SIEF2017 13th Congress: Göttingen, Germany
26-30 March 2017

Amphibious dwelling: exploring life between wet and dry
Location KWZ 0.606
Date and Start Time 29 March, 2017 at 08:30
Sessions 2


  • Franz Krause (University of Cologne) email
  • Mark Harris (University of St Andrews) email

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Short Abstract

This panel discusses ways of amphibious dwelling and probes into the theoretical and methodological tools for approaching life between water and land.

Long Abstract

Accusing classic anthropological research of a bias towards terra firma, recent work has emphasised the water-bound ways of social and cultural production. Human dwelling, so the critique goes, unfolds as much in relation to water as grounded on dry land. While this intervention has undoubtedly helped to uncover some disciplinary blind spots, it implicitly or explicitly reaffirms a divide of the world into wet and dry, water and land.

This panel seeks to take the discussion beyond this divide by focusing on the amphibious - ways of life in a world that is dry at times and wet at others, and often a mixture of both. This is the world of floodplain inhabitants, coastal people, river delta denizens, and wetland dwellers, among others. We invite presentations that describe the dwelling practices of such people and analyse their particular amphibious predicaments - for instance in terms of crisis (climate change, flooding, subsidence, salinization, etc), craft (infrastructures, material cultures, social arrangements) or creativity (volatile hydrosociality, skilled improvisations, rhythms). Our aim is to better understand what - if anything - is specific about amphibious life, and what theories and methods are best geared to grasping how people dwell between and beyond wet and dry.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Where Land and Water Meet: Changing relations in the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) delta in Myanmar

Author: Benoit Ivars (University of Cologne)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses the land-and-water dynamics surrounding the development of water infrastructures in the Ayeyarwady river delta. It will shed light on the influences and relationships of different infrastructuring types with the amphibiousness of the deltas.

Long Abstract

In recent years a number of scholars have highlighted the so-called 'open approaches' to flood management as tailored to the necessity of free passage of water and sediments on the floodplains. In contrast to the dominant stream of closing-of initiatives that often consist in building barriers between lands and waters, such as in the case of polders or embankments, these practices have been described as providing openings for ecological dynamics in delta environments. This paper analyses the history of land and water control measures in the Ayeyarwady delta in Myanmar to show how different infrastructuring types resonate with the delta amphibiousness. Rather than taking infrastructures either as 'openings' or 'closings', this paper attempts to follow a more balanced approach, raising questions about what is open to whom, and what is closed to whom? In other words, it outlines how 'open' or 'closed' the components of different infrastructuring types were, and how their relationships with land and water resources conditions affected dwellings in the delta. The article's intention is twofold. First, it seeks to expand our repertoire of how water and land are merged and separated by human activities and how those activities are in turn shaped by political and ecological dynamics. Second, it seeks to ignite a sense of place that is neither overly wet nor dry, open nor closed, and emphasizes the need to better grasp the interactions between infrastructural forms and watery relationships as well as their variations in space and time.

Seasonality, Climate Variations and transformations of landscapes in the floodplains of the RDS Mamirauá, Amazonas, Brazil.

Authors: Edna Alencar (Federal University of Pará - UFPA)  email
Isabel Sousa (Instituto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá - IDSM)  email

Short Abstract

For the last 20 years in the floodplains of the RDS Mamirauá, Amazonas, Brazil, recurring extreme climatic events such as floods and droughts are changing the landscapes and the ways of life. This article points out some responses of local populations when faced with these changes in the landscapes.

Long Abstract

In the floodplains of the RDS Mamirauá lapped by the Solimões River, in the state of Amazonas, the seasonal variation in water level followed a regular calendar, set in two periods: the flood (rainy season) and the drought (dry season). The local population of the villages along this river made diverse use of this ecosystem for their livelihood, and developed strategies to inhabit this changing environment and face its seasonality. Their cumulative ecological knowledge, techniques and skills allowed them to identify patterns and to elaborate forecasts to carry out agriculture, fishing and logging. In the last 20 years, climate variability and climate warming caused extraordinary hydrological events such as extreme floods and droughts, changing the timing of seasonality and the depth and duration of flooding. The floods of 1999, 2009, 2012 and 2014 and the droughts of 1995, 2005 and 2010 affected the lives of riverine people by changing the calendar of production and altering the landscapes, drawing attention to the effects of climate change on the ecosystem. Based on a case study of the village of San Francisco, this paper analyzes the responses of local people to address events that transform their landscapes, modify the frequency and duration of flooding and alter their way of life and interactions with their environment. The implementation of new strategies to develop forecasts, organize agricultural and fishing calendars or replace their stilt houses for houseboats, indicates a new regime of coexistence strategies when facing climate and landscape unpredictability.

