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Water, Culture, and Power: Local Struggles In A Global Context

Water, Culture, and Power: Local Struggles In A Global Context

by John Donahue

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Water, Culture, and Power presents a series of case studies from around the world that examine the complex culture and power dimensions of water resources and water resource management.


Water, Culture, and Power presents a series of case studies from around the world that examine the complex culture and power dimensions of water resources and water resource management.

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Water, Culture and Power

Local Struggles in a Global Context

By John M. Donahue, Barbara Rose Johnston


Copyright © 1998 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-346-1



Barbara Rose Johnston and John M. Donahue


Water is essential to life. The earth is a world of water, yet it is also a world where freshwater is relatively scarce. Only some 2.5 percent of the total volume of water on earth is freshwater, and large portions of the global supply are inaccessible.

The water cycle, driven by the sun, lifts purified water from oceans and land and releases it as rain and snow—some 10 percent of this over land and the remainder over seas. A bit more than two-thirds of the global freshwater supply is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. The remaining freshwater (0.77 percent of all water) is held in aquifers, soil pores, lakes, swamps, rivers, plant life, and the atmosphere. Thanks to seasonal and geographic variabilities, that which is accessible for human use is an even smaller figure. For example, the Amazon River alone accounts for some 15 percent of global runoff, and an estimated 95 percent of its flow is inaccessible (Czaya 1981).

Of all the water on earth, only one one-hundredth of 1 percent is available for human use as fresh, drinkable water, provided by stable runoff from rivers and lakes and a small amount stored in dams (Postel et al. 1996). Even so, this supply would support many times our present population if it all could be exploited (Meyers 1993, 102-103). However, both the water and the world's peoples are unevenly distributed (Middleton et al. 1994, 141–143).

According to estimates by the United Nations Environment Programme, at least 1.7 billion people living on earth do not have an adequate supply of drinking water, and an estimated 40 percent of the world's population faces chronic shortages. Many of these people live in arid regions, water-stressed countries where rain is limited and they must rely on rivers and groundwater for their freshwater needs. Nine of the fourteen countries of the Middle East, for example, face water scarcity (Postel 1992, 287). Population growth in water-scarce regions exacerbates the problem. By the year 2000, some 300 million people living in fifteen countries in Africa—one-third of the continent's population—will struggle with water scarcity (Postel 1993, 106). Many of those facing water shortages live in degraded watersheds where deforestation, erosion, increased runoff, and microclimatic change contribute to water scarcity. And across the world, in all zones and settings, people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the forces of global climate change as weather becomes increasingly chaotic and unpredictable and crops freeze, rot, or wither on the vine (Ohlsson 1995).

Water scarcity, however, is more than a matter of disturbed terrain, increased population, and climate change. Water scarcity can also be a by-product of water management projects: the building of dams, canals, and complicated delivery systems may provide water for some at the cost of others, with short-term gains that wreak long-term ecological havoc (Gleick 1993; McCully 1996; Postel 1992; Reisner 1986). Moreover, water scarcity can be a product of the social systems. Many of those facing water shortages live in the world's cities, where water is often supplied to the rich by municipal systems while the urban poor, living on the fringes of cities, are forced to purchase water from vendors at rates as much as forty times higher (Meyers 1993, 103). Many people have access only to water that is unfit for consumption—contaminated by sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial waste (Hu and Kim 1993).

Finally, the artificial nature of geopolitical borders influences water quality and water scarcity. Many of the important water basins of the world straddle political borders. Water containment and diversion schemes in one country affect supply and quality in other countries. The Nile River basin, for example, embraces parts of nine countries; conflict results as sovereign nations claim competing rights to use, store, divert, and pollute (Homer-Dixon 1996; Lowi 1996; Ohlsson 1995). Water allocations based on political and economic interests often exceed actual water availability, leaving downstream (or less powerful) users with a trickle of salty, contaminated water (Reisner 1986).

In short, water scarcity is more than a matter of decreased supply or increased demand. Water scarcity is influenced by a variety of factors, including topography, climate, economic activities, population growth, cultural beliefs, perceptions and traditions, and power relationships.

Culture and Power

The Chinese word for crisis is written with two characters, one that suggests danger and another that suggests opportunity. In many ways, the story of water at the end of the millennium is a story of the tension between danger and opportunity. The dangers of flood and drought can be transformed into economic opportunities as rivers are dammed, waters are diverted into distant fields, and power is generated to feed factories and towns. Yet such transformations imply other changes as well. Nature is dominated and turned into a commodity, complex bioregions are destroyed (Abramovitz 1995), and human social and cultural systems are dramatically, sometimes drastically, altered. Thus, the story of water is all too often a story of conflict and struggle between the forces of self-interest and opportunities associated with "progress" and the community-based values and needs of traditional ways of life.

