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date: 06 May 2021

Ethnographies of Waterfree

  • Sandy ToussaintSandy ToussaintUniversity of Western Australia


Water in all its permanent, temporary, colored, salt and freshwater forms, is vital and life-sustaining to human and other living species. Ethnographic research has, by necessity, always included water in all its variations, whereas ethnographies of water describe and analyze not only accounts about water’s intrinsic value to life, but also how different societies conceptualize, sustain, use, control, and attribute meaning to it. Water as a cultural ethnographic lens reveals how both the presence and absence of water is managed, as well as how it is believed to have originated and should be cared for. Practices such as the regular enactment of religious rituals, the development of irrigation, origin narratives, understandings of hydrological movements, and the problem of drought and flood, all convey a complex of water-inspired stories. Water’s relationship to other elements—air, wind, fire, cloud, and smoke—are also part of the depth and breadth embedded in ethnographies of water, constituting a richness of narratives, especially when explored from country to country, and place to place, as new generations and circumstances across time and space converge. These inevitably include the impact of global warming, the technology revolution, and globalization, alongside the curiosity, rigor, and insight that is the long-term hallmark of anthropological inquiry.


Water in all its complex guises—its presence, absence, saltiness, freshness, ferocity, and calmness, its smell and color, its boiling or icy form—has often been incorporated into ethnographic research (Hastrup and Hastrup 2017; Orlove and Caton 2010; Rasmussen and Orlove 2015; Strang 2019; Wagner et al. 2018). Until the latter part of the 20th century, such incorporation has rarely been physically or symbolically visible, highlighted, or provided a rationale for an ethnography to be conducted, making it sometimes difficult to describe and analyze under a specific rubric. Alongside an increase in universal awareness of the part that water, as flood, drought, and scarcity, plays in the unpredictability the climate crisis has engendered, tangible ethnographic evidence of water as a distinctive site from which cultural, political, and economic life can be recorded, interpreted, and analyzed, has become an increasing reality. That anthropology and the ethnographic method have resulted in an increase in cross-disciplinary and collaborative research has also been furthered through a series of water and environmental studies.

Obviously necessary for human and nonhuman survival, a primary focus on water as a research site has also facilitated deepened understandings about everyday social, economic, intellectual, and emotional life. Topics and tropes range from and include the enactment of water-inspired religious rituals (such as for Passover and Christian baptism), to human engagement with sustainable domestic and industry water-saving methods, to rivers and oceans as permeable or fixed points, to land access and control, to the integration of water-related natural species (plants, fish, birds, animals) as sources of nutritious food and in ceremonial activity, to water as a commodified, polluted, and scarce resource. As a major ethnographic focus, water also fulfills a need in anthropology. Most anthropologists continue to be driven by the need to learn something new about the world we all share, as well as to build on previous or baseline ethnographic accounts. As encouragement to project collaboration stemming from the environmental sciences and related disciplines, cross-disciplinary research possibilities have become more pronounced. Strang (2007) opines that lines between disciplines, and the extensive possibilities there are for cross-disciplinary collaborative projects, are becoming increasingly productive.

Water as an Ethnographic Trope

Water, by its very nature and by necessity, has always been epistemologically present in ethnographies, and not only to quench thirst, to cleanse or to cook—a point also raised by Rasmussen and Orlove (2015), Orlove and Caton (2010), Strang (2019), and Wagner et al. (2018). In a way, water’s constancy (including its absence in the case of drought), inevitably tied to human and nonhuman survival, results in it being hard to separate into distinct ethnographic categories. Three distinctive and less obvious examples illuminate my intended meaning. James Woodburn (1982), for instance, is renowned for his decades-long research among the Hazda of Tanzania, Africa. Concentrating on the sharing and the restriction of natural resources, especially water and food between tribal groups, Woodburn analyzed that a show of power and authority was evident in the giving or receiving of an “immediate” or “delayed” return (1982, 431–451). The Woodburn “delayed returns” thesis is understandably recognized for its qualities, and obviously the value of water as a shared or restricted resource is present in his study. But water is not amplified in a way that it might have been at the time, or could be decades later. What more could be known about Hazda life, land, and relationships if Woodburn’s concentration had been from the vantage point of human-water allocation and use, and a broader understanding of cultural life? Woodburn’s ethnography thus incorporates water but not in a way that categorically ties his work into a water-inspired framework.

