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A Syllabus for Teaching Water Politics

Building on an earlier essay on Edge Effects about teaching energy and energy policy, along with a number of syllabi that have been circulating on the internet, two CHE affiliates have compiled a syllabus for a suggested course on water rights and social protest. The full syllabus, with weekly reading recommendations, can be downloaded here: Water Rights Syllabus.

In 1969, photographs of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River engulfed in flames sparked widespread realizations of industrial water pollution taking place across the United States. In 2010, YouTube videos of flaming tap water, contaminated by fracking operations in Texas and Pennsylvania, shocked Americans. While the recurrence of burning water in American environmental imagery points to the persistence of water contamination within the nation’s history, the tenacity of popular outrage also signifies an ongoing refusal to accept water degradation.

Given the escalation of global water access struggles—from heated resistance to Guinea’s proposed Fomi Dam to anti-Kaolin mining activism in Portugal—this program of readings examining both the social and physical shape of water in modern society is especially salient today. Covering a wide range of perspectives, it combines empirical, theoretical, geographic, and historical discussions of water with an eye towards emphasizing the breadth of relationships to, and uses of, water. Through an acknowledgement of the multiplicity of water forms that flow through landscapes and bodies, it explores the complex and shifting notions of water use and governance. At the same time, it focuses on some of the common elements and challenges which characterize these conversations. It is through an engagement with these challenges, and the specificities of landscape, culture, and power that we can support the development of water-just futures.

In the following essay, we present a broader framework for each of the five sections of the syllabus.  These serve as starting points for analyzing the meanings—both historical and current—of  rights and access to water.

“Caniveau,” 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“Caniveau,” 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Section I: Ontologies of Water Use

What exactly is water? To answer this question, one must engage a range of perspectives on how water is understood to exist and operate. Diverse social, cultural, and political framings of “water” as a concept, such as Cioc’s eco-biography of the Rhine and Gibbs’ discussion of Australian Aboriginal perspectives on the Lake Eyre Basin, suggest that these ontologies are neither universal nor static. Rather, hydrosocial relationships often exceed traditional economic and managerial frameworks. Together with works that deconstruct the function of power in shaping conceptions of water—or the lack thereof, such as in Alatout’s “States of Scarcity”—these interventions highlight the ontological differences that often underlie tensions around hydro-governance and rights, such as the struggle to protect water at Standing Rock.

 

Dry river bed, Mozambique, 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Dry river bed, Mozambique, 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Section II: Modes of Water Governance

Ideas of what water is go on to influence ideas of how it is to be used, which, in turn, can have deadly consequences in places like Flint, Michigan. Frameworks of water governance—and, by proxy, debates over water access—materialize differently in places like Peru, India, New Zealand, and Canada. Discussing some of the ways in which gender, neoliberalism, and privatization shape notions of water justice, scholars have developed frameworks for analyzing a plurality of resource governance forms. Key among these is the work of Karen Bakker, who analyzes water privatization as a global phenomenon. Through engaging histories of specific hydro-political formations, we can understand these as malleable phenomena which are produced through interactions of landscape, society, and power.

Pollution of the Huallaga River in the highlands of Peru, 2016. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pollution of the Huallaga River in the highlands of Peru, 2016. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Section III: The Human-Water Interface

Human-aquatic encounters unfold in a variety of contexts: dams, agricultural systems, flooding, and underground aquifers, among many others. Grouping case studies within these themes highlights the degree to which these manifestations of human-water interaction may share surprising commonalities or telling differences. For example, what does groundwater contamination from natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania have to do with water contamination from uranium mining on Navajo land, or with uranium tailings in Kyrgyzstan? What do each of these cases tell us about the shape of potential water justice in those regions? Works such as Michael Eric Dyson’s Come Hell or High Water, which examines the history of Hurricane Katrina, suggest that flooding scenarios offer insights into the mechanisms of environmental injustice. These questions, in turn, invoke the possibility of international collaboration around parallel struggles, which are addressed in the following section.

Oroville dam spillway overflow, 2017. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Oroville dam spillway overflow, 2017. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Section IV: Water Movements and Protests

When tensions around water governance reach a boiling point, they erupt in protests and water wars. More often than not, these flashpoints reveal both long-standing entanglements of race, class, identity, and environmental injustice, and histories of resistance to these injustices. The persistent shortage of clean water in Flint, Michigan, for example, is the product of ongoing inadequacies in Michigan’s governance of mostly African American communities. In South Dakota, intergenerational resistance of to settler-colonial legacies took shape within a youth-led anti-suicide movement, which sparked noDAPL as a means of supporting mental health through environmental activism. By linking contemporary struggles around water justice in the United States to broader networks of social movements, students of hydropolitics can begin to understand environmental resources as elements within global renegotiations of power.

 

 

 

Memorial site of Union Carbide disaster, Bhopal, India, 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Memorial site of Union Carbide disaster, Bhopal, India, 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Section V: Towards Water-Just Futures

Scholars point to ongoing trajectories of privatization, climate change, industrial deregulation, and a slew of other processes that continue to threaten communities’ water access around the world. New water harvesting technologies such as desalination and water-harvesting wind turbines offer solutions for water access along with challenges in environmental impact and governance. At a time of meteoric transformation in United States environmental policy, what can environmental justice scholarship and movement-building learn from intergenerational and global water movements? How are grassroots and non-profit organizations shaping future interventions? Stories about the many forms of human-water interaction can offer effective frameworks and strategies for the future. We hope that this syllabus can inform and inspire academic and public engagements with water justice.

Have ideas for additional readings? This post is intended as a collaboration—we welcome suggestions from readers in the comments.

Water drop, 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Water drop, 2012. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Featured Image: Sign warning of contaminated water in New Century, Arizona, 2009. Source: Flickr.

Jake Blanc is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation focuses on the intersection of land tenure and political opposition during Brazil’s dictatorship, looking at the construction of the Itaipu hydroelectric dam and the subsequent mobilizations of rural workers in the southern state of Paraná in the 1970s and 1980s. Twitter. Contact.

Stepha Velednitsky is a geography MS Candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison currently working on her masters thesis, titled “Fabricating Sovereignty: Labor, Water, and Microprocessor Manufacturing in Israel.” Twitter. Contact.

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