Volatile Powers: Place- and Force-Making in the Tana Delta and Beyond

Author: Sandro Simon (University of Cologne)  email

Short Abstract

The Tana Delta has a longstanding history of ecological change, territorial re-organization and socio-political tensions. This papers seeks to show how this relates to the delta's own high socio-physical volatility and the multi-stranded and -directional flows of power in and beyond the delta.

Long Abstract

The nesting of power in a delta (e.g. dams, irrigation schemes) is both a spatial and a temporal phenomena. Places of power are continuously becoming more of a place and less of a place. Thereby, the flows that help to constitute them, for instance water, knowledge or money, are not uni-directional: A dam or irrigation project is neither 'put over' a place nor the direct result of upstream to downstream- or global to local-flow, because both 'place-making' and 'force-making' are caught up in differently scaled and interrelated phenomena at the same time (cf. Tsing 2002).

In the case of the 16,800 ha Tana Delta Irrigation Project, funded in 1987 by the Japanese development cooperation, international and national actors with diverging political and economic agendas tried to establish a project that aimed at boosting rice production and transforming local work practices from farming and herding to wage labor. However, the project was characterized by non-functionality (e.g. in terms of output, hydrology or local food security and public health) and was largely abandoned after the destruction of its main embankment by El Niño floods in 1998.

Hence, the project was on the one hand indeed a strong driver of social and physical change but, on the other hand, largely dissolved because of its inability to 'dance along' to the volatile and interrelated socio-physical flows. Thus, this paper will try to trace how its fixity, both materially and conceptually, prevented it from establishing a spatially and temporally persistent, and simultaneously emergent, place of power.

An Upwelling from the Past? The Tidal Flood Crisis in Semarang, Indonesia

Author: Lukas Ley (Heidelberg University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses a politics of time that shapes the coastal wetlands of Semarang, a coastal metropolis of Indonesia. Are recent tidal floods an “upwelling from times long past” (Trumbull 2013) that questions the violence of swamp modernization?

Long Abstract

Inspired by recent crisis studies, this paper addresses two questions: what happens to dominant frameworks of time in the event of crisis and what social processes and dynamics prevent the creative making of futures - even or especially in the event of crisis? To answer these questions, the paper draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Indonesia between 2014-15: the coastal neighborhoods of Semarang, an important port city, are constructed on marshy land that is rapidly subsiding. Dysfunction of urban drainage systems translates obliquely but regularly into tidal floods of coastal neighborhoods. But regular tidal flooding ("rob") does never amount to a singular catastrophe - it is a series of "quasi-events" (Povinelli 2011) that produces unaccountable suffering. Residents have no choice but to perpetuate this (infra)structural violence, lifting streets and houses above sea level. This anticipatory configuration creates a chronic need of capital flow, often forcing communities to find illicit ways of coping. Semarang's planning agency questions this "chaotic" adaptation and imagines an "integrative" solution. Its new drainage master plan promises an end to rob through "river normalization." In view of this normative flood management, I reveal the reaffirmation of a dominant politics of time that colonizes the future of the urbanized swamp by shaping the outcome of its socioecological processes. Should we therefore read rob as a return of the swamp (Giblett 1998)? Is rob an "upwelling from the past" (Trumbull 2013) that questions the violence of modernization? Does tidal flooding point to a different future - an amphibious way of life?

"Never say die" - notes on a stubborn hamlet in an Arctic river delta

Author: Franz Krause (University of Cologne)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation relates narratives from Aklavik, NWT (Canada), to the grand narrative of progress and modernity, and elaborates some inherent frictions.

Long Abstract

Aklavik is a settlement of around 600 inhabitants in the centre on the Canadian Mackenzie Delta. Its multi-ethnic population is mostly comprised of people belonging to the Inuvialuit and Gwich'in First Nations. These and other groups congregated at Aklavik in the process of the fur trade, which had its peak in the Mackenzie Delta during the early 20th century, when Aklavik turned into a regional hub for services and administration.

After a series of floods, and the realization that expanding Aklavik into the muddy delta would be rather complicated, the government decided to relocate the hamlet and its inhabitants to higher ground at the edge of the delta, where they created a purpose built town. While most services and many people moved, some preferred to stay in Aklavik, preferring the proximity of trap lines, fish camp sites and a small community to the permanent roads, municipal infrastructure and urban appeal of the new town. Some of the remaining inhabitants, not without a sense of humour, coined the hamlet's new slogan: 'never say die!'