In another time and place, Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Culture in Japan (1946) explored, via a literature search rather than fieldwork, what she described as Japanese cultural contradictions and “dualisms.” Less well known than the chrysanthemum/sword dualism, but pertinent here, is that of the seeming cultural simplicity and gentility of tea-making ceremonies in contrast with the brutality and tragedy of Japanese military at war. At the heart of ceremonial tea-making is water: its quality, freshness, temperature, color, smell, and the vessels or cups and teapots that hold it. The reference to the military, of course, also raises the issue of water use in war at sea or on land, but a consideration might well have been, or could in the future be, a more nuanced and complex understanding. What is the cultural origin of tea-making in Japan? What if Benedict had focused on water as a vantage point in the tea-making ceremonies? What might have been learned if none or not all of the required water qualities were available? Who would have been blamed? What would the symbolic and actual implications be for ceremony hosts and guests as a whole? Water is in Benedict’s ethnographic review and knowledge claims, but it is not conceptually privileged.

Further back in 20th-century time, and across continents, Phyllis Kaberry’s 1930s ethnographic field research with Australian indigenous people in the northern West Kimberley region, contemplated gender relations from the vantage point of women in the ethnography Aboriginal Woman: Sacred and Profane (1939). Kaberry’s thesis, that gender relations were complementary to that of men rather than unequal as hitherto claimed, defined her research legacy. Understandably, in the background, Kaberry writes about water for human consumption, as a factor in daily cultural and economic life in desert and river locations, and its relationship to fishing, hunting, gathering, and mapping activities. A rationale for introducing Kaberry’s ethnography here is that her inclusive research (about women as well as men, land as well as water, religious as well as “profane” activity) has provided a substantive historical record about gender relations that has been of reflective and scholarly benefit in contemporary Australian settings. Her ethnography also left data about sociocultural, religious, and economic land and water research to build on—for instance, in the indigenous native title land claims process in Australia.1

Reviews undertaken by Orlove and Caton (2010) and Rasmussen and Orlove (2015) with water as an ethnographic guide, also show that throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, an interpretation of inherent data could effectively and reflectively add to local and international human/environment interactions and findings. For example, descriptions from the past in a myriad of times and locations about plant life, water levels, native habitats, crops, regularity of rain-making ceremonies, incorporation of inanimate water-inspired objects, social organization, and so on, have the potential to be drawn on qualitatively and quantitatively to assess studies about water and the environment, as well as associated human beliefs and behaviors over time and place.

Rasmussen and Orlove (2015) note, too, that the first water-related article they found in their review was in American Anthropologist, dated 1893. Frederick Webb Hodge wrote about irrigation in Arizona, highlighting the value of a strict and demanding work ethos previously undertaken by Pueblo Indians, a practice that could be of benefit to the colonizers and the irrigation industry (Hodge 1893, 232–330, cited in Rasmussen and Orlove, 2015). Interestingly, most of the studies from the 19th century into the 20th century were linked to First Nations Americans and Canadians, perhaps showing the key interests of a burgeoning anthropology at that time.

It is universally impossible to live without water, and all past, present, and future ethnographies will by necessity include it in some way. Citing Woodburn, however, this will be via a substantive “delayed [research] return” to historical and future endeavors. While contemporary discussion emphasizes that interests in water have grown due to the implications and unpredictability of a drying climate, it is also the case that anthropologists have increasingly identified water as a culturally rich research site from which, if privileged, can elicit other human beliefs, practices, ideas, and aspirations that can help to elucidate how different societies culturally adapt, respond, and shape changing environments, as those environments ultimately and in turn also shape them.

