Astrid Bredholt Stensrud, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo

Making the Water Flow: Singularity and Multiplicity in a Peruvian watershed

Water as a finite resource that needs to be properly managed has gained increased attention in the past few years. Simultaneously, watersheds are being consolidated as units of management by the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), which is the current global water paradigm promoted by the United Nations and the World Bank. As IWRM is implemented around the world, water is primarily seen as an economic resource that should be used efficiently. This paper will challenge hegemonic understandings of ‘water’ and ‘watersheds’ by showing that watersheds are not stable and entirely ‘natural’ entities. It takes a lot of work to make water flow, and watersheds are constituted by a plurality of water practices, which also produce diverse versions of water and different yet entangled and partially connected water worlds.

The urge to master nature, including water, entails transforming water into a singular, standardized and legible resource by measuring, regulating and enclosing it. However, as water refuses to be contained within a standardized definition, it constantly multiplies. I argue that there is a need to take this excess and multiplicity seriously in order to achieve a fuller understanding of water and watersheds. I suggest that water is not a neutral substance: water can become different things in different practices and relationships, and can thus exist in different versions, including as a living being.

Based on the ethnography from the Majes-Colca watershed in the region of Arequipa, the paper will discuss the differences and entanglements between ‘water extractivism’, which aims to singularize and standardize water into the category of ‘resource’, and ‘water multiplicity’, which allows different versions of water to coexist. I propose to go beyond the conventional perspectives of political ecology and political economy in order to see nature – including water – as something more than a resource.

Astrid B. Stensrud holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Oslo. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, where she has taken part of the project “Overheating: the three crises of globalisation”. Her research interests focus on human-environmental relations, world-making practices, climate change, water, kinship and informal economy in the Peruvian Andes. She has published several articles on these topics in journals such as Ethnos, History and Anthropology, Latin American Perspectives, and Social Anthropology, in addition to various chapters in edited books.

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