This presentation will outline some of the idiosyncrasies of life in Aklavik, which people often formulate in opposition to the more modern and progressive ways of town life. It will trace the role that the amphibious delta environment plays in these narratives of distinctiveness, and point to some possible relations between this amphibiousness and the hamlet's multi-ethnic setup.

Living inside the reservation: new vernacular architecture in the Danube Delta

Author: Alexandra Dinca (National University of Political Studies and Public Administration)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the new vernacular architecture of villages in the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, shaped by climate change, changes in legislation and growing tourist activities. There is nearly nothing amphibious left about it today.

Long Abstract

After centuries of living in semi-isolated conditions, some of the small villages of the Danube Delta have become important tourist attractions, as the Communist regime fell and Romania became a part of the European Union. Simultaneously, the interest in the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve (DDBR) grew bigger, which lead to an important shift in the lifestyle of the inhabitants. New local and European policies encouraged tourism instead of fishing and reed exploitation. But, as expectations changed, so did the infrastructure and the cultural landscape of the delta.

This paper explores the new vernacular architecture in delta villages, which is shaped by various factors. Foremost among these is climate change, where drought has replaced flooding as the most serious challenge. The last evidence that amphibious dwellings actually existed in the Danube Delta can be found in archive images.

Second, vernacular architecture has been shaped by the rules and legislation of the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Administration, that allows only the use of certain materials in home building and home improvement, limiting the options of the inhabitants to their disadvantage, raising tensions and protests between local representatives and DDBR officials.

Third, the rise of tourist activities has created a gap between communities who can host tourists and the ones that cannot, mainly as a consequence of DDBR management and access.

Dwelling, Pollution, and the Rhetorical Creation of "Nature" on the Waterways of Southern England

Author: Ben Bowles (SOAS/LSE)  email

Short Abstract

Boat-dwellers on the waterways of England, due to their experience of dwelling within the waterscape, come to understand their relationship to “nature” (as they rhetorically construct the concept) as one of proximity, lacking the alienation that they see as being central to the sedentary experience.

Long Abstract

Here, I describe how itinerant boat-dwellers or Boaters, those that live permanently aboard steel narrowboats, fibreglass river cruisers, and riveted steel 'barges' on the canals and rivers of South East England, come to experience and understand nature and pollution through processes of dwelling within, and dealing with, their watery or amphibious environment. Boaters often speak about their choice of housing as allowing them to enjoy a closer relationship with and proximity to "nature" - this despite the fact that they have chosen to live aboard man-made vessels floating upon waterways made or modified by man. This begs the question of what leads Boaters to make such claims of proximity to a "natural" order? I proposes that, through the constitutive acts which take place in the course of dwelling upon the waterways, Boaters learn to experience and interact with their surroundings, neighbours, animals, and other aspects of their environment in a manner which is more immediate and less alienated than would be familiar to sedentary house dwellers. Using Michel Serres' formulation (2008:278), boats' "fragile shell(s)" do little to distance the boat-dwellers from the dynamic watercourses which surround them, from the fickle British weather, from the passage of the seasons, from their own by-products and waste, or from the public space of the towpath.

Sailing ashore. The am-phi-biguous case of Belgian houseboats.

Author: Laurie Daffe (Catholic University of Louvain)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper, the specificities of people living in transformed barges will be detailed. Their constant oscillation between the call of the water and their strong ties to the land will be addressed in terms of materiality and with regard to their relative knowledge of the fluvial environment.

Long Abstract

Until 40 years ago, a great number of commercial barges were circulating on Belgian rivers and canals. Nowadays, hundreds of these vessels have been converted in floating dwellings. In the French speaking part of the country, more than 200 people live on the water, and waiting lists to get an 'official' location are 3 years long.

Even though they live on the water, these river occupants are not bargemen and only a handful of them have experience in sailing. As a consequence, and as the ethnographic study shows, these houses hardly move. Furthermore, material artifacts (gardens, gateways, transformations according to the mooring place…) and daily practices (job, grocery shopping, home cleaning,…) demonstrates how anchored and firmly attached they are to the shore.

The communication will detail the specificities of this way of living, always oscillating between the call of the water and the strength of ties to the land. In an environment lived and perceived as revitalizing as much as hostile, trial and error, physical sensations, ashore-life habits, but also the sharing of skills and knowledge between "fluvial folks", are used to anticipate and mitigate insecure situations (bad stability, floods, drownings,…).

In this context, the study of material artifacts as well as the anthropology of invention of tradition offers a good frame for the analysis of these particular situations. Because, in the end, these approximations appear to be crafty solutions which work pretty well… most of the time!

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.