Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 2013, 5, 59-66 Published Online April 2013 (
Water and the Configuration of Social Worlds:
An Anthropological Perspective
Kirsten Hastrup
University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Received February 1, 2013; revised March 3, 2013; accepted March 17, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Kirsten Hastrup. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License,
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
From an anthropological perspective, water is not only the sine qua non of life in general, it is also seen to configure
societies in particular ways, and to generate particular values. This will be substan tiated in four moves. First, the hydro-
logical cycle and other elementals of water will be discussed . Second, we shall zoom in on rivers, transforming natural
resources and social communities as they ben d and twist. Third, we shall discuss artificially established canals, emulat-
ing natural flows, but having their own long-term social and political implication s. Fourth, we shall focus on wells, pro-
viding nodal points of social life and potential conflict. The article ends with some observations on water as a the-
Keywords: Sociality of Water; Rivers; Contested Flows; Canals; Wellsprings; Virtual Water
1. Introduction
In this article, water will be addressed from the perspec-
tive of anthropology. From that perspective, water is not
only the sine qua non of life in general, it is also seen to
configure societies in particular ways and to generate
particular values. River flows, canals, and wellsprings
frame particular social worlds. My point is that the con-
figurative power of water must be taken into account, if
we are to project futures that are not already negatively
implicated in the present, or in other words if we are to
up-hold a sustainable society.
I shall make my case for the configurative power of
water in four moves, each setting a particular framework
for a discussion of the meaning and relative social value
of water. First, I shall discuss some elementals of water,
surfacing in various forms all over the world, and to
which all humans relate. Second, I shall zoom in on riv-
ers, which transform natural resources and social com-
munities as they bend and twist. Third, I shall discuss
artificially established canals, emulating natural flows,
but having their own long-term social and political im-
plications. Fourth, I shall deal wit h wells, not only in terms
of natural wellsprings but also in the shape of reservoirs
and deep boreholes tapping groundwat er from deep down.
My main ambition is to introduce an anthropological
way of thinking about water, which is vital when we ap-
proach the question of a sustainable future. This question
makes little sense if we disregard humans and societies,
and I want to present some images and arguments for
taking people seriously as both subjects and objects of
water. With respect to the value of water, I shall touch
upon numbers and other measures of valuation intermit-
tently, as ways of abstracting water from its social sig-
nificance, which sometimes contribute to the fading out
of the sociality of water.
2. The Elementals of Water: The
Hydrological Cycle and Beyond
To get started, I want to briefly discuss the hydrological
cycle by way of Jamie Linton’s book What is Water? [1],
pointing to the (ideational) transformation of water from
a vital substance to a numerical abstraction by way of
modern hydrology. The principal means was the idea of
the hydrological cycle, an (old) idea that was first
launched in modern science by Pierre Perrault in a work
dating from 1674 called On the Origin of Springs. By
closely measuring the precipitation, evaporation, and
stream flow in a basin at the source of La Seine, Perrault
sought to prove that the water of springs derived from
rainfalls rather than coming from the oceans via subter-
ranean channels, as popular wisdom went. In the On the
Origin of Springs, Perrault delivered what Linton calls
the first manifesto of modern water ([1], p. 103, [2]). In
his manifesto, Perrault disconnects the essence of a
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spring from its possible usage, relative beauty, and sur-
prising effects; these are of no concern to him. Hence-
forth, water became an abstract resource that could be
measured and counted, and the modern science of hy-
drology was born.
Of course, hydrology has had a long and uneven his-
tory since then, but with Linton it seems safe to say that
since 1931 the hydrological cycle has been an estab-
lished fact. This was (according to Linton) when hydrol-
ogy made its claim to water as a distinct scientific do-
main with the publication of Robert Horton’s article on
“The Field, Scope and Status of the Science of Hydrol-
ogy” ([1], p. 128ff, [3]). The hydrological cycle became
the backbone of the science of hydrology, but it also
spilled over into popular imagination. Horton’s depiction
showed a closed system where the links between the
elements could be established mathematically. Since then,
the hydrological cycle has become an established fact,
and forgotten as a particu lar representation.