In every community, people value water for different reasons and use water in different ways. The quest to capture, store, and distribute a reliable supply of water (or energy) implies the capture of a commons resource and the building of structures and institutions to enclose, commodify, and control it. This process of politicizing and commodi-fying nature requires centralized institutions of power and a reliance on technology to conquer natural forces. Systems for controlling resource access and use typically reflect the ways in which society is organized and thus recreate and reproduce the inequities in society (The Ecologist 1993).

In this book, we present a series of case studies that examine these complex cultural and power dimensions of water resources and water resource management. Contributors to this volume examine the origins, the anatomy, and at times the resolution of water conflicts in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Honduras, the Virgin Islands, Japan, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, and the Middle East. Case studies span the continuum of water management contexts: dam construction, hydroelectric power generation, irrigation, transportation, water quality, and cogeneration (desalination). Attention is focused on the various actors in water debates, including historical actors and events but also the varied stakeholders: indigenous peoples, politicians, government agencies, environmentalists, agriculture and other industry-specific users, and citizen groups. The chapters present highly contested and contentious cases such as hydroelectric development at James Bay in Quebec, water management in the Colorado River basin, and the role of water access and control in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Cases also explore the cultural and power dynamics of water management in international (e.g., South Texas), national (e.g., Israel), regional (e.g., James Bay), and local (e.g., Virgin Islands) settings.

The book is organized into three parts dealing broadly with the issues of culture, power, and water. Part I (Rights and Resources: Water, Development, and Cultural Survival) explores some of the varied cultural meanings of water and water resources by examining the impact of water resource development on indigenous peoples. These chapters describe how water is the lifeblood of reproductive systems that maintain and support biological and cultural existence and how watersheds are the situational backdrop for cultural meaning, experience, history, and future. Thus, contested rights to use, constrain, and control water often involve contested rights to land and to the loci of power in resource decision making, both factors that sustain cultural identity.

Part II (Project Culture and Hydropolitics: The Making and Unmaking of Water Development Projects) focuses more explicitly on the political process of funding and building water resource projects. These chapters explore the varied reasons for initiating water development projects, describe the political and economic factors that shape these hugely expensive activities, and provide some sense of the promise that sustains the dream of water resource development over the long years between genesis and completion. Because these cases examine the intersection of culture and power, they also illustrate how different cultural notions, needs, and agendas intersect at a conflict axis, challenging the construction and viability of proposed projects and occasionally bringing a halt to the development process. Water resource crises and conflicts present opportunities to contest existing power relations; indeed, the power to declare a crisis in itself is contingent on possession of power (cf. Lees 1995).

Water is power, and the politics of water are such that dead projects can continually be brought back to life, carrying with them the baggage of outmoded dreams. The initial funding of projects creates momentum in itself, and despite changing times and needs, efforts to "fix" nature or protect human investment may continue to be funded for reasons of political capital rather than the actual viability of the project. Efforts to change or transform the focus of projects continually confront the entrenched "project culture," which may find its institutional power threatened.

The contradictions between dreams and reality, between hydrodevelopment and reproductive strategies, and between those who stand to gain and those who stand to lose result in inevitable conflict—conflict that presents adverse consequences in both the biophysical and cultural realms. Thus, part III (The Culture and Power Dimensions of Water Scarcity) examines the tensions between culture and power as they structure perceptions and experiences of water scarcity and, indeed, as they have transformed the very nature of water.

There is growing awareness that water scarcity plays an increasingly significant role in local, national, and international conflicts. Thomas Homer-Dixon and members of his Environmental Change and Security Project define three types of scarcity: demand-induced scarcity, caused by population growth or increased per capita activity; supply-induced scarcity, marked by a drop in renewable resource supply because the resource is degraded or depleted faster than it is replenished; and structural scarcity, which arises from inequitable distribution of resources (Homer-Dixon et al. 1994, 391–400).

It is our contention that an adequate understanding of resource scarcity must also include an understanding of the process by which scarcity (or the perception of scarcity) is created—what motivates people to act in the way they do, to define resources and resource crises, and to devise responses. Thus, although places and cases vary, all chapters address the values and meanings associated with water in a given context, the power to attribute a certain cultural meaning to water, and different how changes in power result in different definitions of meaning and different patterns of water resource use, access, and control. Cultural notions, histories, economies, environmental conditions, and power relations all play a role in establishing differential resource relations, and this differential is a significant factor in ensuing conflicts and crises.


