Owning water: elusive forms and alternate appropriations
Location H
Date and Time 9th December, 2008 at 13:30


Veronica Strang (Durham University) veronica.strang@durham.ac.uk
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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.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Fluid Forms: owning water in Australia

Author: Veronica Strang (Durham University) veronica.strang@durham.ac.uk

Short Abstract

Drawing on recent research in Queensland, this paper considers notions of ownership in relation to water. It observes that the material qualities of water encourage processual, fluid 'ways of owning' that challenge artificially fixed concepts of property and exclusive forms of ownership.


Drawing on recent ethnographic research with river catchment groups and other environmental managers in Queensland, this paper considers notions of ownership in relation to water. Building on the precept that human-environmental engagements are mutually constitutive in both material and metaphorical terms, it observes that, as a relation between persons and things, concepts of property require some degree of material stasis. It suggests that the material qualities water elude such conceptual fixity, and enable - indeed necessitate - more fluid forms of ownership.

Making comparative use of some of the principles of Aboriginal Law, it considers subaltern 'ways of owning' that are processually acquired: through the accumulation of knowledge; through creative processes of identity construction; through the construction of aesthetic and emotional attachments to place; and through imaginative and physical engagements with a material environment. More phenomenological ways of owning are implicitly or explicitly connected to wider social and cultural processes, and thus subvert the concept of enclosure and separation on which conventional notions of property depend.

Water ownership in Australia, as elsewhere, is central to a longstanding ideological tensions between collective rights, and the desire of individuals and elite groups to enclose and gain control of water 'resources'. There is a parallel divergence in values with, on the one hand, a commitment to sustaining social and ecological needs and, on the other, an approach dominated by competitive short-termism. As well as challenging conventional notions of property, alternate forms of water ownership draw attention to the specialised nature of economic activities and their separation from wider social and ecological processes. This paper suggests that, although currently subsumed by dominant discourses and values, alternate claims therefore have some potential to support a more integrated and thus sustainable approach to environmental management

Appropriation of urban space and water supply in informal urban settlements of Papua New Guinea

Author: Jaka Repic (University of Ljubljana) jaka.repic@guest.arnes.si

Short Abstract

The paper examines inter-group relations in Port Moresby’s informal settlement Two Mile through perspective of appropriation of space and water supply. Appropriation of water in Two Mile symbolizes delineation, organisation and appropriation of urban space in the settlement.


The paper examines inter-group relations in Port Moresby’s informal urban settlement Two Mile through perspective of appropriation of space and water supply. Illegal settlements, home to numerous small communities or social networks (wantok system), are marginal urban spaces of intense social interactions where identities are being reconstructed and redefined. As clusters of interactions between different social groups, every part of these settlements is consciously and carefully transformed into a place where familiar relations are established. Relations between the communities are manifested in the settlements’ (illegal) water supply network. Water pipes are clearly visible, laid on the surface and form an extensive network, which represents organisation and division of space in the settlements. Because there are many small groups in Two Mile, the network of water pipes has become extremely chaotic. Due to unprofessional water connections there is an enormous leakage. Hence, the name of the national water company Eda Ranu, which in Hiri Motu means ‘our water’, is perfectly justified.

Appropriation of water connections is a common practice in Port Moresby’s urban settlements with even political campaigns sometimes revolving around legalizing old or establishing new connections. Among different groups in the Two Mile settlement the network of water distribution and appropriation of space represent spatial conceptions of home and system of urban socio-cultural identity (wantok network). Appropriation of water connections thus symbolizes delineating, organising and appropriating of urban space in the settlement.

Enlivening development: Water management in the post-conflict city of Baucau, Timor Leste

Author: Lisa Palmer (University of Melbourne) lrpalmer@unimelb.edu.au

Short Abstract

This paper explores how the 'development enterprise' in Timor Leste is (mis)recognizing the potential of existing governance of local customary institutions in relation to water supply and management.


This paper explores how the state and others involved in the 'development enterprise' in Timor Leste are (mis)recognizing the potential of the existing governance and exchange capacities of local customary institutions and practices in relation to water supply and management. Examining the problematic of water supply in a post-conflict city, it ponders how these customary institutions might be better supported to extend their range of political and economic credibility and contribute to a reconfiguration of dominant community-managed water supply agreements. The paper draws on the political and economic theory developed by Gibson-Graham (2006) and draws out in a particular place based instance the workings of a diverse economy where a customary economy is enmeshed with, and to some extent undermining, a weak capitalist sector. The paper argues that a failure to address issues of resource ownership and control and to engage the strengths and import of local customary institutions will have serious ramifications for the successful implementation of Timor Leste's national development objectives in the city of Baucau and elsewhere in Timor Leste. As such the paper also seeks to critique approaches to a customary recognition space which are based on a rural/urban divide—the customary economy admitted to some extent in the former but elided in the latter. Instead it argues for an enlivened development approach wherein locally socialised landscapes are recognised as key political sites with which 'development' can engage and power relations can shift.

