Water literatures: a review of Amita Baviskar (ed.) ‘Waterscapes’

by Heather Goodall

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Recent work on water published in Australia has been exploring the rich questions around the relationship between culture and politics. Volumes like Marnie Leybourne and Andrea Gaynor’s Water: Histories, Cultures, Ecologies have drawn on the long traditions of geography and history to engage them with the strengths of cultural studies to open up some new questions around this relationship. Waterscapes, just published by Permanent Black, is an important contribution to this discussion. This is a book which Australians, however unused they might be to considering Indian research, will enjoy reading as much as they find it a thought provoking introduction into the broader questions around ‘the cultural contradictions and tensions inherent in waterscapes’.

Waterscapes is a tightly planned book, as Amita Baviskar explains in her lucid introduction, which addresses the cultural, the political and the ecological. ‘Struggles over water are simultaneously struggles for power over symbolic representations and material resources’, she writes. The book is no ‘conference volume’ gathered up from disparate papers. Instead each of the chapters offers newly researched contributions to a developing analysis which builds through the book, bringing complementary, historically-informed approaches to recurrent issues.

Among a number of important themes, three are of particularly topical interest which will resonate for Australians. The first is the privatisation of water, a phenomenon which has occurred rapidly in recent years across very different economies and societies and which has its roots in colonial water management. Second is the complex and often ambivalent relationship between the rhetoric of community participation in decision-making around water and the imposition of economic rationalism in water management. Finally there is the whole question of groundwater, a form of water which has often been completely invisible and as such outside the reach of laws and regulation. Groundwater, flowing from springs, drawn from wells and pumped from artesian bores, has been integral to the everyday lives and cultures of local communities around the globe, for decades if not centuries, from rural India, to rural Australia and to the suburbs of urban North America. Yet it is under intensifying pressure from rapid agricultural, industrial and demographic development in all those places. This book makes groundwater visible and integrates the exploration of its meanings as well as its uses into a gendered and historical analysis of contemporary water conflicts.

The planning evident in the focus of its themes is reflected too in the strength Waterscapes demonstrates in creating an active dialogue across disciplines. Ramachandra Guha in How Much Should a Person Consume? has pointed out recently that it is a characteristic of Indian scholarship in environmental studies to work across history, sociology and anthropology in their engagement with biological sciences. This volume extends the dialogue to include geography and water policy, with each chapter alert to the debates active in ecological science as well as in social science.

Waterscapes is international in its reach, building on its grounding in Indian experience and scholarship. Rohan de Souza pursues the important but as yet underresearched comparisons between India, the United States and China in their broader cultural definitions of water through its changing representation from ‘natural calamity’ to ‘resource’. Judith Carney’s close study of the shifts in development of the Gambia river floodplain from low intensity women’s rice farming to high intensity irrigated farming raises not only the changes in the gendered implications of development from colonial to contemporary periods but interrogates the use of the concepts of ‘tradition’ and ‘custom’ in such processes. Deborah Sick and Hugh Raffles both engage discussions of the relation between the cultures and politics of water in South and Central America with the overall themes of the volume.

Each of the chapters in this book demonstrates the importance of historical research in understanding very contemporary politics. There are striking examples of this engagement of historical analysis throughout, all of which deserve discussion, such as David Mosse’s work on Tamil Nadu, but three which foreground the methodological range of this book are those by Hardiman, Mehta and Punja and Baviskar. David Hardiman develops his sustained historical analysis of colonial policy and experience by extending it directly, and just as carefully, into the contemporary setting in a closely argued discussion of the current politics of groundwater, privatization and power in Gujerat. Lyla Mehta and Anand Punja address a different problem with an equally significant historical dimension: that of displacement by those affected by the construction of major dams. Through evocative interviews about memories and language, they explore the significance of water to those mourning the loss of home through forced migration. Theirs is an important gendered analysis which recognizes the crucial role of the cultures of water as well as the impacts of water scarcity on the livelihoods of those displaced.

Amita Baviskar, in addition to her introduction, has written a fine chapter on the management of a river catchment in a watershed development program in Jabhua in north western India. Administrative recognition of the ecology of water flow is linked there, as if naturally, to the rhetoric of participatory democracy for a predominantly tribal or Adivasi population. Baviskar, in a careful study of local politics and cultures explores the changing performance of water politics to argue that the state has been reshaped in this donor-funded exercise in water welfare to be a facilitator of such participatory decision-making around water. Yet the outcome, as she demonstrates with compelling force, has been the distortion of local initiative and the unacknowledged creation of entirely new structures which the state and particularly the funding bodies, seek to identify and naturalise as ‘traditional’.

It is no accident that this book is so well planned and coherent. Its publishers, Permanent Black, have for some time been producing such tightly focused edited volumes, particularly in its Nature, Culture, Conservation series, edited overall by Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Ullas Karanth. Books such as Vasant K. Saberwal and Mahesh Rangarajan’sBattles over Nature and Ecological Nationalisms (edited by Gunnel Cederlof and K. Sivaramakrishnan) are valuable interventions in the debates over the history and politics of environmental change. While each has strong representation in them from established and emerging Indian scholars, their range of authors and case studies is geographically far-reaching. In each case, the analyses they develop are of direct relevance to environmental historians in both developed and developing countries.

