Inf03


Water futures: making a living in times of environmental uncertainty 
Convenors:
Noah Walker-Crawford (University of Manchester)
Tom Boyd (University of Manchester)
Discussant:
Veronica Strang (Durham University)
Stream:
Infrastructure
Format:
Panels
Location:
Examination Schools Room 14
Start time:
19 September, 2018 at 9:00 (UTC+0)
Session slots:
3

Short Abstract:

Water shapes life. It mediates our understanding of an increasingly unstable environment in the context of climate change. This panel explores how people's engagements with water shape imaginations of water futures and their respective speculative life possibilities.

Long Abstract

Water shapes life - not only as a fundamental biological basis for life or as a material necessary for continued survival, but in the constitution of myriad lifeworlds. In anthropology, we can approach water as a 'total social fact' (Orlove & Caton 2010). Maintaining desired flows of water is often a complex affair. This can involve physical water infrastructures, conflict and negotiation concerning appropriate use and legitimate users, or even efforts to appease non-human beings. Following recent and renewed interest within studies of infrastructure, materiality, and STS, water has become a significant site of ethnographic inquiry in times of environmental crisis.

In an age of global climate change, water is often a source of increasing environmental instability. Shifting flows and presence of water dramatically alter the possibilities of life through scarcity, extreme weather, glacial retreat, devastating floods and sea level rise. Not only technical experts make forecasts about future water developments. In their daily lives, many people speculate how waterscapes and flows may transform, finish or even wash away places. Recognising that water mediates understandings of environmental change, we can explore how imaginings about future availability and flows of water shape people's speculations about the generative and destructive potentialities that arise from uncertain waterscapes.

This panel seeks to explore how people's engagements with water shape their future imaginings. Acknowledging the possibilities water possesses for both opportunity and peril, we invite papers exploring water futures in relation with, for example, considerations of well-being, risk, connectivity, and remoteness.

Discussant: Prof Veronica Strang (Durham University)

Accepted papers:

Author:

Marketa Zandlova (Charles University in Prague)

Paper short abstract:

The paper, based on the ethnography of drought in Czechia, explores the interplay between the actors' assumptions about water scarcity/abundance, their notions of infrastructure as material form facilitating water supply, and their imaginations of the "manageability" of environmental change.

Paper long abstract:

During my research on drought in Southern Moravia, the Czech Republic, one of my research partners, who lives in a flat in a village, told me: 'We have a water pipeline here, so I´m not concerned about the drought'. A man from the neighbourhood, manager of a big farm, seems to ponder the question of the potential water scarcity much more carefully. Although the farm has satisfactory access to water currently, he plans to dig a deeper well that could help to secure enough irrigation water in the future. In the very same region, a team of natural scientists from the Czech Academy of Sciences conducts part of their larger project called InterSucho ('InterDrought'), aimed at monitoring and prediction of meteorological and agricultural drought. In their expertise, based mainly on measurements (satellites, moisture meters etc.) and mathematical models, Southern Moravia is one of the most vulnerable regions to drought in Czechia, directly endangered by future episodes of very serious lack of surface water as well as groundwater.

Analyzing this three cases, I would like to explore the interplay between (1) the actors' assumptions about the current and future water scarcity/abundance, stemming from the assemblage of various knowledge systems and experience; (2) the actors' notion of the significance of water infrastructure as technology and material form; and (3) the imaginations concerning the "manageability" of the changes in the complex geo-bio-physical and socio-cultural systems resulting from the environmental instability.

Author:

David Whyte (University College Cork)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the difference between the relationships cultivated while surfing oceanic waves versus while surfing in wave-pools, an emerging technology which radically transform the surfing landscape. It will discuss the effect of these on surfer environmentalism and environmental intimacy.

Paper long abstract:

Through their practical engagements with salt water, surfers establish relationships with and understandings of each other and the coastal environment. This practice develops an intimacy with the coast, which becomes valued as a partner in the hard but rewarding work of surfing. However, due to the fickle nature of ocean swells and winds, every surfer also dreams of the possibility of man-made waves that break to perfection at the touch of a button in one's backyard. In 2015 this became a reality with the opening of Surf Snowdonia in north Wales, home to a wave-pool capable of generating waves comparable to those that surfers surf in the ocean.