The water is ours. Local conflicts on ownership and appropriation of irrigation water

Author: Filipa Fernandes (CAPP/ School of Political and Social Sciences - University of Lisbon) filipafernandes1@gmail.com

Short Abstract

This text is about the relations between irrigation water, memory and local conflicts in the midst of a local peasant community, forged daily.


In this rural village, located on the southwest coast of Madeira Island, peasants(heréus)share irrigation water, a common right acquired due to the land purchase. In that place, conflicts, discussions and strains build up around water, always have been frequent. The purpose is to analyse the social dynamics associated with the management of water resources, which transform the Levada do Moinho (water cannal) into a contestation space, more precisely, identiy and analyse the places, actors and situations of internal conflicts, recorded during the giro (rotation of water). Knowing that water resources are a common good, this case shows the obstacles on maximizing the resource by the creation of several mechanisms which turn the water a target of several manipultions.

Down the drain: control and ownership of the 'problem' of storm water

Author: Kathryn Scott (University of Auckland) scottkm@landcareresearch.co.nz

Short Abstract

This paper examines values, meanings and practices associated with ‘ownership’ and management of storm water and implications for ‘low impact’ approaches to urban environmental management.


Water is often regarded as a common good. Anthropologists have undertaken valuable analysis of values and meanings that shape contestations over water, with a focus on water supply. Conventional urban environmental management differentiates '3 waters' (potable, waste and storm) based on models of infrastructure provision. Storm water, that is, surface water run-off, is generally considered a 'problem' to be managed rather than a resource. No-one claims ownership of storm water. Local governments manage storm water against risk of flooding and contamination of waterways. Urban residents pay for storm water (and potable and waste) services via rates and have limited engagement with water source and destination issues.

This paper investigates management and control of storm water, drawing on ethnographic research undertaken as part of the Low Impact Urban Design and Development (LIUDD) research programme. LIUDD employs natural systems and new low-impact technologies to manage storm water. Low impact approaches potentially transform storm water into a resource rather than a problem and shift responsibility from the expert domain of 'hard' engineering to a broader range of stakeholders. While council planners support low impact approaches, asset managers are often resist to devolving responsibility for storm water into more localised (and privatised) forms of management. They are concerned, for example, that while on-site devices (rain gardens, rain tanks, permeable paving, vegetated areas) can adequately treat run-off, efficacy is reliant on owners installing, maintaining and retaining the devices over time. This paper explores storm water issues with reference to anthropological theories of ownership and property.

Creating 'Un-natural' Groupings to Appropriate an Ancestor

Author: Marama Muru-Lanning (University of Auckland) m.murulanning@auckland.ac.nz

Short Abstract

How 'natural' are 'large natural groupings'? The Government's policy of 'large natural groupings' forces Maori groups to gather together to negotiate their Waitangi Claims with the Crown. This paper examines the implications of this policy for Maori settled around the Waikato River.


Maori have a long history of settlement and movement along the Waikato River and, for many, the river is a tupuna, an ancestor which can't be 'owned'. In recent times Maori have been re-territorialised in a way that is better understood in 'metaphorical' terms as, rather than being physically separated from the river by forced land sales and public works developments, they are being alienated from the river by the creation of modern iwi identities. To broker compensatory agreements with the Crown, Maori have to demonstrate that they are robust iwi entities who occupy ancestral territories. This paper examines the emergence of contemporary subjects and spaces of the Waikato River such as 'iwi authorities'and 'iwi-stakeholders'.

While the new iwi structures created to manage tribes and administer their finances have had some success, the prevailing modus operandi of tribal self governance has been questioned (see Cheater and Hopa 1997; Poata-Smith 2004 and van Meijl 1990, 2003). The State's reconstruction of iwi as the singularly most important unit of Maori identity has excluded long-time Maori city dwellers from Crown reconciliation monies and tribal customary rights. The Government's 'large natural groupings' policy and legislation such as the Waikato Raupatu Settlement Act 1995 has seen power captured by tribal members who in the past may not have been eligible to hold influential tribal positions. Consequently, a number of Maori living in traditional settlements along the Waikato River feel that their whanau (family) and marae (family clusters) are not represented by the sanctioned iwi authorities.