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P162


Wet horizons: hydrosocial re-articulations in the Anthropocene [EnviroAnt] 
Convenors:
Franz Krause (University of Cologne)
Sandro Simon (University of Cologne)
Nora Horisberger (University of Cologne)
Werner Krauß (University of Bremen)
Benoit Ivars (University of Cologne)
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Format:
Panels
Sessions:
Tuesday 21 July, 11:00-13:00, 14:00-16:00 (UTC+1)

Short Abstract:

How do changing water regimes insert themselves into social and cultural processes? How do current social and cultural arrangements speed up or abate the proliferation of wet horizons? How are more-than-human beings, including animals, plants and spirits, involved in these re-articulations?

Long Abstract

With shifting precipitation patterns, altered seasonal cycles, increasing droughts and floods, melting glaciers and permafrost, wetness had gained renewed social, political and economic significance. Unruly waters undermine infrastructures and inspire new technologies, displace populations and invigorate stock markets. At the same time, the repercussions of increasingly scarce, overabundant or polluted water reproduce social and political divisions and hierarchies. Clear separations between water and land, as upheld conceptually and materially by Western modernity, are increasingly difficult to uphold.

This panel invites ethnographically informed discussions on fluctuating horizons of wetness along coasts and in floodplains, for architecture and agriculture, and related to the infrastructures and policies of their containment. How do changing water regimes insert themselves into existing social and cultural processes? How, in turn, do current social and cultural arrangements speed up or abate the proliferation of wet horizons? How are more-than-human beings, including animals, plants and spirits, involved in these re-articulations?

While scrutinizing these processes of hydrosocial transformation, we are equally interested in questions of stability and endurance. This concerns not only the ways in which some horizons may appear unstable to us, but reliable and enduring to our research participants, but also the efforts that go into stabilizing particular hydrosocial relations or distributions of wetness in the context of a changing world. A more nuanced approach to these re-articulations has the potential to counter alarmist disaster narratives of floods and droughts by foregrounding the concrete hydrosocial assemblages that (un)make wet horizons.

Accepted papers:

Author:

Kirsty Wissing (Australian National University)

Paper short abstract:

How do farming and customary land rules relate when horizons become hydro? In this paper, I explore how human, environmental and spiritual hydro-relations with the Volta waterways interact with private aquaculture in Ghana. How do wet and dry environmental management saturate and inform each other?

Paper long abstract:

How do farming and customary land rules relate when horizons become hydro? In this paper, I explore how human, environmental and spiritual hydro-relations interact with, include or become excluded from portions of Ghana's Volta River and Lake as contained and controlled for private aquaculture. In particular, I will consider how people in Akwamufie - historically known to farm land and trade - make sense of fish farming that individualises parts of the Volta and challenges their customs of control. In efforts to emulate the economic success of corporations via aqua-culture in a changing climate, residents of Akwamufie navigate political and physical currents as national regulation and the operation of two hydro-electric dams effect the water's conditions. In this paper, I ask how do wet and dry ways of environmental management saturate and inform each other when farming practices extend into Ghana's waterscape? And what changes in this process?

Author:

Lorenz Gosch (Martin-Luther-Universitaet Halle-Wittenberg)

Paper short abstract:

In Freetown, Sierra Leone, banking is a practice to create new land to build on. It works by pushing away sea water using mixtures of waste and mud. A matter ambivalent and controversial, it offers interesting perspectives on themes such as shifting narratives of health and safety or responsibility.

Paper long abstract:

In this contribution, I engage with a practice I came across during my fieldwork in Freetown, Sierra Leone. This practice is called banking and it describes the creation of buildable ground in(to) the sea. The spatial context of this is an urban space jammed in-between steep hillsides and the Atlantic Ocean. Ever since the civil war in the 1990s Freetown is growing and the city, that complicated object, can be found in a continuous state of emergence. In its different nuances, Lefebvre's "production of space" is a rather intense matter there. Banking, now, plays an important role above all in the city's slum communities which are often located at the very verge of the sea. Residents use materials such as mud and - most notably - waste to "push away" the sea water, the technique of banking being manifold. Banking is also a matter of controversy and ambivalence. Accentuations in the formulation of banking as a problematic include issues of (ir)responsibility, owner- and citizenship, the right to the city, disaster risks, urban growth and so forth. I suggest that it is worth taking a close look at banking practices in Freetown as banking as a point of reference is such powerful indicator of themes which can be associated with both the local as well as the global. The waste-water bonds encapsulated in banking are not a smooth form of recycling and appropriation. They are saturated with friction and ambivalence concerning health and safety in complicated interpretive embeddings.