One of the important roles of a book addressing the complex themes which Waterscapes tackles is that it raises questions for further pursuit. One such area might be that of large scale capital. The major dams discussed by Attwood and de Souza and their impact, as discussed by Mehta and Punja, for example, raise questions around the use of the dam water not only for medium scale agriculture but for highly capitalised concerns. In Australia one example might be the use of the water in itself whether for mining as in the gold mining at Orange or the proposed major open cut coal mining in the Hunter Valley or for intensive irrigation in the cotton farming at Cubby Station on the Queensland/NSW border. Another is the use of the water to produce the hydroelectricity needed for woodchip or bauxite processing or other industrial development, and this may take place across borders, as in the mining of bauxite in northern Australia pushing large scale dam building for hydroelectric power to alumina smelting in South East Asia. This is a common issue for developed and developing countries alike, where the interventions of large scale local or international capital often act independently of the state to shape the cultural terms of public debate, as has certainly happened in Australia. Similarly the construction of polarized cultures of rurality and urbanity, and the broader questions of the impact of the footprint of cities far beyond their physical boundaries, is suggested in Hardiman’s chapter here among others and relates as much to myths of water scarcity as of its use. These myths are being mobilized aggressively in debates around the drought and competing water uses in city and rural Australia but can perhaps also be seen in debates about water useage for emerging megacities in South Asia and elsewhere.

My own interest in Waterscapes arises from its relevance both to my work in the rural Darling River floodplain but also in the urban cultural politics – in fact the political ecologies – of the Georges River in Sydney ‘s south western suburbs. This river bore the heaviest burden of Sydney ‘s industrial and demographic intensification in the 1950s and 60s. From even earlier, it’s already densely populated suburbs had been the State and Federal governments’ dumping ground for their low income Housing Commission, institutionalised and newly immigrant hostel populations. The resulting, inevitable conflict has often been emphasized as the defining characteristic of the area, as the names frequently splashed with incendiary effect across the tabloids, like Villawood, Cabramatta, Bankstown, Lakemba and Macquarie Fields, all attest.

Yet the working class, Aboriginal and immigrant communities in these areas along the river have crafted rich cultural identities there, many dimensions of which are focused on the place in its own right as well as in its evocation of lost homelands. My research has explored the way in which the sustained presence of Aboriginal traditional owners and the incoming Aboriginal migrants from rural areas have together generated a strong sense of cultural responsibility for the land and its waters. The most newly immigrant groups, the Vietnamese and the Arabic-speakers have brought rich, although widely divergent, traditions of water cultures but also the intense experiences of the trauma of war and brutal environmental damage. The working class local residents of the areas, mainly Anglo-Irish and Aboriginal in the early years of the century although later in uneasy dialogue with these newer migrants, have been in constant interaction with the river’s waters, as an economic resource for subsistence, in its role as a corridor of rapid and cheap movement and as a source of recreation, safety, pleasure and solace. As a direct consequence, they have together generated a series of campaigns and movements directed towards protecting and healing the river as it became increasingly damaged by the impact of industrialization and poorly serviced overpopulation. Seldom recognized or celebrated, it was nevertheless these local communities which forged the first sense of a people’s national park in the 1940s. The changing and often pressured communities have continued to take active steps to intervene in the damage to the river and its parklands, but to interact too with the growing presence of state bureaucratic control and policing which has challenged their very presence in the areas they see themselves as having saved.

These Georges River working class initiatives have often been partial and flawed, and just as often riven by local conflicts and cultural polarization or posturing. Waterscapesengages directly with the most fruitful approaches to understanding such processes. Each of its chapters offers nuanced and focused studies of shifting local cultural and political relationships without ever losing sight of the broader questions of relations with the state and a globalizing economy in interaction with a rapidly changing environment. Its case studies, both Indian and international, and its overall analyses are an important resource for our research into Australian urban as well as rural environmental conflicts.

Waterscapes is an exciting addition to the Nature, Culture, Conservation series. Many of the authors engage both critically and constructively with the debates around the emerging concept of political ecology and historians will welcome the engagement of historical analysis with this trans-disciplinary discussion. The approach Waterscapesgenerates in this engagement is as vital and stimulating in the new work it displays as in the questions it raises for continuing exploration.


Heather Goodall
University of Technology, Sydney

Waterscapes was published in Delhi by Permanent Black in 2007 (376 pp. ISBN 978-81-7824-176-0, Rs.695.00)  



Cederlöf, Gunnel and K. Sivaramakrishnan Ecological Nationalisms (Delhi : Permanent Black, 2005)

Guha, Ramachandra How Much Should a Person Consume? Thinking through the Environment, (Delhi : Permanent Black, 2006)

Leybourne, Marnie and Andrea Gaynor (eds) Water: Histories, Cultures, Ecologies (Crawley : UWA Press 2006)

Saberwal, Vasant K. and Mahesh Rangarajan (eds.), Battles over Nature: The Science and Politics of Conservation (Delhi : Permanent Black 2005)

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]