In a constantly unfolding era of globalization and technological revolution, it is also evident that anthropology and the ethnographic method are being drawn into other disciplinary frameworks, such as political ecology, cultural geography, environmental science, and hydrology. But what ethnography continues to offer, in addition to learning about present-day life in all its complexity throughout the world, is a depth and breadth of material from identifiable points within the contextual fluctuations of time and place, alongside cultural, political, and socioeconomic frames that include social inequality, resistance, and belonging.

Belonging, Resistance, and Social Inequality

Arturo Escobar (2008), a scholar whose work consistently emphasizes both the inequalities, and the qualities, of belonging, resistance, environmental justice, and power relations, is an anthropologist who continues the ethos and the practice of including, rather than privileging, water. In field research among people of the Columbian Pacific, Latin America, Escobar identifies “water settlements” as a means to discern what matters most when interpreting socioeconomic life:

The sense of belonging engendered by river affiliation has weakened, yet in many places, the river continues to be a vital space of social interaction through which people actualize opportunities afforded by either the local or the larger regional or transnational contexts.

(Escobar 2008, 50)

Escobar identifies water as one factor among others through frameworks that encompass sociocultural, economic, political, and ecological analyses. Water becomes an integrated descriptor and concept: It is not the specific vantage point, but it does foster Escobar’s concern to explore power relations, and forms of resistance.

A specific focus on water as a cultural lens that prompts similar themes is evident in Ben Orlove’s Lines in the Water (2002), where, like Escobar, analyses around inequality, belonging, and resistance emerge. Focusing on Lake Titicaca in the Peruvian Andes, and the lake’s relationship with local indigenous highlanders, Orlove makes it plain that the lake is the focal point from which the sociality and economics of interconnected relationships can and should be interpreted. Lake Titicaca is central to where understandings about people’s resistance against the state and development can be discerned. Family relationships, within the cultural context of continuity and economic change, are highlighted by Orlove through his insightful capacity to understand that Peruvian people themselves conceptualize the lake as central, and as the interlocutor from which all other social, cultural, and economic qualities sprang.

From the Andes, but still in Peru, Paul Trawick (2001) argues that in a state-based system where village irrigators have local control, water’s scarcity and availability become twin rather than oppositional themes. When water is plentiful, it is distributed according to individual landowner rank; when it is not, distribution is controlled via a process that includes fairness and efficiency.

Not geographically distant from Peru, but without reverting to cultural or political assumptions about people, environment, politics, and place, is a Chile-based study. Babidge (2016) turns markedly to the ethnographic impact of mining and water extraction, alongside matters of vulnerability and resistance in a water-inspired article that intertwines Atacameño men and women. Building on research about water relationships, power relations, commodification, and control (see also Hastrup and Hastrup 2017; Orlove and Caton 2010; Strang 2004, 2019; Trawick 2001; Whiteford and Whiteford 2005), Babidge extends the discussion by contemplating not only cultural, political, and indigenous rights and issues, but also the importance of ethics when power relations, and water contests among people, government, and industry are at issue (2016, 84).

That water sources have agency is an emergent theme in water studies, especially where social inequality, belonging, and forms of resistance are evident, and the example from Chile can also be found elsewhere. In northern Australia, a country regularly considered as having the world’s driest climate, Kimberley indigenous language groups such as the Nyikina, Mangala, Bunuba, Ngarinyn, and Gooniyandi regularly attribute agency and illustrate a sense of belonging to an iconic and currently threatened river, known locally by the traditional indigenous term, Martuwarra, and nationally and internationally as the Fitzroy River (Poelina et al. 2019; Poelina 2020). Whether natural resources such as rivers and seas are embedded with agency and/or can be identified as legal entities equivalent with “environmental personhood” under state or federal law is also a growing topic of inquiry. Ethnographic evidence will continue to be important as such interest evolves, especially following the High Court of New Zealand Decision in 2017 that the notable Whanganui River conformed to all requirements to regard it as a “legal person” (Strang 2014, 2020; see also Muru-Lanning 2016).

