This is the third post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.
Bright blue cylinders connected to pipes and taps catch rainwater on a rooftop in Bangalore. An elderly man splashing his face with water from a stone spout in the shape of a fish’s mouth in the Kathmandu Valley. A thriving Los Angeles garden irrigated with recycled gray water. As my students and I examined these images of everyday engagements with water, we asked: What kinds of futures do these images portend? Can ‘everyday water’ – encountered in storage tanks, bathroom drains and drinking fountains – offer lessons for our current planetary predicament?
Understood as the cultural values, social practices and technical systems that shape daily and routinized water use, the theme of “everyday water,” a concept introduced by Zoë Sofoulis, saturated our study throughout the undergraduate seminar on the Anthropology of Water, taught in early 2019.1 But it was perhaps during our final session that the stakes of this discussion became clearest. The anchoring text , “Water Flourishing in the Anthropocene” by Jessica Cattelino, Georgina Drew and Ruth Morgan, uses specific ethnographic case studies to think through the vexed question of how to live better and live well – with water and each other.2 Organized around the concept of “water flourishing”, the piece emphasizes the positive and creative aspiration for more just human-water relations that centers “the hard and good work of relating well with others”.
Significantly, the cases they present are quiet, inconspicuous, prosaic: rainwater harvesting in Nepal, wastewater recycling in Australia, and tribal water compacts in the United States. As students read the text, I urge them to think of its relation with their own experiences and positionalities: What does water flourishing mean to you? What are some examples of such flourishing in your own lives?
My goal for the session was two-fold. First, sensing students’ weary exhaustion with course content that highlighted devastating dispossessions and inequalities, I was eager to highlight moments and spaces of possibility and transformation. Navigating especially challenging times, I grappled with the questions of “(h)ow to teach today’s college students about the fearsome challenges before humanity without crushing their sense of possibility?”3 Indeed, several students had signed up for this class in recognition of the current environmental crisis and held a strong commitment to social change – they wanted critique, sure, but also action.4
Second, and relatedly, in order to both temper strands of techno-optimism and expand understandings of politics among my students, I wanted to draw students’ attention to the connections between the spectacular, the structural and the everyday, that is, to recognize the small, slow, and often overlooked ways in which ordinary people relate to – access, re/use, conserve, care for, distribute, enjoy, fight for, labor on – water in pursuit of just and equitable resource futures. Indeed, anthropology – a discipline committed to understanding ways of living and relating otherwise – has much to offer projects of imagining and instantiating water futures. Not only does it potentially emphasize multiple ways of relating to water – including through pleasure, leisure, desire, freedom, solidarity, interdependency – but it does so through an examination of everyday social practices and intimate spaces as site of flourishing.
Amidst acute water stress in the Kathmandu valley, for instance, low-income communities often rely on constructed stone spouts that channel rain-fed waters to the city and are crucial sites of ritual and hydrological significance. These spouts, which enabled the historical flourishing of urban communities, are maintained and repaired through neighbourhood networks of social obligation. Could these cultural values inform similar projects to build local water security? As the authors emphasize, their work lies within the realm of “the possible…as underway otherwise in real time, that once was, and that makes futures through struggle.”5
Pedagogically and politically, this entails engaging creatively and inventively with what is and through it, with what could be. Everyday pedagogies of water then invites students to consider the ubiquity of water in their daily lives through an interrogation of routinized and taken-for-granted practices. Equally, it urges recognition of the expertise and ingenuity of ordinary people whose memories, experiences, and reflections on water use might offer crucial insights and pathways for change. In doing so, it aims to spark a sense of wonder, or at the very least, curiosity, at the subtle arts of care, repair, and resistance through which people build livable worlds with water. As scholars of technology put it, we need to study not just dispossession and disrepair but also the daily practices through which “the world gets put back together”.6
Of course, these projects often carry their own tensions, contradictions and compromises. None are perfect. Groundwater replenishment through wastewater recycling in western Australia, for example, does not quite confront existing cultures of (over)consumption and itself carries a high carbon footprint.
As the students noted, these examples did not necessarily conform to their imaginations of grandiose and universal solutions to our currently problematic relations with water in its varied forms. Yet, as we discussed, these everyday and minute ways of engaging with water can have enormous impacts: for instance, if every household in Kathmandu harnessed rainwater, then this would amount to 12 times the city’s actual demand. Nor does it mean deprioritizing political action against industries and corporations that are most responsible for overconsuming, commodifying, and polluting water.
An emphasis on actually existing possibilities does not necessarily entail a failure of the imagination. Rather, it might allow for a more expansive vision of a politics of the possible through close attention to what is already present and underway. In her account of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, Hannah Appel describes gathering the ‘ideas lying around’ that offer potential and actually existing alternatives to predatory finance.7 Doing so “was an intentional act of conservation, of keeping alive, and even salvage of a kind, not of a past, but of a potential future”.8
Brought back to the question of water futures, this serves as a reminder of the ideas and practices that proliferate all around us, imaginaries and experiments that offer political-ecological ways of relating, some lost, some in-formation, others imminent. Moving beyond specific cases, our class discussed broader principles this for future imaginings and enactments of water flourishing. We agreed that they should be rooted in substantive values, attuned to the relationality of water and persons, attentive to power, and necessarily multi- and cross-scalar.
Of course, many still remained skeptical. Some believed that these propositions were not radical enough and others felt they were simply not utopian enough, or at all. Others yearned for more compact and universal solutions – uneasily grappling with the claim that “variation is the very substance of flourishing”.9 Yet together, we laughed about unflushed toilets, marveled at water-gifting practices, and debated the merits of ecological restoration. This too is the messy work of politics that social scientists are well-equipped to study, and indeed, teach about. My students were perhaps more energized and excited by our discussions of Standing Rock and Cochabamba – iconic and paradigm-shifting struggles for water in the face of neoliberal and settler-colonial states. Nonetheless, the lessons offered by the everyday water of storage tanks and water fountains can be equally profound, transformative and conducive to human and non-human flourishing.
1. Zoe Sofoulis, “Big Water, Everyday Water: A Sociotechnical Perspective.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Vol. 19, No. 4 (2005), 445–463.
2. Jessica Cattelino, Georgina Drew and Ruth Morgan, “Water Flourishing in the Anthropocene.” Cultural Studies Review, Vol. 25, No. 2 (2019), 135-152.
3. Kimberly Curtis, “Creating a Culture of Possibility: A Case for Engaged Pedagogy.” Humanity and Society, Vol. 36, No. 4, 2012: 355.
4. Camille Frazier, “Teaching with Hope: An Introduction”, Teaching Tools, Cultural Anthropology, 2017. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/teaching-with-hope-an-introduction
5. Cattelino et al. 2019: 140.
6. Shannon Mattern. “Maintenance and Care.” Places Journal, 2018. https://placesjournal.org/article/maintenance-and-care/?cn-reloaded=1
7. Hannah Appel, “Occupy Wall Street and the Economic Imagination.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 29, No. 4, 2014: 602–625.
8. Appel 2014: 615.
9. Cattelino et al. 2019: 140.