The Use and Abuse of Aquifers

Can the Hopi Indians Survive Multinational Mining?

Peter Whiteley and Vernon Masayesva

Author Summary

Three actors play significant roles in water use in northeastern Arizona: the Hopi, the Navajo, and the Peabody Western Coal Company. The Hopi cultural and religious understanding of springs (paavahu) is contrasted with Peabody's use of water to transport its coal to Nevada by slurry. The company's wells are depleting the springs, and the springs are drying up. Hopi religious concerns with springs and paanaqso'a (deathly thirst) are metaphorical of larger issues of global development and natural resource management.

A very long time ago there was nothing but water. In the east Hurúing Wuhti, the deity of all hard substances, lived in the ocean.... The Sun also existed at that time.... By and by these two deities caused some dry land to appear in the midst of the water, the waters receding eastward and westward.

("Origin Myth" recorded by H. R. Voth [1905b])

This is ... one of the most arid countries in the world, and we need that water. That is why we do Kachina dances in the summer, just to get a drop of rain. And to us, this water is worth more than gold, or the money. Maybe we cannot stop the mining of the coal, but we sure would like to stop the use of water.

(Dennis Tewa, Munqapi village)

Hopi Society and Environmental Adaptation

The Hopi Indians of northeastern Arizona are an epitome of human endurance: they are farmers without water. According to their genesis narrative, the Hopi emerged from a layer under the earth into this, the fourth, world by climbing up inside a reed. On their arrival, they met a deity, Maasaw, who presented them with a philosophy of life based on three elements: maize seeds, a planting stick, and a gourd full of water. Qa'ö, maize, was the soul of the Hopi people, representing their very identity. Sooya, the planting stick, represented the simple technology they should depend on: there was an explicit warning against over-dependency on technology, which had taken on a life of its own in the third world below, producing destruction through materialism, greed, and egotism. Wikoro, the gourd filled with water, represented the environment—the land and all its life-forms-as well as the sign of the Creator's blessing, if the Hopis would uphold Maasaw's covenant and live right. Maasaw told them that life in this place would be arduous and daunting, but through resolute perseverance and industry, they would live long and be spiritually rich.

The twelve Hopi villages lie on a generally southeast-northwest axis stretching roughly one hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles) as the crow flies (see figure 2.1). The villages cluster in groups around the tips of three fingerlike promontories, known as the Hopi mesas, that form the southwesternmost extensions of Black Mesa, an upthrust plate of the Colorado Plateau (see figure 2.2 on page 20). Black Mesa is bisected by four principal southwest-trending washes, Moenkopi, Dinnebito, Oraibi, and Polacca; all but Moenkopi are ephemeral and flow only after significant precipitation. Smaller washes, Jeddito and Wepo, near First Mesa, are also locally important. The Wepo and Oraibi Washes separate the Hopi mesas from one another, cutting arroyo channels in valleys some 90 to 120 meters (300 to 400 feet) below the mesa tops, on which the villages perch. The washes and their tributary fans are main areas of Hopi floodwater farming. Only the Moenkopi Wash (far removed from the central area of Hopi villages) supports irrigation, in farmlands below the villages of Upper and Lower Munqapi, which remain the most productive areas for Hopi crops (the name Munqapi, anglicized to Moenkopi, means "continuously flowing water place"—an index of its social importance). The Moenkopi Wash is fed by tributary stream flows and springs but also is fed directly by an aquifer in a layer of sandstone called "Navajo" that sits below the surface of Black Mesa within the hydrological province known as the Black Mesa Basin.

The Hopi's principal supply of drinking water is traditionally found in springs—indeed, Hopi history, which focuses on centripetal migrations by independent clans from all points of the compass, specifically remarks on the abundance and reliability of the springs that stud the walls of First, Second, and Third Mesas. The springs have determined Hopi settlement patterns and uses of natural resources. As geologist Herbert Gregory, an early visitor to the Navajo and Hopi Indian Reservations, pointed out:

One of the surprises ... is the large number of springs widely distributed over the reservation. Tucked away in alcoves in the high mesa walls or issuing from crevices in the canyon sides or bubbling up through the sands in the long wash floors, these tiny supplies of water appear to be distributed in haphazard fashion.... The ancient cliff dweller was well aware of the desirability of these small permanent supplies as centers for settlement, and many of the present-day Indian trails owe their position to the location of springs rather than to topography or to length of route.

(Gregory 1916, 132)


Excerpted from Water, Culture and Power by John M. Donahue, Barbara Rose Johnston. Copyright © 1998 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John M. Donahue is professor and chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Barbara Rose Johnston is senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, California.

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