Back in a northern Australian setting, threats to the Fitzroy River’s quality, cultural and environmental flow, density and mileage, and to traditional customary laws and affiliations, have come primarily from industry and government. Strategies include a bid to divert more than 450 miles of the river’s trajectory from the north of Western Australia to the south (a distance of at least 1,500 miles) as a means to further expand pastoralism and water-draining agriculture. The “I Am Martuwarra” song, written and published in 2019, eloquently conveys indigenous people’s concerns and aspirations about the river, as well as something of local indigenous cultural and environmental life.2

Evoking the river as agent, the following extract penned by Anne Poelina, a Nyikina-Mangala Traditional Owner, is also telling:

My name is Martuwarra. Welcome to the River Country—Martuwarra, the sacred River of life! I pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians of this Country, and to Elders past, present and future. I thank them for their enduring guardianship and our continuing relationship of trust and respect. I welcome you all to this Country.

(Poelina et al. 2019; Poelina 2020)

Muru-Lanning (2016) and Strang (2014, 2020) both write cogently about a variety of water-related matters in Aotearoa/New Zealand, especially regarding the need for indigenous Maori groups to increasingly “defend water rights,” and to have those rights respected by Pakeha (non-Maori) persons, environmentalists, and the national system of law. Their research resonates with that conducted elsewhere among other colonized groups, including in Brazil, where, as Paul Little (2006) emphasizes, not only is there a struggle for indigenous groups with the state and industry over control of water (as river and other sources), but there is also control over fish as a reliable and important source of nutrition for growing families and the elderly, and as a unit of economic exchange.

Remaining with water and fish as a guide, but with parallels elsewhere, Toussaint (2014) emphasizes Jaminyjarti, a ritual that necessitates the catching and consumption of fresh and saltwater fish for bereaved relatives following restrictions on the cooking and eating of red meat after the death of a loved one in northern Australia, and Alison Dundon (2008) takes readers ethnographically to a variety of water sources (lagoons, tidal rivers, creeks) and to the Aramia River in Papua New Guinea. She describes not only the variety of fish caught for nourishment and exchange, but also the importance of the river’s color and quality to sustain locally caught fish, qualities likely to be severely diminished by the incremental impact of water damage from major international developments such as OK Tedi Mining (2008, 13–14).

Dundon’s analysis shares some resonance with Williams’s (2001), which, in ethnographic research concentrated on the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, North America, emphasizes how access to water makes plain issues of social inequality and the urgent need for consideration and application of environmental justice by state authorities. As Williams argues, a focus on the river facilitates an understanding of conflict and contradiction via use and exchange values because they are “precious pieces of nature where people [can] fish, boat, and reflect” (2001, 427). That rivers also provide a conduit through which real estate, warfare, and political barriers emerge is another feature when interpreted through water’s significance, alongside the use and extraction of natural resources, such as fish. These insights expand Williams’s emphasis, indicating the importance of taking into account everyday time, location, politics, and place.

Water as a specific resource, in this case extensive flooding, often amplifies vulnerability. Using a mixed-methods approach to work with villagers from three locations in Kelantan, Malaysia, Karim et al. (2016) make a strong case to problematize the severe impact of floods on villagers’ lives that further diminished the social and economic conditions of families who had already suffered “[pre]existing socio-economic vulnerabilities.” The study concludes that factors such as poor or unsuitable shelters and a lower health status, combined with the onslaught of flooding, resulted in extensive long-term negative outcomes (2016, 129–134).

Poor living conditions, limited access to water quality, human and nonhuman vulnerability, and chronic health status have become key in anthropological and other bodies of literature with various sources of water as core elements. Whiteford and Whiteford (2005) provide a definitive research resource in this regard, including a comprehensive chapter-by-chapter overview from the intertwined vantage points of health, medicine, and water in global contexts. Although not always ethnographically inspired, authors consider the enduring effects of polluted water on human health and nutrition, inequitable planning and control of natural resources by nation states and industry, and the dire consequences on vulnerable, disproportionately impoverished people when water is viewed primarily as a commodity. They make a compelling argument that water (in all its potable, polluted, and varied forms) and humans (wherever and whomever they are) should not be treated as separate topics, an emphasis of high value for future ethnographic research, especially as the twofold crises of massive human movement across the globe and the consequences of a drying climate dramatically intertwine and evolve. In a sense, what the Whiteford and Whiteford (2005) volume shows is the value of ethnographic collaboration within anthropological inquiry in and of itself through greater accumulation of ethnographies of water, alongside ethnographies of health and medicine.