This paper explores one key question: What is the difference between the relationship cultivated with the environment while practicing in a wave-pool versus while being submerged in saltwater at the coast? Based on comparative ethnography of ocean surfers in the West of Ireland, and wave-pool surfers at Surf Snowdonia, the paper will investigate how coastal surfers employ salt water as a medium through which their bodies connect with atmospheric forces at a great scale, and, in contrast, how as the surfing landscape is technologized, transported inland and otherwise transformed in the wave pool, practitioners become detached from these environmental energies. Not only might surfing become, in a sense, "artificial," but a lack of intimacy with the coast inhibits the development of environmentalist concepts which are to be valued amongst the global surfing community in the present moment of rapid environmental change.

Author:

Sandro Simon (University of Cologne)

Paper short abstract:

This paper traces how the dwellers of the Sine-Saloum Delta navigate through their volatile lifeworld by focusing on clam digging, a highly tactile practice that requires constant (re)attunement as one strives to anticipates and follow the tides and to move on and with/in moving water and soil.

Paper long abstract:

Life in the hypersaline Sine-Saloum Delta is characterized by continuous change as it unfolds along seasons and tides, or, the shifts between wet-dry and freshwater-saltwater. During the dry season, families mine salt, women dig for clams and men fish or transport people and goods between 'les îles' and 'la terre'. The rainy season again hinders the drying of clams and fish, so that people turn towards agriculture, the (re-)construction of pirogues or jobs 'sur terre'. Seasonality hence determines what one does throughout the year. Tides, in turn, shape waterwork, or, when and how to dig and boat.

This paper traces the delta's volatility and how its inhabitants' navigate through it by means of their flexibility, creativity and imagination by focusing on clam digging. For millennia, clams have been eaten and traded while their shells accreted in middens and have been used for pottery, dams, streets and houses. Life, one could say, is built on and around them. Today, women use their fingers and feet to dig for them, before processing and eventually selling them. This highly tactile practice requires constant (re)attunement as the women move on and with/in moving water and soil that offer less and less harvest due to siltation and overexploitation. Moreover, tides need to be anticipated and followed while they resonate and conflict with the other (a)rhythmic events of everyday life, such as day and night, prayer times, feasts or market prizes, further challenging the women's navigation between knowledge and performance or plan and situated action.

Author:

Cori Bender (University of South Florida)

Paper short abstract:

Hurricanes in the Caribbean region are a force capable of altering lives in profound ways that influence how water is understood, in times of both scarcity and extreme inundation.

Paper long abstract:

Hurricanes in the Caribbean region have long been a force capable of altering lives and livelihoods in profound ways. These massive storms give water the potential to be intensely destructive for people and the environments we interact with. From the perspective of water disaster vulnerability and political ecology, this paper explores historical and ongoing engagement of U.S. Virgin Islanders with how their water-energy nexus has been transformed in the past and today by these disaster events. The focus is on how the community copes with times of water scarcity and times of extreme water disaster events through public infrastructures and mitigation strategies. Water scarcity provides a mechanism for revealing manifestations of local political ecologies. Scarcity does not simply refer to the amount of available resource, but who has access to them and in what way (Johnston 2012:xiii), suggesting that scarcity is not distributed evenly and is impacted by uncertain water flows (Whiteford and Vindrola Padros 2011). This work is based on ethnographic research conducted prior to the recent hurricane season that produced two category five hurricanes weeks apart, but is also informed by the current post-disaster environment that the community of the U.S. Virgin Islands must engage with. Within the ongoing community disaster recovery plans is the concept of Building Back Better (BBB). The following paper investigates the Virgin Islands community's imaginings of water in relation to disaster vulnerability and how the BBB framework influences local perspectives and practices in relation to the water-energy nexus.