Popular depictions abound, and what they generally
share is the fallacy of suggesting that in principle we are
dealing with a system in balance; it has become so obvi-
ous that it is often seen as “one of nature’s grand plans”.
In the Handbook of Hydrology, it is described in the fol-
lowing way:
The hydrologic circle is the most fundamental princi-
ple of hydrology. Water evaporates from the oceans and
the land surface, is carried over the earth in atmospheric
circulation as water vapour, precipitates again as rain or
snow, is intercepted by trees and vegetation, provides a
runoff on the land surface, infiltrates into soils, re-
charges groundwater, discharges into streams, and ulti-
mately, flows out into the oceans from which it will even-
tually evaporate once again. This immense water engine,
fuelled by solar energy, driven by gravity, proceeds end-
lessly in the presence or absence of hum an act i vi t y ([1], p.
109, [4]).
As pointed out by Linton—and before him by Yi-Fu-
Tuan [5]—hydrology is of course deeply marked by a
human story ([1], p. 106). First, the model is of course
human-made and based on what hydrologists could and
thought fit to measure. Second, it masks the fact that the
system is far from stable, and that human action, social
demands, and political priorities always destabilize the
model. This makes it expedient to develop a more nu-
anced understanding of the place of humans and societies
within the hydrological system. People are never simply
placed in the environment, they actively interfere with it,
and increasingly so.
Water is not an abstraction when seen from the point
of view of humans, who experience its many forms and
forces: ice, snow, seas, waves, rain, rivers, floods, s w amps,
wellsprings, ground water, dew, steam—each of which
engenders particular meanings and sensations, and makes
certain social forms possible or prohibitive. Once estab-
lished, excess or shortage of any kind of water poten-
tially threatens society; there is thus a balance to main-
tain, for a particular kind of society to continue. Invoking
Marcel Mauss’ classical notion of a “total social fact”
Orlove and Caton ([6], p. 402) suggest both that water is
all encompassing, and takes multiple social fo rms. While
certainly “natural” (albeit in different ways), it is also
very much material, political, and bio-political; as such
water challenges the very nature/society binary [7].
Although people in the rich er parts of the global water
catchment rarely have to go without freshwater, for many
less privileged it is still a recurrent question of life or
death, for children, livestock—and potentially every-
body. For all humans, life is a generative, and regenera-
tive force ([8], p. 115). The existential meanings of water
also include the sensory experiences of the shifting quali-
ties of water, and their contribution to the deeper mean-
ing of lives and places. This includes not only the feel of
water, but also for instance the sounds of water, as so
admirably described by Steven Feld [9] in his work on
the “waterfalls of song”—creating an acoustically de-
fined social space in Papua New Guinea. In other words,
there is a growing literature, testifying to the fact that the
social “self” is to a large extent based upon access to
...being the only material aspect of the environment
that everyone, without exception, has to ingest and in-
corporate. It forms a major part of the constitution of the
self, as well as every other organic object, linking people
to the material environment, and to each other... it is
therefore, both physically and symbolically, a vital con-
nective fluid, encoded with powerful meanings as a
source of life and health, and generative ability ([10], p.
This takes us to another point about water, namely its
agentive powers; water does something in society. W ater
irrigates, inundates, floods, dries up, and creates social
tensions as well as transport systems. On an immediate
level of perception, it makes life possible, which in some
way blurs the boundary between nature and infrastructure
([11], p. 542). Water may obliterate or create value, both
economic and moral; this is configured in extensive pat-
terns of sharing and distributing water resources within a
community. Water also has deep imaginative implica-
tions; it carries people’s thoughts towards other shores,
farther horizons, deeper meanings, and existential ques-
tions. As such it has spurred multitudes of travellers to
set out and discover new lands, and once again, new
imaginative horizons.