Cultural Meanings, Cross-Disciplinary Research

The texts and films of Stephen Lansing (1988) in Bali, Indonesia, are among the forerunners of cross-disciplinary research and water. In collaboration with ecologist James Kramer and local Balinese communities, with temples, religious practice, and irrigation as study sites, Lansing’s depth of ethnographic research highlighted not only the continuity and reliability of traditional Balinese irrigation management, but also the processual implications of that inclusive management model to ensure the growth of successful and healthy crops for existing and future generations.

A more pronounced example of cross-disciplinary research involving ethnography, environmental science, human ecology, and hydrology comes from Cameroon, Africa. Laborde et al. (2018), using a mixed-methods approach including participant observation, show the value of working cross-culturally as well as across disciplines. They demonstrate that forward planning in flood prevention with local villagers was just as important as supporting people’s resilient behaviors and rhythms in self-organization to offset highly disruptive and dangerous seasonal flooding.

That water is embedded with meaning in its own right, and water’s relationship with humans and all other species is part of cultural description and analysis in a myriad of ways, is the hallmark of ethnographic research conducted by anthropologist Veronica Strang (e.g., 2004, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2019, 2020). With a genealogical, geographic, and cultural range across variegated water sources that includes three countries (Queensland in Australia, parts of Aotearoa/New Zealand, and the Stour River in Dorset, England), Strang’s emphasis on the differences and the similarities of varied water use, as well as control over water, and the symbolism that is embedded in water’s cultural as well as environmental flow, distinguish her research. Strang’s premise throughout her often metaphorical and practical research is that water is culturally embedded with meaning by all societies, and that meaning is both defined and navigated by people’s lived experience and relationship to water as a distinctive source: river, creek, ocean, or spring; flowing or stilled; potable or polluted; commodified or controlled; material and/or symbolic (2004). With the Dorset study in mind, for example, Strang illuminates the experience and insights of local villagers to water reduction, contrasting these with local policy development and privatization. She shows that when village sentiment and management of local water sources are undermined, the objective operations of privatization result in difficult outcomes for everyday life, as well as the water sources people care for and share.

Expanding her inclusive ethnographic range, Strang also explores water represented as symbolic, emblematic, and material, for instance, when associated with religious and mythic water serpents and other material forms to commemorate life, death, fertility, and continuity, as evident in her 2019 presentation in Paris, France, to the École de Arts et Sciences, titled “Serpentine Skies: Celestial Journeys with Hydrotheological Water Beings.”

Oestigaard (2006), in a historical overview of Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism, also ethnographically crosses a mix of European and Asian countries to explore the intrinsic symbolic value of water-related artworks and sculptures. His work encompasses the view that religious meanings and practices, such as the use of ceremonial water to baptize, cleanse and purify in rituals associated with birth and death, deepen when water is described and analyzed as a key ethnographic vantage point.

Wagner et al. (2018) credit Strang’s strong ethnographic contribution to cultural and sensory water/human interactions, and her interest in identifying human agency in relation to how water sources are managed, and by whom. That there is an urgency to ensure that water and the social sciences are always included in research design when the stark implications of the climate crisis are examined, is a view she shares with Kirsten and Frida Hastrup. In Waterworlds: Anthropology in Fluid Environments (2017), for instance, Hastrup and Hastrup emphasize a variety of ethnographic settings, populations, and water sources to extend understandings about how people’s responses to drought, flood, pollution, and sickness can be analyzed via the angles of oppression and resistance, neither of which should be seen as binary or oppositional. Included, too, is the consideration of water as having intertwined cultural and material qualities, as a topic that anthropologists should more seriously pursue. Human Geographer Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt (2006) draws on participant observation methods in her research in South and Southeast Asia to show that such an urgency must—within all cultural and political purviews—ensure that women and gender are part of any future research design. In South Asia, specifically India, Singh and Singh (2009) incorporate a multidisciplinary approach, including from architectural design, with settlements nominated as factors to investigate from an “anthropology of water” perspective, to claim, like others in this field, that the study of water must always integrate human behaviors over time and place. As Singh and Singh observe, embedding integration into both design and process is especially important when traditional modes of water management, such as the operation of caste in parts of India where many “taboos” continue to have meaning and to impact people’s water access, are maintained.

