Accepted paper:

H-2 Uh-Oh: from toxic waters to elemental healing


Georgina Drew (University of Adelaide)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores efforts to heal toxic waters. It examines measures to capture rainwater, to filter groundwater, and to transform 'dead' municipal waters into 'living water'. The aim is to highlight how elemental distrust influences the management and consumption of potentially harmful water.

Paper long abstract:

Even when supporting life, water can usher life's demise. For, beyond its elemental vitality, water is also a conveyor of harmful contamination. As a surfeit of minerals and chemicals enter the collective bloodstream, biotoxins accumulate. The recognition of this threat in a particularly dangerous and cancer-stricken hydroscape led one interlocutor to proclaim that he imagines himself, 'dying each moment' with every sip of water that he imbibes. This sentiment is compounded by the fact that, in water's case, seeing is not believing; even clear-looking water can harbor nefarious elements. To safeguard oneself against water's hidden toxins, some are adopting technologies designed to direct harvest and mechanically 'heal' the waters they consume. This paper examines several such efforts from ten months of fieldwork in South and North India conducted over the last three years. It contemplates the anthropological significance of measures to capture fresh rainwater, to filter and alkalinise groundwater, and to transform 'dead' municipal waters into 'living water'. From the use of affordable Reverse Osmosis systems to expensive 'PH' balancing devices, at stake in this discussion is the emotional-infrastructural work involved in helping people place their trust back in water's nourishing capacities. The aim is to highlight the impact of elemental distrust and ecological grief on how people understand, manage, treat, and consume the toxic waters in their midst. Technological and infrastructural innovation is a means to an end in these safeguarding practices; it enables processes through which a potentially dangerous element is made to feel restorative once more.

panel P35
It's elemental: anthropologies of fundamental things