3. The Bends of the River: Transformations
of Value
Once we move beyond the elementals of water with the
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first inkling of its general configurative power, we may
move further towards an understanding of how value is
constituted by water. The first case will be that of rivers,
creating their own tran sformative system of values as the
river flows and bends. We shall also take a look at ca-
nals and dams, forging or arresting the natural flows. But
first we shall remind ourselves about the classical phi-
losopher Heraclitus, who from the time around 500 BC
reminds us that one cannot step into the same river twice,
because it keeps changing. His larger vision was of a
world where everything is in flux, from the stars to the
grains of sand, and that therefore it is impossible to en-
tertain a notion of universal laws. All depended upon
time, place, and the perspective applied. In this section,
we shall see how with each new bend of the river, and
each new tributary, the social forms are reshaped and
values transmuted.
An almost paradigmatic example is Veronica Strang’s
analysis of the transf ormatio ns of natur e an d its re so urces
along the Brisbane River in Australia, where people use
the water for a multiplicity of purposes, transforming it
to different kinds of value, and where the river is there-
fore never “the same”. “The Brisbane River starts high in
the Jimna Ranges in a network of small streams that are
often no more than a thread of green in the dusty hills.
By the time it reaches the Port of Brisbane, it has been
captured, used and turned into many things: beef and
vegetables, fruit and wine—things that can be bundled
into containers and shipped to the trading partners on
which Australia relies”, as Strang’s initial portrait runs
([10], p. 9). Her analysis demonstrates how water, as the
most basic ingredient in the transformation of “natural”
resources into commodities, can become almost anything,
but may also give rise to tensions between different
groups of people.
Let us follow the flow with Strang and make some
observations on the ways in which the river is trans-
formed along the way. In the upper catchment, the river
starts in small streams and waterholes that are shared by
kangaroos and cattle alike; its “major contribution to
human activity is simply to provide water and feed for
the cattle who, from the perspective of their owners,
convert it into ‘beef’” ([10], p. 12). Below the ranges and
the region of primary production, reminiscent of colonial
times, the river is captured by a couple of dams. They
have a dual purpose: one to control the river and protect
Brisbane from flooding; the other to store water for do-
mestic and industrial supply. This is where “the river
undergoes its first major physical and categorical trans-
formation from being merely ‘part of the natural ecosys-
tem’ into the vital commercial resource of ‘water sup-
ply’” ([10], p. 13). The politics of water distribution
takes a twist here. Below the dams, still in the words of
Strang, the river flows into Queensland’s “vegetable and
fruit bowl”, an area where it is possible to grow almost
everything, and where the farmers physically take water
into their hands to irrigate or sprinkle their fields.
Absorbed into the thirsty crops, it becomes all manner
of produce”, which is harvested, marketed and, more
often than not, packed into the containers awaiting
shipment down in Brisbanes port. Thus, taken into the
material control of the rural producers”, it becomes
whatever crop they choose to farm, applying their know-
ledge and skill to transform soil, water and seed into the
agriculture that defines who they are ([10], pp. 13-14]).
To cut the last part of the story short, it suffices to
mention that further downstream water becomes a vital
component in industrial production, not to speak of the
city’s ambitious water distribution schemes, as well as an
increasing tourist industry, living off the river’s recrea-
tional aspects. While the primary producers upstream
may not yet feel the increasing pressure upon water, it is
fast approach ing with a growing urban population further
downstream; the shifting values of water along the river
already create tension. A sustainable future for the river
catchment area cannot accommodate all of the demands
for water equally, and the tensions intensify.
To mitigate this, measures and numbers are sought to
provide a basis for a just allotment of water resources.
But again, numbers are abstractions not realities, and are
tailor-made to what is enumerable in the first place; this
implies that numbers are themselves generative of par-
ticular worldviews. Thus, Helen Verran suggests th at the
“Australian water market” is constituted by numbers, not
represented by them ([12], p. 176). Numbers are materi-
alized relations; three is by definition more than one be-
cause of their relation within the series of numerical
counting. For relative value to be operational, it must be
measured by means of one and only one standard. Ver-
ran’s story about the systematic side-lining of Au stralia’s
many volunteering water-watchers, monitoring the inten-
sity and cleanliness of rivers and streams, and producing
ample evidence abou t their sad state, is owed to this: only
one set of proper measurements is accepted. In other
words, knowledge by “wrong” measures may be deemed
less valid than others if they are not based on the appro-
priate relations between authorities, instruments, and
unified goals.