Author:

Benoit Ivars (University of Cologne)

Paper short abstract:

This paper discusses the way in which "flooding" is tactically used by local fishermen and smallholder farmers across the Nyaungdone Island (Ayeyarwady Delta) to prove that land areas, which had been confiscated from them in the past, are "unused" and hence liable to redistribution by the state.

Paper long abstract:

In the 1990-2000s, the military government of Myanmar embarked in far-reaching land reclamation works across the Nyaungdone Island (Ayeyarwady Delta) to drain the so-called deepwater lands and wetlands. These lands classified as "virgin", "vacant" or "fallow" (VFV) would be allocated to private entities regardless of any prior uses and even if these areas covered capture fisheries and/or small-scale rice farming. The resource horizon envisioned by the central state authorities was that of land and rice, rather than water and fish. But land reclamation and large-scale rice cultivation did not take off, mainly due to the lack of labour and persisting drainage issues. Most land was finally converted into fish ponds by private companies or individuals who had received VFV land concessions. Since 2011 and the transition to civilian governments, local inhabitants have been trying to regain access to these land areas previously confiscated from them. One central tenet of such claiming strategies consists in proving that part of the concession land remained flooded and is hence "unused", something aligned with the new government will to redistribute "unused" land to landless and smallholder farmers. Local claimants notably build on the distinction between fish ponds (nga kan) which embankments are built high enough to prevent flooding and flooded ponds (yay myote kan) which are still liable to be overflowed by the rising water levels in adjacent streams. Interpreted as a lack or absence of use, flooding I argue, can turn into a political resource to reclaim areas seized in the past.

Author:

Werner Krauß (University of Bremen)

Paper short abstract:

Sea level rise poses a challenge to both coastal protection and nature conservation. Intended practices of supporting artificially the process of sedimentation undermine the familiar separation of nature and culture and, in turn, change the sentiments, the senses of place and identity.

Paper long abstract:

The tidal flat area of the North Sea, the so-called Wadden Sea, is a National Park and UNESCO world heritage site. The North German landscape is the result of a permanent interaction between human dwellers and the sea, of land reclamation, coastal protection and catastrophic floods. The demarcation of the Wadden Sea as a National Park and UNESCO world heritage site in the eighties of the last century has put an end to land reclamation; the battle cry of conservationism was "let Nature be Nature", with the dikes as the materialization of the semiotic border between nature and culture. The opposition between nature and culture, between natural and cultural landscape marked the heated debate about the legitimization of the National Park and defined a new ecological regime. The current climate emergency deeply challenges this familiar opposition; sea level rise and the demands of the energy transition have established a new discursive regime, climate change. Conservationists and coastal engineers discuss supporting artificially the process of natural sedimentation in order to cope with sea level rise; otherwise, the Wadden Sea might disappear. In my presentation, I discuss these changes in strategy in terms of practices and of identity, of sediments and sentiments.

Author:

Nora Horisberger (University of Cologne)

Paper short abstract:

This presentation explores how practices of multispecies care contribute to create a sense of constancy and refuge in what appears as a highly fluctuating and uncertain environment.

Paper long abstract:

River deltas all over the world are gaining new attention due to their vulnerability to accelerated environmental changes (e.g. sea-level rise, more intense flooding). Especially relations to water fluctuations appear in these narratives as increasingly volatile and as a source of uncertainty. In the Parnaíba Delta in Northeast Brazil, the stronger penetration of salt water flows has recently forced inhabitants of some islands to abandon rice cultivation. Losing their main livelihood, many people decided to move away, others tried to find new ways of making a living. What resonates with the emerging climate change and disaster narratives and appears to outsiders as a disruption of normal life, is however locally not perceived as new nor extraordinary situation. Rather, delta dwellers consider volatile, that is abrupt and largely unpredictable, changes of water flows, sand dune movements and fish migrations, but also of work opportunities and of in and out moving people as constitutive of how the deltaic world works. Especially in regard to the increased uncertainty (unemployment, violence) in mainland cities, delta dwellers portray the deltaic islands as a place of peaceful life and refuge. In this presentation, I am interested in how practices of multispecies care contribute to this perception of refuge in that they reduce uncertainties and actively create stabilities. I focus in particular on women whose care-taking of plants and animals in home gardens, but also of young fishermen without homes and families are crucial in conferring a sense of constancy to an otherwise highly fluctuating world.

