Accepted paper:

Hydro-sociality of irrigation in Bangladesh: a case of the "blind men and the elephant" and a crisis of interpretation


Jim Taylor (University of Adelaide)

Paper short abstract:

The hydro-sociality of water in Bangladesh; social property relations embedded in land use and contested notions of water as waterscapes of power: How water is experienced and represented by different actors and implications for irrigation management and construction of social relations.

Paper long abstract:

This paper outlines concerns relating to interpreting the hydro-sociality of water in the context of a multilateral donor-funded engineering project in Bangladesh. (The problem is likened to the well-known ancient Indic parable of the blind men and the elephant). In this sense, large-scale irrigation schemes are characterised by a considerable diversity of representations and understandings across individuals, agencies and interest groups. Many values associated with the development of waterscapes are contested, not least prioritised in different ways: as we find among economists, engineers, systems managers, government and private interests, local water-user groups, landless households, women's groups and so on. How to find a non-antagonistic common understanding to some of the broad issues and concerns among the various actors is a conundrum of contemporary irrigation anthropology.

The crucial concern is social property relations or the historical social relations that are embedded in land use and contested notions of water. Here, we need to understand the hydro-sociality of water; the way that water is entwined with broader social relations and how water is produced by, and simultaneously constitutes, social and power relations. In these waterscapes of power, we need to note: (a) how water is experienced and represented by the different actors/stakeholders, and (b) the implications for how water is managed and social relations constructed.

The paper is based on work for a multilateral-funder in Bangladesh 2016-2017 involved an ethnographically informed study of water distribution systems and the changing farming landscapes in the Ganges Kobadak and the Teesta Barrage schemes.

panel P14
Hydroscapes and hydrosocial states: culture and the political ecology of water governance