While the river or the catchment may be one and the
same when seen from a hydrological point of view, it
bends and twists the human perception of resources and
rights, and transforms social and moral values all while it
flows according to the laws of gravity and liquidity. So-
cial life along the river is both configured by and config-
ures the flow of water.
4. The Limits of Canals: Constructed
Conflicts of Interest
Waterflows are often created artificially, whether to sup-
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ply freshwater to cities, discharge wastewater, or irrigate
fields. When one looks towards artificial or at least con-
trolled rivers, the challenges of assessing the value of
water multiply. Where canals have created new flows of
water and transport (while possibly contributed to the
closing of others), there is also a new kind of social re-
sponsibility towards maintenance. This applies most
forcefully when the canals are meant to supply cities with
water, or when they are built to relieve cities of waste-
water in the interest of hygiene. In the Western world,
the last half of the nineteenth century was the time when
great engineering projects were conceived that would
change the atmosphere of the cities forever. A notable
example is the building of the London sewers after “the
great stink”—a telling notion—hitting London particu-
larly hard in 1858 in terms of a major cholera epidemic.
Having finally worked out that cholera did not spread by
air but by contaminated water, a fantastic measure was
taken: the construction of underground sewers.
As has been suggested, such efforts and technological
feats (also in other countries) became icons of modernity,
sometimes also explicitly linked up with nationalist urges
[13]. Along with the modernizing quest came a strong
sense of clean water and sanitation being a public good,
rather than simply a commodity, and this raised the ex-
pectations to society ([13], p. 284). This reminds us that
the distinction between water and infrastructure is not
always easily maintained, because the channelling itself
fosters a particular relation between society and its citi-
zens ([11], p. 556).
This is still an important issue when it comes to other
modern water infrastructures, operating on a transna-
tional rather than a national scale. I am thinking of such a
major construct as the Suez Canal, officially inaugurated
in 1869, and always a troubled passage due to world
politics. There is also the Panama Canal, constructed in
early 20th century, likewise to facilitate Western trade
routes. These gigantic waterways take us directly to the
issue of the value of water, as deeply embedded in social
systems and life forms. There is of course the obvious (?)
value connected with the quicker transport between the
continents, but there is certainly more to it. There is also
very much a strategic value—as we now know from the
Somali pirates placing themselves at the entry to the Red
Sea, and from countless Middle Eastern conflicts over
the control of the Suez Canal.
The Panama Canal provides a vivid example of a con-
flict of interest linked to the different kinds of water, and
the relative value of nature’s gifts and modes of living.
As Ashley Carse has recently discussed, for the Panama
Canal to function, and thus to connect the two big oceans
and facilitate global trade, an enormous amount of fresh-
water is required [11]. For each of the 35 - 45 ships that
transit the canal daily, 52 million gallons, or c. 200 mil-
lion litres of fresh water is released into the Atlantic and
Pacific Oceans through the impressive system of locks
and leverages. This water comes from the surrounding
watershed, and ultimately from rain, and to keep the Ca-
nal going, it is necessary to manage the watershed rather
diligently, and it has even been necessary to create an
artificial lake. At several points in time, for instance in
the 1970s, water became scarce, and governmental mea-
sures were needed lest the canal dry up. The anatomy of
a crisis (in 1977) was vividly described by a certain Dr.
Wadsworth, at an US Strategy Conference (the canal was
still under US-authority; it was handed over to Panama
shortly after):
In May of 1977, the passage of an above average num-
ber of ships, an increased use of water for hydroelectric
power and the domestic supplies of growing cities, and
the production of timber, food, and forage crops within
the Canal watershed led to a dramatic demonstration of
the limits of the capability of the water system. The sur-
face of Gatun Lake dropped to 3.1 feet below the level
required for full Canal us e. Some ships sent part of their
cargo across the isthmus by land, reloading at the other
coast, and certain bulk cargo shippers even abandoned
the Canal, sending very large carriers around the Horn.
