Accepted Paper:

Water as a vital substance in post-Socialist Kyrgyzstan  


Stephanie Bunn (University of St Andrews)

Paper short abstract:

This paper considers water in Kyrgyzstan both as a source of power contestation and as a source of power in itself. Used both in political leverage, and perceived a cleansing and protecting substance, the paper explores what relationship there is between these two modes of understanding water among Kyrgyz in the region today.

Paper long abstract:

In Kyrgyzstan, water can be a highly charged substance. Coming from snow-melt and glacial sources in the mountains and associated with all that is clean and cleansing, it is both politically significant and has the power to heal. Compared to other Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan, there is almost an abundance of water in Kyrgyzstan. Although regulated, it is generally available for people in villages and town, and is not generally a source of conflict. However, its use in hydro-electric power creates significant tension between Kyrgyz and down-stream Uzbeks who both lack water, negotiating for it in exchange for gas, and suffer the effects of the new inland sea created by Kyrgyz use of their water to make electricity.

But as well as being negotiated for power, water has its own power. At mazars such as Abshyr Ata, people come to the waterfalls and springs to drink holy water for healing, carrying wheel-chairs across the rocks, and taking the water away in bottles. In the Soviet era, healing springs were transformed into sanatoria, or hot baths, the minerals contained in the water listed on posters to reinforce the 'scientific' reasons for them being beneficial for health. In contemporary Kyrgyzstan, healers can imbue water with power, but it can also have its own force and affect people, cleansing and protecting them.

This paper explores the range of manifestations of power in water, and the different kinds of reasoning people give to explain its potency in the region.

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