Elsewhere, Wade Davis (2020), an anthropologist and ecologist, makes plain the eternal sociocultural, economic, and ecological value of Colombia’s Magdalena River to both local and visiting populations, and people’s everyday lives. Emphasizing the potential of national, political, and ecological threats in a changing climate, Davis urges increased water/river study to ensure the Magdalena River retains the high cultural and conservation value it has for future generations of humans and all interrelated species. Davis’s “thick” ethnographic description of people and place as ecologically embedded and river-based, provides not only substantive value for the present about a river’s culture and the lives of the people the river environment encompasses, but also a baseline from which future studies are likely to emerge.

Carothers et al. (2014), employing a mixed-methods approach—which, like Babidge (2016), ensures that ethics are central to their research design and practice—contemplate global warming and its influence on deteriorating subsistence hunting and fishing among rural communities in the snow and ice climate of northern Alaska. Concerned to undertake both indicative and predictive ethnographic research, they emphasize the value of describing and analyzing local fishing stories and activities, alongside contextual indicators demonstrating how the climate crisis is affecting local subsistence beliefs and behaviors. Cogently arguing for the need to situate people’s responses as these relate to northern climate indicators, the researchers consider how a constant reshaping to social life and to the environment has been the outcome. Continuing to monitor both human responses and the impact of climate change is what will provide the most reliable data to work with in future research that will hopefully be of benefit to rural Alaskan and parallel communities, and future subsistence activities, especially with regard to fish and fishing, within the threat of an increasingly worsening climate. Such an increase will, of course, generate the need for further socioeconomic adaptation to below zero temperatures. Crate (2007, 2008), writing about Russia and with reference to the Arctic circle, also discusses the implications of climate change in these circumstances.

Twofold Crises: Human Movement and a Changing Climate

It has been stressed that different qualities, types, and quantities of water (rivers, springs, floods, salt and freshwater, as ice and snow, polluted and healthy, and so on), and water’s absence in times of scarcity and drought, have been variously, and increasingly, centrally, included in the ethnographic record. People’s cultural, socioeconomic, political, and emotional relationships to water, historically and in the present, have increasingly generated fertile growth for anthropologists to consider further and from different vantage points water as significant to ethnographic research design, application, and textual and/or audiovisual implementation. Since greater awareness of the climate crisis in what some describe as the Anthropocene (Latour 2020; Strang 2019, 12), and massive human movement from individuals and families seeking refuge in second or third countries as a result of conflict and civil war in their homelands, what might be described as integrated topics—climate crisis and global movement—have become increasingly recognized as major human rights issues, including of course for anthropology, and future ethnographers.3

That water-related ethnographic research, as well as commentary, critique, and associated theoretical implications, have increased markedly in response to the cumulative threat of the climate crisis and human displacement across the world is addressed by Crate (2008) and substantively covered in Hastrup and Hastrup (2017), who consider the plight, displacement, and the resilience of refugees with regard to accessible potable water, flooding, and massive movement between countries. Colson (2003), concerned to address the role of anthropology in describing, analyzing, and critiquing the stress suffered by refugee families and individuals, including in relation to water use and control, in countries such as Palestine, India, Sri Lanka, and Syria, conveyed a stark warning almost fifteen years ago, noting the implications for traveling refugees, and those who remain in camps and settlements.