In 1977, this predicament coincided with a serious
drought, and this was seen as a harbinger of what could
soon take place every year... Deforestation and cultiva-
tion in areas adjacent to the headwaters accentuate both
flood losses through th e spillway and low flow in the dry
season. (Wadsworth 1978; quoted in [11], p. 549)
The conclusion was that only a massive effort of (re-)
forestation could restore and stabilize the capacity of the
Canal. This created a major local issue, since the “prob-
lem” became identified with the small-scale cultivators in
the surrounding lands, now cast as invaders of the forests
troubling the proper management of the Canal. While
just a little earlier, the campesinos that farmed those
landscapes had been seen as part of the solution to Pa-
nama’s development, they now became the problem.
Generally, we can see how the Panama Canal configures
both global relations and local land-use possibilities.
The main message from this last example (as from the
previous ones) is that water-flows—whether rivers or
canals—create their own value systems within land-
scapes that are always both natural and social, both re-
source and infrastructure.
5. The Spring of Wells: The Reality of
Virtual Water
The last case will be that of wells, centring communities
on particular, localized sources of water, and sometimes
creating major tensions between them. The value of wa-
ter seems more obviously equal to everyone, but equality
is not necessarily the net result. In connection with the
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Panama Canal, we noted how an artificial lake had to be
made to form a reservoir of water for the management of
the transport system, requiring staggering amounts of
fresh-water to function. Looking back briefly at the hy-
drological cycle, we note that lakes in general play an
important part both in the surface flows and in the gen-
eral water cycle. This also applies to groundwater, which
is a hidden water resource with immense importance to
life in regions that are otherwise arid or semi-arid. When
I speak of wells, I think of located wellsprings, big or
small, nature made or artificially created—that centre
social life in a very different way from waterflows,
which string out social life.
I shall start with some nomads in West Africa, living
on the brink of the desert in South-eastern Mauretania;
the Kounta nomads have camels and goats and tradition-
ally they would move rather freely over a vast region.
Said a man to the ethnographer: “There are no bounda-
ries here—we can move wherever we want, let the ani-
mals graze where we want, and get water from all the
wells we want. Here, in the badyya, we share the re-
sources. Everything depends on solidarity (assabiyya)”
([14], p. 185).
This statement never actually implied that there were
no rules regarding access to water, only that the re-
sources mentioned already belonged to all members of
the agglomerated Kounta factions. Other tribes were not
permitted to extract water from the wells without prior
agreement with the head of the Kounta. Under ordinary
circumstances, the implicit territoriality of water would
actually provide a functional framework for most of the
nomads, who would carefully read the environment and
know when to move to new, appropriate places for water
and grazing. However, droughts are now threatening the
fragile balance of the nomadic groups. Many nomads
have moved to the city of Nouakchott, where there are
not many livelihood strategies for the rural immigrants.
Others remain in the desert, in ever more circumscribed
conditions. This is where the natural and the social di-
mensions conflate. “In order to adapt, the Kounta acti-
vate not only their internal network of memories and
knowledge of the environment, but also their social net-
works” ([14], p. 193). When water becomes scarce, as it
does currently, the nomads are bound to congregate
around a limited number of wells and undertake compli-
cated negotiations about relative rights of access. They
must agree to a system of controlled access, so as to sat-
isfy the needs of all local actors. Next year, the water
resources may be elsewhere. “In case of prolonged
droughts, it is not unusual that a more distant network is
activated, permitting members of nomadic pastoral fami-
lies to take up residence in areas outside the Kounta
heartland for longer periods of time” ([14], p. 194).
We can see how in this case, resilience is as much a so -
cial as an environmental issue [15]. People, who depend
on wells, equally depend on each other, when the wells
dry out, and water becomes even scarcer that usual. This
is what is happening in the Kounta’s region these years,
where the narrowing down of opportunities is further
aggravated by the political situation in the borderland
region of Mauretania and Mali, fraught with political
conflict. Another troubled story within the same general
region is the well-known war in Darfur, which has been
deemed one of the most serious humanitarian catastro-
phes ever. While it has often been portrayed as a tribal
conflict, one of the root causes is to be found in the
drought that sent hundreds of thousands of small-scale
agriculturalists on the move, thus transgressing the
boundaries of others. Again we have here a pattern of
traditional oasis life, mentally figured as tranquil, but
over and again punctuated by deep social and political
tension related to the scarcity of water—at least also re-
lated to water. In Sudan, the result was not a movement
into the capital, which few could afford, but a move into
camps for the internally displaced [16]. The value of wa-
ter here became one of sheer survival.
