes charismatic and undesired forms of life. Fish is a charismatic species in the watershed, yet it is engaged with in different ways to materialize data or to create spaces of sentiment beyond data. During an ongoing debate over a native plant gone invasive, taxonomy is underplayed, and the actions of the plant itself are central to its evaluation as an actor in the urban ecosystem. The third materialization of water quality is the database, where data is collected, traded, circulated: it is the form that water quality assumes when it has to be translated to different groups and institutions and activated to produce change. Scientists, monitors and volunteers move between these three forms fluidly, as they explore ways to transform diverse experiences of water into tradable data, and action.

Sustaining vitality in coral reef waters: a case study from Sri Lanka

Authors: James Howard (NomadIT) email
Sandra Bell (Durham University) email
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Short Abstract

A complex relationship exists between ornamental fish collectors and other stakeholders of the marine aquarium trade and their coastal waters in Sri Lanka. This was explored by integrating ecological and ethnographic field data to identify ways to restore the lost vitality of their reef ecosystems.

Long Abstract

For centuries humans have utilised tropical coastal waters as they harbour the most diversity of the oceans, often demonstrating deep connections with the ocean due to its resource provision as well as respect for the animals they hunt and the power of the water. More recently, increasing human pressures on these systems, a decoupling of coastal people's traditional interaction with the ocean and wider climatic forcing are degrading reefs irreversibly. It is important to understand the relationship between coral reef degradation and the livelihood activities of coastal people, as research often tends to focus exclusively on biodiversity conservation. An example is the collection of ornamental reef fish for the aquarium trade in southern Sri Lanka. Within a generation, waters that harboured fish stocks thought impossible to reduce are now referred to as "dead" waters and systems of marine tenure are developing as competition for dwindling resources intensifies. Using an interdisciplinary approach to gather ecological and ethnographic data, it was found that while fishing for ornamental fish is a substantial threat to coral reef sustainability, it also contributes to local household incomes and the development of economically viable fishing skills. The ethnographic data provided a deeper understanding of the complex relationship of different stakeholders at all levels of the trade with the coastal waters. This allowed for realistic exploration of alternative income generating opportunities that can replace or greatly reduce the current destructive fishing methods as well as attempting to restore the lost vitality, diversity and services of these essential ecosystems.

In the Garden of Good and Evil: the moral economy and ambivalent representations of the snake/mermaid complex in Nguni healing cosmologies, South Africa.

Author: Penelope Bernard (Rhodes University) email
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Short Abstract

This paper will examine the ambivalent representations of the water divinities in South Africa, particularly amongst the amaZulu and amaXhosa Nguni-speaking groups. It will consider the role and representations of these divinities in relation to healing, fertility, rain/water and morality within the context of political-economic transformations and climate change.

Long Abstract

In many regions of Africa the penetration of capitalist economies and ideologies, the shift to individual accumulation and empowerment at the expense of communal wellbeing, and the resultant wealth and power disparities, have had a profound influence on how traditional religious symbols are currently interpreted. The imposition and spread of Christianity has led to further confusion and ambivalence towards traditional religious symbols especially in those cultures where snake veneration or ophidian worship occurred. This paper will examine the ambivalent representations of the water divinities in South Africa, particularly amongst the amaZulu and amaXhosa Nguni-speaking groups. Early ethnographic accounts reveal that these divinities, represented in the forms of snake and fish-tailed (mermaid) beings, were linked to communal wellbeing, fertility, rain, wisdom and healing; communal rituals were, and in some areas still are, dedicated to these divinities in order to secure such important benefits. The extremes of inequality and unexplained 'fast' wealth obtained by certain individuals in South Africa's post-democratic neo-liberal economies have led to a counter-hegemonic discourse 'from below' that speculates whether such wealth has been obtained illicitly by such individuals entering into private pacts with, or through manipulation of the powers of these water divinities. Such epistemic anxiety of the moral economy reveals a process by which traditional symbols and their referents become inverted to provide for critical commentary on differential access to wealth and power.

Keeping the faith: the cult of Taklha Wangchuk ancient governance and disaster prevention in the age of climate insecurity

Author: Andrea Butcher (University of Exeter) email
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Short Abstract

The paper examines the response to the 2010 flood in Ladakh, the Indian Himalaya, through a tale of divine oracular prophecy, local reaction, and the rise of the god’s mythology in local narrative. It explores the role of myth and ritual in explaining disaster in a time of changing climate security.

Long Abstract

In early 2010, the residents of Lalok, Ladakh, North-West India requested the presence of Taklha Wangchuk, their local protector deity, to visit through oracular possession. During his visit the deity complained that Ladakh was unclean due to increasing ritual and physical pollution, and therefore the gods were angry. He instructed those present that monks and villagers need to perform extensive ritual purifications to remove the dirt and prevent divine retribution. The people of Lalok performed the rituals as instructed, and a representative of the area approached the Ladakhi Buddhist Association warning them of the deity's prophecy. The LBA took no action.

Then, in August 2010, communities on the right bank of the Indus River were devastated by a flood previously unseen according to local memory. The Lalok region was unaffected. That autumn around 3000 people attended the deity's festival at his pilgrimage site in Lalok, more than double the numbers that attended in previous years. "This is no ordinary village god", they said. "This is a powerful protector with the blessing of the Buddhas. His prophecies are accurate. Why didn't we listen?"

This tale provides an opportunity to examine the localised, contextualised, and visceral responses to the flood and its causes in a year which saw unprecedented flooding in many areas of the globe. The paper will consider how creative memory and narrative contribute to responses and disaster prevention strategies in a changing climate, and examine the dynamics of the local cosmology's and religious authority's ownership of these strategies therein.

The power of the water and the enticement of the money economy: competing knowledge practices between Fulani fishermen and other castes in the Senegal river basin

Author: Sarah O'Neill (Institute of Tropical Medicine) email
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Short Abstract

to follow

Long Abstract

The Subalbe are the masters of the river. They are known to be the proprietors of the knowledge of the water and in close contact with its spirits. Some Jaltaabe (experienced fisherman) are locally known to be so powerful that they can make a Fulbe herder and his cattle return back through the river through their magical ‘knowledge’ of the water if the herder has not asked for permission to cross. Every caste is said to own the knowledge of their domain that other groups do not have access to and this helps them exercise power over elements that all local groups depend on. Although Fulbe herders, Ceddo warriors and Toroobe clerics are higher status castes, the Sublalbe’s ability to ‘control’ the river has somewhat equalised power relations between these groups.

The growing prevalence of state school education, however, has impacted upon how traditional knowledge practices are valued and how they grant authority and power. Whereas in the past, a person adept in spiritual knowledge practices was highly regarded and respected, youngsters following Western education consider this knowledge superfluous. Political influence, power and social mobility are now achieved through one’s ability to engage with the statutory structures and the demands of a globalising society. This paper explores changing power relations between castes and how the Subalbe re-evaluate their ‘knowledge of the water’ through education and their transforming perceptions of how wealth, success and recognition should be achieved.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.