Owning water: elusive forms and alternate appropriations

Veronica Strang (Durham University)
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Short abstract:

The fluidity of water challenges notions of property and encourages people to regard it as a common good. However, a globalising market has led to efforts to enclose and privatise water resources. This panel considers these efforts and the diverse counter-movements that resist or subvert them.

Long abstract:

Water is difficult to own: it can only be contained in large quantities with difficulty, and is prone to moving about, running away, or evaporating. It is therefore difficult to pin down as 'property'. This physical elusiveness presents a challenge to notions of ownership, which are more readily applied either to intangible abstractions, such as intellectual property, or to more concrete objects, such as areas of land, timber, minerals, or material culture. Coupled with the reality that humans cannot exist without it, water's fluid nature has tended to ensure that, over time, people have persisted in regarding it as a collectively owned 'common good'. However, water resources are finite and, in a globalising market, this view is increasingly at odds with economically 'rational' attempts to reconstitute water as private property, or as the commercial product of privatised industries. Around the world, this push for enclosure has been manifested in a variety of ways, and it has generated many kinds of resistance, ranging from largely discursive protests over the privatisation of the water industry in the UK, to more extreme demonstrations of discontent in Bolivia. Also emerging is a range of subtle counter-movements promoting alternative forms of water ownership and appropriation: for example, through the creation of mechanisms for community control in environmental management; or through the assertion of indigenous rights and the development of co-management schemes. This panel invites papers that explore these issues in diverse ethnographic contexts, and which consider their implications for anthropological theories of ownership and property.

Accepted Papers: