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Rivers and Human Systems: Grasping Water

It’s not entirely clear precisely what the organizers of last week’s international workshop “Grasping Water” had in mind with the name of the project.  It could be the case that they meant to allude to the nearly impossible task of actually physically grabbing a handful of water, that task then being seen as a metaphor for the difficulty of mentally “grasping’ the full dimensions of water.  Or perhaps they meant to direct participants’ attention to the water itself in rivers, adding knowledge gained from scientific investigations to the conceptual infrastructure from the humanities disciplines that are their “home  turf.”  Maybe, and we’ve all been there, they just needed a title with the grant proposal deadline looming.

Whatever the case, last week saw the first Summer Institute in Chinese Studies in Global Humanities put on at the University of Minnesota.  Major funding was provided by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, along with nine collaborating units from the University of Minnesota.  The 40 participants came from 13 home countries and, for the most part, study rivers in China, Africa, and North America through humanistic scholarly perspectives.

I won’t work through all of the talks, exchanges and interesting insights from the whole week; those ideas will likely pop up on the blog in various ways throughout the next weeks and months.  But I do think it’s instructive to review quickly the broad questions and topics that the group settled on in the institute’s “summing up” session on Friday:

  • Where does knowledge about rivers come from?  How (or does) the knowledge developed by official sources like government agencies intersect with the perspective of scholars, or advocacy organizations?  Who/what groups are not commonly heard; most particularly how are the perspectives of people indigenous to river regions heard or excluded?
  • What are the scales, both temporal and spatial, at which analyses and investigations are best pursued? Some impacts take decades to emerge while others may be visible right away.  Similarly, some issues can only be understood at a regional or national scale; zeroing in too closely to the actual site of concern may leave the investigator “unable to see the forest for the trees.”
  • How can we get a handle on the “unintended consequences” that almost always accompany a large scale intervention in a river system, such as building a dam?
  • Where does “agency” lie in manipulation of river systems and the associated human systems?  What happens if the group charged with imposing an intervention on a river doesn’t have responsibility or authority to address the chains of consequences for nearby people, for instance?
  • It seems that a broad field interdisciplinary collaboration is required for a rich nuanced investigation of rivers under change.  But the sorts of collaborations required, between scientists, humanists, and scholars from other knowledge bases, are difficult, and require a great deal of time, consideration, and relationship-building.
  • Major interventions in river systems such as dams are almost always justified in terms of making a country or region more modern, or bringing assets such as a steady supply of electricity to an area.  But these claims need to be investigated closely and unpacked for the various unspoken claims that are present as well.

These are big issues, a lot to think about.  I think two conclusions are in order at this point.  The first is that people interested in the Mississippi can learn a lot from studies of far-flung rivers such as the Yellow, the Volta, and the Zambezi.  The second is that, as complex as these issues are, coming to a definitive understanding may be as hard as grasping a handful of water!

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  1. YvonneJune 22, 2016 at 7:52 am

    Thanks Pat, a great institute indeed! The FERN (Food Environment Reporting Network) just came out with this great piece about development in Napa Valley as it relates to tourism as a consumptive activity (as per discussions on modernity) and its relation to water use. The authors investigation of physical landscape transformation and the embedded socio-cultural identity of the wine growing region makes for an intriguing discussion on wine and water. Oh the intersectionalities!

  2. Ian TehJune 23, 2016 at 5:19 am

    Thank you Patrick, it really helps to see the week summarised and to have the various salient points and questions presented in such a way for reflection.

  3. Steve HarrellJuly 3, 2016 at 10:11 am

    Pat, thanks for a very helpful summary. As we go forward, we might want to think of a way to encompass several of the issues you bring up in a single concept: tradeoffs. Engineers (in the broad sense that we discussed them in the workshop), including for example beavers, professional dam-builders, and indigenous fishers, are going to alter rivers; in this sense there is no such thing as a natural river that is not influenced by agents. And whenever agents do something to a river, some “stakeholders” gain and others lose: a tradeoff.

    As you mention, although some gains and losses are intentional on the part of the engineers, others are unintended. The best that a conscientious engineer can do is to try to anticipate as many consequences as possible, and to design the intervention (a disturbance, in systems-ecology terms) so that the resulting river will be able to continue functioning after absorbing the engineered disturbance, and to ensure the social and economic justice of the intervention. In other words, design for equity and resilience.

    If we go forward with this project, one suggestion would be to improve on the principles I mention here and apply them to a series of case studies from the regions we covered in the workshop (or other regions, for that matter).

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