Hydropolitics: Community, Environment and Conflict in an Unevenly Developed World

Academic Lead –  Graham Huggan  (Leeds)

This project illustrates the importance of local community interaction in addressing social and political issues of global significance.
Struggles over water are likely to be one of the defining features of the 21st century. Consequently, the move towards integrated social-ecological communities represents one of the most urgent challenges of the present day. Hydropolitics can be defined in terms of struggles over both water shortage and water surplus, which the three strands of this project will work together to address in the context of an unevenly developed world. These struggles may be naturally induced (e.g. through climate change and geophysical events), but they are also culturally shaped and socially and politically exacerbated. They combine ongoing negotiations over the distribution and management of natural resources with concerns that the controlling systems and acquisitive life-styles that frequently underwrite them are producing a world that is out of control––a world in which global economic growth increasingly threatens local social-ecological solutions.
If hydropolitics often negates sustainability, it may also paradoxically provide the conditions under which sustainable societies, and the ideas of community on which they thrive, may be materially and imaginatively created. Thus, rather than understanding contemporary water related struggles as antithetical to the idea of sustainable community, the network will assess their potential to create it. More specifically, it will focus on those processes by which beleaguered communities––those whose lives and livelihoods continue to be threatened by water or its lack––have been able to re-assert a sense of their own collective identity and to realise alternative, integrated visions of society in which principles of sustainable living are upheld. Our case studies will be taken from three disparate regions that nevertheless share a colonial heritage: Israel/ Palestine, the Nile Basin and Sri Lanka. These will be treated comparatively so as to highlight the community dynamics both within and between volatile regions of the world where diverse hydropolitical negotiations drive questions regarding social survival and political stability. Our aim is neither to level out the historical and geographical conditions of struggle, nor to assert a homogeneous idea of community. Instead we want to explore the ways in which different kinds of communities, with varying social aims and political objectives, have been created via the medium of water and hydropolitical processes.
Three primary disciplines will contribute to the network: literary/cultural studies (mainly in English, though other languages will be involved), cultural geography, and sustainability studies. Methodologically, the network will adopt an approach derived from political ecology, which looks––in Bryant’s classic definition––at the political dynamics surrounding material and discursive struggles with the environment in the contemporary Third World. However, while political ecology always includes geography and ecology/ sustainability studies among its component disciplines, it often excludes humanities subjects. One of the network’s aims will be to expand the range and remit of political ecology by including literary and other cultural perspectives, while also showing the specific interdisciplinary benefits of a ‘literary geographical’ approach. Further added value will be provided by (1) enquiring into the extent to which climate change is a contributing if not necessarily a decisive factor in contemporary water conflicts; and (2) insisting on the social, cultural and political benefits brought about by water conflict––the specific, often interconnected ways in which conflict creates communities either born or consolidated in adversity, and in which these communities interact with the larger international community in pursuit of a more sustainable world.

Network Projects

The Nile Basin, 1950-2010: Communities in Conflict, Communities in Conversation 

Principal Supervisor – Graham Huggan (Leeds)

Hydropolitical Adaptation: Post-tsunami ‘Sustainabilities’ in Sri Lanka

Principal Supervisor – Tariq Jazeel (Sheffield)

Drinking the Sea, Making the Desert Bloom: Water, Community and Culture in Contemporary Israel/Palestine

Principal Supervisor – Anna Bernard (York)