Author:

Kh. Neil Young (Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi )

Paper short abstract:

Majuli Island is a waterscape. The paper explores the various flood narratives on Majuli and argues that such narratives are shaped by certain political economy. Such narratives of flood in turn construct people's imagination of their possible future that can arise from uncertain waterscapes.

Paper long abstract:

Majuli, the world largest river island on the Brahmaputra, represents an interesting waterscape inhabited by tribal and non-tribal communities. The island, known for its unique culture and its potential disappearance (over the last 50 years the island's size has been reduced from 1200sq km to about 400sq km due to erosion), has captured the imagination of climate change. The constantly shrinking of land masses have re-shaped the social geography and economic wellbeing of the riverine communities in myriad ways. It has produced a live in flux shaped by vulnerabilities, risk and uncertainties. Despite all these, flood continue to be a way of life for the riverine communities. Given the centrality of water in shaping the future of Majuli, it is critical to examine the flood narratives prevailing on the Island to understand how different actors and institutions imagine the possible future that can arise from uncertain waterscapes. Taking water as both materially and discursively, the paper tries to understand the way water shapes lives, the environment and the possible opportunity or peril that it can generate. Based on ethnographic work, the paper proposes to understand the different narratives of flood on Majuli namely 1) Taming of Nature Narratives 2) Save Majuli Narratives 3) Everyday Narratives of Flood. The paper argues that such flood narratives are deeply shaped by certain political economy. Further, it argues that the narratives of flood in turn construct or determine people's imagination of their possible future that can arise from uncertain waterscapes.

Author:

Natasa Gregoric Bon (Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy o Sciences and Arts)

Paper short abstract:

Departing from the notion of water as a 'total social fact', this paper questions how short- and long-term environmental water-connected changes in contemporary Albania are related to the ways in which people understand environmental futures.

Paper long abstract:

Departing from the notion of water as a 'total social fact', this paper questions how short- and long-term environmental water-connected changes in contemporary Albania are related to the ways in which people understand environmental futures. It focuses on the people living in the valley of river Vjosa that springs in northern Greece, straddles the Greek-Albanian border where it continues to flow the Adriatic Sea. Similar to many other rivers the Vjosa has been an important strategic route along which civilisations have formed. Like other rivers in Albania Vjosa's life-giving (birth, life and abundance) and life-taking (floods, loss and danger) nature is embodied in the Albanian mythology that speaks of a dragon-serpent called Kuçedra which is known for her fierce ugliness and frightening powers. This serpent-like giant is ambiguous in character; on the one hand, it can bring about storms, floods or droughts, while on the other it can also protect and connect the sky, water and earth, ensuring general well-being. Even though it seems to be an almost forgotten mythological figure in contemporary Albanian society, Kuçedra still forms an important part of the riverine time-scape. While explicitly floods, water inundations, droughts or soil denudations, as well as different infrastructural interventions (e.g. hydropower plant constructions), are attributed to political machinations, implicitly they can still be seen to resonate with mythological cosmology. Similarly, these underlying mythological components navigate peoples' understandings of their water futures.

Author:

Noah Walker-Crawford (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

In the Peruvian Andes, glacial retreat raises worries about flood risk in the short term and water scarcity in the long term. Glaciers and mountain lakes are sites of negotiation between urban authorities and rural communities over how these future threats should be valued and addressed.

Paper long abstract:

In the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca mountain range, locals have watched with alarm as glaciers disappeared rapidly over the past decades. Melting ice has caused glacial lakes to grow in volume and number, threatening downstream cities with the risk of outburst floods. This is a significant concern for urban authorities who have sought to address flood risk through security infrastructure at dangerous lakes. Potential flooding is less of a concern for rural communities that instead stress the worry that glacial retreat will lead to water scarcity, posing an existential threat as many depend on glacial meltwater for irrigation and survival. Nevertheless, rural labourers implement the city authorities' lake security projects. Beyond installing and maintaining security infrastructure, they also make appeals to lake and mountain beings to prevent them from causing disaster. Distinct forms of knowledge arise and coalesce as rural labourers and urban authorities engage with a shifting environment. Andean glaciers are sites of negotiation over how water will shape or threaten life in the short and long-term future.

