Accepted Paper:

The Dammed Serpent: undercurrents in Australian water policy  


Veronica Strang (Durham University)

Paper short abstract:

Comparing diverse visions of ‘living water’ and its place in social and ecological processes, this paper examines dominant and subaltern biopolitical relations in Australia. It considers how such relations and their ideologies are expressed through differing aspirations for hydrological control.

Paper long abstract:

For indigenous Australians, the Rainbow Serpent encapsulates a vision of hydrotheological order, ensuring the movement of water and spiritual being through invisible and visible dimensions of the world. Invasions of its underground/underwater domain and the stemming of its flows are believed to contravene the right way of doing things. In a different idiom, conservation groups envisage an ecological order which also requires the free flow of water to all species. Yet Australian water policy requires only minimum 'environmental flows' to be maintained in aquatic ecosystems, and in times of drought these controlled (and much debated) 'allocations' are often sacrificed to the needs of domestic and agricultural water users. In valorising creative 'productivity' through water, State governments and major industries remain keen to initiate new dams and water diversions.

In the 'biopolitical economies of vitality' few things express dominance over - and disregard for - other species as fully as the appropriation of water to meet the needs and desires of human communities. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research in Australia, this paper suggests that such appropriations represent a desire to direct 'life itself': a way to seize vitality and control the inexorable flow of time. The discussion highlights a notion of 'culture' as an application of human agency, and casts 'nature' as the alternate agency of other species and environments. In this sense, the groups that oppose dam building, or whose lifeways eschew such intensive material direction of the environment, may be said to espouse more cooperative biopolitical positions and, perhaps, a greater willingness to 'go with the flow'.

Panel P11
Living water: the powers and politics of a vital substance