The very fact that wells—and with them the oases—
are so narrowly located and not always plentiful or reli-
able, places people in a potentially strenuous relationship
to each other. While, environmentally, the well exerts a
centripetal force, socially, this may transform into a cen-
trifugal pattern of exclusion. In the desert, nomad groups
may disband or move to the city, where they rely on wa-
ter vendors, charging according to season. In cities,
where water supply cannot always be taken for granted,
“artificial” wells may be set up in the shape of water
tanks. In megacities, often resulting from mass-migration
from the hinterlands, this is no small challenge. A recent
study of water management in the city of Mumbai (India)
shows how the urban poor have nevertheless succeeded:
“In cities that are always and already divided, the urban
poor have struggled to establish themselves as a con-
stituency entitled to public services. The fact that they
continue to draw water and live in cities like Mumbai
suggests that they have had some measure of success”
([17], p. 219). The settlers are in many ways excluded
from modern amenities, but large tanks are being filled
by the water authorities—emulating wells—from where
people can fill their own containers.
Let us now make a last move, this time to Egypt, be-
fore closing this section on the social life made possible
(or impossible) by wells. It is well known that Egypt is in
important ways shaped by the Nile. The great Aswan
Dam in the south has regulated the flow of the Nile since
the 19th century, being yet another token of moderniza-
tion. With a growing population and greater urban con-
centration, the “naturally” irrigated valley no longer satis-
fies the need for agricultural produce. Great land-recla-
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mation projects have been launched, either by tapping
into the Nile, and sending water through pipes into adja-
cent valleys, sometimes creating artificial lakes [18].
Here local farmers are able to tap into the water, and they
do so by means of their privately owned pumps and pipes,
for which they are in principle licensed, but not always in
practice. These outlets figure as more or less individual-
ised wells. While the ambitious targets for land reclama-
tion are not quite met, a “very vibrant process of desert
transformation is underway” ([18], p. 519). As Jessica
Barnes has it:
Water is central to this process of landscape trans-
formation. It is not the only thing needed to reclaim the
desert; farmers must also level the surface, remove rocks,
and develop the fertility and texture of the soil. But
whereas fertilizers and other soil treatments can be eas-
ily purchased, water cannot. Water is therefore the lim-
iting factor of agricultural expansion. Since the desert
margins lie above the cultivated land of the valley and
delta and the existing network of water distribution ca-
nals, farmers have to use pumps to lift the water. Pumps
are therefore the limiting technology for agricultural
expansion ([18], p. 518).
Taking this a step further, we may agree with Barnes
when she says, that “the pump is not just a technology
for delivering water, but a technology for building com-
munity” ([18], p. 518). The inverse of that equation is of
course that it also creates fissures in society at multiple
levels. Barnes describes the illicit draining pipes and the
recurrent competitions between farmers over water, often
favouring the city-farmers who are really just making an
investment and are able to draw out huge profits. Mean-
while the small-scale landholders have fewer means to
invest in pumps and need to take matters in their own
hands—by making holes in existing pipes and illegally
taking out water for their own fields, creating illicit well-
Technology only takes the community so far, however.
Water is dwindling even in the more promising areas,
and cotton fields have given way to less water demand-
ing onions and olives. In some regions, the increasing
water scarcity from the artificial lakes and streams has
been repaired by the making of deep boreholes tapping
into the groundwater, notably in the West Delta region,
also studied by Barnes. Being an informal land reclama-
tion project, it is financed by wealthy farmers or inves-
tors, who—by means of expensive pumps reaching down
to 200 m below the su rface—hav e been able to transform
the desert into lush orchards. Again, this wonderful
techno-nature comes at a price. The water table is drop-
ping about one metre per year, and the salinity of the
groundwater has increased, and even people who until
now were not concerned about the issue of the water’s
provenance and the pumps’ effect on the underground
flows, have started to worry, and ask international agen-
cies for help ([18], p. 530).