Author:

Olga Povoroznyuk (University of Vienna)

Paper short abstract:

The paper based on the case of Tiksi, Russia, analyzes the entanglement between social and environmental change and explores the agency of natural forces such as melting permafrost in degradation of infrastructures and reverse social transformation of the artic settlement into a remote community.

Paper long abstract:

The town of Tiksi, founded during the early period of Soviet Arctic development in the 1930s, is a water transportation node and an important port of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Tiksi soon turned from a frontier settlement into an urban community with a series of apartment buildings, stores and public offices centered around the sea port. Well-functioning and maintained communal and transport infrastructure including a sea- and a river port as well as an airport, "northern supply" that is state supported provisioning of the city, made the town a comfortable place of residence despite the extreme environmental conditions of the Artic. While Tiksi is still proudly called "the Artic sea-gate of Yakutiya", it has been experiencing rapid climate and socio-economic change in recent decades, despite an ongoing national modernization program of the NSR. In the context of curtailing state support, environmental change effects become visible. Buildings and roads left without proper maintenance, crack and dilapidate due to thawing permafrost and ice, as well as strong winds and snowstorms. While the population of neighboring villages is drawn to Tiksi, local residents move to Yakutsk or further to the "Big Land" leaving empty houses behind. This paper analyzes the entanglement between social and environmental change exploring the agency of natural forces such as (melting) permafrost in reverse transformation of the coastal community from a transportation hub into a remote artic settlement.

Author:

Franz Krause (University of Cologne)

Paper short abstract:

Inhabiting an unstable Mackenzie Delta requires not only changing skills for navigating. It equally requires skills for navigating change.

Paper long abstract:

Travelling through and beyond the Mackenzie Delta in the Canadian Arctic is key to the livelihoods and socialities of the delta's Inuvialuit and Gwich'in inhabitants. Navigating this diverse landscape of water and land, freezing and thawing, snow and mud requires a host of skills from wayfinding, trailmaking, and gauging water depth to reading trails, spotting animals and mastering the technologies of boats, snowmobiles and other vehicles.

Just as Mackenzie Delta people are frequently on the move, so are the skills that they continuously develop to address new tasks, incorporate new technologies and deal with changing environments. Through economic fluctuations, political restructuring and a changing climate with sifting wet horizons, uncertainty, instability and volatility have become the order of the day.

I argue that skills, in this context, are particularly those that afford flexibility, spontaneity and improvisation. Being good at one particular task, say, dog sled driving, has been a valuable skill during the first half of the twentieth century, but became marginalised with the proliferation of snowmobiles. Other skills, however, like the ability to remain open for seizing unforeseen opportunities, the interest in cultivating many different activities instead of developing a single one to perfection, and the refusal to commit to long-term, regular obligations remain meaningful during - and for managing - current transformations.

Author:

Vinicius de Aguiar Furuie (Princeton University)

Paper short abstract:

The seasonal ebb and flow of Amazonian rivers have shaped exchange in the region for centuries. How are commercial practices adapting to the introduction of road transportation and river dams? How is temporality being recreated along new trade routes, no longer dependent on rainfall?

Paper long abstract:

Since the late 19th century, for six months of the year, the rubber estates of the Iriri river, in the Eastern Brazilian Amazon, were cut off from the outside world. The Cachoeira Grande rapids, located at the river's mouth, are only safe to navigate when the rainy season raises the water level above its many rocks. For 80 years, commodity circulation and the associated cycle of credit abided by the temporality of rains. Rubber harvested during the dry season was stockpiled until it could be hauled downriver; political power concentrated in the hands of those that could loan until the end of the cycle. In the 1980s, roads were first opened in this part of the Amazon, connecting the Iriri to nearby cities year-round. In the 2010s, the gigantic Belo Monte Dam was built downstream in the Xingu river. This paper describes how infra-structural changes in the middle-Xingu over the past 40 years have interacted with social arrangements in riverside communities, focusing on exchange relations through which commodities and credit flow. Based on oral history and 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork with "regatão" river traders and riverside dwellers, the paper argues for the continued importance of rain cycles seen as co-constitutive of exchange. Local practices attribute meanings to seasonal fluctuations of the river and adapt to the introduction of new elements such as trucks, ice, amateur radios and paper money. But the acceleration of commercial cycles also brings new challenges to trade relations.