Author:

Tom Boyd (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores ethical reflections concerning prospective large infrastructure projects on a large river island in Northeast India, elucidating the attached hopes and fears bundled up within these imagined water futures for those living beside the river.

Paper long abstract:

Rivers offer both boons and dangers. For those that live on the large rural river island of Majuli in Northeast India, dramatic variations in seasonal water levels provide distinct challenges and opportunities. This includes the flows by which people and goods move in and out from the island.

Many Majuli residents have long argued that poor access to healthcare and few employment opportunities on the island necessitate new and improved infrastructure to increase connectivity with nearby regional hubs. Conversations concerning these prospective infrastructure projects, namely a new road bridge, fostered ethical reflections of the both desired and undesired flows that would be smoothened through the replacement of the present (slower and inconsistent) ferry service. Emergency medical treatment might be more easily sort, but might this too make it easier for thieves to come and go without detection? Jobs in nearby towns might become more easily accessible, but might the peaceful character of the place be lost? In this way, these deliberations would frequently be couched within considerations of well-being, risk, and potential future prosperity.

Based on ethnographic research, this paper explores how a focus on ethical reflections in conversations concerning prospective large infrastructure projects on the river draws out the transformative connections and disconnections they might facilitate. In so doing, it helps to elucidate the hopes and fears bundled up within imagined future life trajectories, or water futures, for those living beside the river.

Author:

Sayd Randle (University of Southern California)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the expectations for and meanings of L.A.'s water future articulated through artistic representations of the city's water network. I show how infrastructural imagery is used to index anxieties about crises of water scarcity-to-come.

Paper long abstract:

Empty aqueducts. Bleached out water tanks. Rusted cloud seeding machines. In recent years, images of derelict water infrastructure have become common tropes in cultural production dramatizing the future of the United States West. Readers and viewers are drawn into witnessing the region's infrastructural ruins, and to contemplating a desiccated California-to-come. Drawing on participant observation among the producers of these works and selected readings of their texts, this paper unravels the affective and symbolic dimensions of such confrontations with the arid region's abject aqueducts. Situating the production of narratives centered on these future-ruins within the growing Anthropocene literature, I also examine the politics of these fables of high modernist engineering's coming failures. I focus particularly on works representing the infrastructures of the pipeline-dependent city of Los Angeles. The L.A. Aqueduct system has delivered Sierra Nevada snowmelt to the Southern California metropolis since 1913. Initially celebrated as a symbol of civic pride and technical ingenuity, the pipeline took on a darker cultural meaning after the 1974 release of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, one tinged with guilt for swindling faraway regions out of their water. Since the Aqueduct's centennial, new works have emerged, envisioning futures in which the pipeline delivers no water. This shift - from a focus on an unjust past to one on an impotent future for the Aqueduct - suggests a substantially different basis for critique of regional water supply arrangements, and an emergent set of ideas about time, technology, and prospects for human habitation in the arid urban West.

Author:

Franz Krause (University of Cologne)

Paper short abstract:

This presentation describes the water- and ice-related means of transport in the Delta, and expands on some of the uncertainties for its inhabitants that a changing climate has introduced into this pattern.

Paper long abstract:

Water connects people and places throughout the Mackenzie Delta in the Canadian Arctic. For part of the year, this water is liquid, and for another frozen. While both states afford fairly safe travel, it is in the phases of freezing and thawing that travel and transport get more complicated. During freeze-up and break-up, people stay put and transport networks are disrupted.

This presentation describes the water- and ice-related means of transport in the Delta, and expands on some of the uncertainties for its inhabitants that a changing climate has introduced into this pattern. Summers are said to be stormier, and winters warmer. Delta inhabitants worry about unreliable ice conditions, increased erosion and low water levels. Will the winters be melting away into an open-ended freeze-up and break-up? Will the warmer waters spread diseases and unwelcome animals? And will these water futures lead to a further marginalization of the Delta inhabitants, who already feel culturally, politically and economically disenfranchised?