The Egyptian cases highlight the fact that water for ir-
rigation and for land reclamation is mediated by tech-
nology, and illustrate how the combined techno-nature in
turn affects societies and may reshape them in both time
and space. The cases also draw our attention to the notion
of “virtual water” by which I shall end this section of
wells and other reservoirs. The Egyptian orchards, as
well as the (disappearing) cotton fields and olive groves
point beyond the local needs to external and even over-
seas markets. The water, however, is local. When
pumped out and drained up by fruit and vegetables, to be
sold and consumed elsewhere, the local water from the
deep wells is transformed into virtual water, a measure
of the amount of water that went into the production at its
site, and transported elsewhere for consumption. Virtual
water is defined as “the volume of freshwater used to
produce the product, measured at the place where the
product is actually produced. It refers to the sum of the
water use in the various steps of the production chain”
[19]. It is well known that the production of one kg beef
requires immensely more water than the production on
one kg of apples. Eating beef thus means consuming an
immense amount of virtual water.
The salient point about virtual water is that it has be-
come spatially disconnected from the actual consumers,
and has become part of a global market of tradable
goods—tending to hide water consumption from view, so
to speak ([20], p. 50). If we add global transport to th is, it
is abundantly clear that given the present freshwater
shortage, we need to develop more sustainable water use,
and to alert consumers to the hidden use of water in daily
life, and to the water footprint left from, say, the import
of goods from elsewhere ([20], p. 44). While technolo-
gies of pumping and transport, as we have seen, may
make trade in virtual water possible, they come with a
cost to sustainability. In this case, numbers and measures
of water footprints may serve a very precise purpose of
raising the awareness about both unsustainable water
consumption and emergent global inequities related to
the commercial values of particular kinds of produce,
draining local water resources for people at the act ual well .
Closing the discussion of wells, centring social life on
particular water-resources, we can now see how they
may actually also be nodal points in larger flows of vir-
tual water.
6. Fluid Environments: Water as Theory
The general message is that water is a powerful resource,
not only for survival and production, but also and as sig-
nificantly for the configuring of particular social forms
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. JWARP
and social values. Water connects and disconnects; it
equates and disequates. All while being an essential of
social life, and it resists definitive control and contain-
ment. It remains a liquid resource.
Stefan Helmreich has suggested that water has be-
come a theory-machine [21]. He argues “that seawater
has moved from an implicit to an explicit figure for an-
thropological and social theorizing, especially in the age
of globalization, which is so often described in terms of
currents, flows, and circulations” ([21], p. 133). Indeed, he
suggests that globalizatio n may be seen in terms of “oce-
anization”, much in the manner of Zygmunt Baumann
speaking of the present times as “liquid” [22]. The larger
point is that water itself offers new ways of thinking and
theorizing about th e world , wh ich ha s so far been though t
of mainly in terms of lands, nations, and sedentary social
forms. In seeing water as a “theory-machine” we may
take the discussion of the configuration of social forms to
a new level of generalization, substituting the still-life
image of society as an entity, with a dynamic image of
societies in constant movement, as they reformat them-
selves in response to fluid environments.
The hydrological cycle is but one theory among others
made with water. The main challenge is to introduce
people and societies into the model of the not-so-stable
circulating water system, which is most often abstracted
from the experiences and reflections of water-sentient
citizens. The question is to what extent we live in wa-
ter-cultures [23]; the answer rests with careful analyses
of the social life of and with water. At a more general
level it seems pertinent to initially acknowledge the ac-
tual liquidity and so cial malleability of water, which goes
a long way to intimate its configurative power in social
7. Acknowledgements
I wish to thank the ESF for organizing the Summit on
Water: Unite and Divide, giving us all an opportunity to
reflect on a vital issue, and for inviting me to contribute.
I also want to gratefully acknowledge the European Re-
search Council for the Advanced Grant that has enabled
me to run a comprehensive proj ect on Waterwo r lds.
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