Ethnographies about water cannot be classified into a fixed category or theme. Whether explored as a complex whole or on their own, they reveal that not only is water crucial to all humankind, but that the uses and meanings embedded in water may differ from time to time, place to place, culture to culture, and sometimes person to person. Emergent in ethnographic research—those ethnographies focused on water as a social, historical, cultural, economic, and emotional lens, and those that incorporate discussions about water as a necessary natural resource in irrigation, flooding, seasonal cyclones, and so on—is that concepts of water as H2O are not singular; sources of water differ in form, quality, quantity, ferocity, and stillness, and the meanings embedded in water vary.

Waters of all kinds, like humans and the environments of which they are a part, undoubtedly share many things in common, while also exhibiting a variety of qualitative differences throughout history and in the present. Ethnographic research undertaken in a spectrum of places—Aotearoa/New Zealand, Africa, Alaska, Australia, North and South America, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, England, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Melanesia, Peru, and others, not fully referenced here but part of the anthropological and historical record—explicate that water as lake or river, as irrigation or ocean, as abundant or scarce, reveals how social inequality and vulnerability, as well as obvious and more nuanced examples of resistance to authority can be discerned. Just as varied sources and forms of water arise in the ethnographic study of water, so too do diverse natural resources associated with water. As the ethnographic examples illustrate, fish are not only a source of protein and a nourishing and delicious food source but can also be seen as part of a process of exchange, embedded in social activity, central to the performance of grieving rituals, and an item that defines socioeconomic support in times of need.

Cross-disciplinary research involving anthropologists, and increasingly stemming from anthropological research that so importantly and reliably highlights the value of cultural immersion as integral to research, has been sustained and renewed as crises such as the impact of an increasingly volatile climate take hold. Ethnographic research has been, and will continue to be, central to how crises, as well as exhilarations, unfold and remain meaningful throughout time and place, with water always present, sometimes at an ethnographic periphery, but always at the core of human life.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Ballestero, Andrea. 2019. A Future History of Water. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Chamberlain, Gary. 2007. Troubled Waters: Religion, Ethics and the Global Water Crisis. London: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • De Giminiani, P., and M. Gonzalez Galvez. 2018. “Who Owns the Water? The Relation as Unfinished Objectivation in the Mapuche Lived World.” Anthropological Forum 28 (3): 199–216.
  • Ghosh, D., H. Goodall, and Donald S. Hemelryk, eds. 2009. Water, Sovereignty and Borders in Asia and Oceania. London: Routledge.
  • Gunawan, B. J., and L. E. Visser. 2012. “Permeable Boundaries: Outsiders and Access to Fishing Grounds in the Berau Marine Protected Area, Indonesia.” Anthropological Forum 22 (2): 187–207.
  • La Rosa, G., L. Bonadonna, L. Lucentini, S. Kenmore, and E. Suffredini. 2020. “Coronavirus in Water Environments: Occurrence, Persistence, and Concentration Methods—A Scoping Review.” Water Research 179: 115889 (e-publication).
  • Leybourne, M., and A. Gaynor, eds. 2006. Water: Histories, Cultures, Ecologies. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press.
  • Minnegal, M., and P. Dwyer. 2008. “Fire, Flood, Fish and the Uncertainty Paradox.” Australian Journal of Anthropology 19 (1): 77–81.
  • Neale, T., and S. Turner, eds. 2016. Other People’s Country: Law, Water, and Entitlement in Settler Colonial Sites. London: Routledge.
  • Pearce, Fred. 2018. When the Rivers Run Dry. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Perramond, Eric, ed. 2018. Unsettled Waters: Rights, Law, and Identity in the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Pyke, M., S. Toussaint, P. Close, R. Dobbs, I. Davey, K. George, D. Oades, D. Sibisado, P. McCarthy, . . . and J. Clifton. 2018. “Wetlands Need People: A Framework for Understanding and Promoting Australian Indigenous Wetland Management.” Ecology and Society 23 (3): 43–51.
  • Toussaint, Sandy. 2005. “Building an Epistemological Bridge: Coeval Integrated Practice in Studies of Human/Environmental Relationships.” In Sustainable Environments, Sustainable Communities, edited by Monica. Minnegal, 10–14. Melbourne: SAGES Melbourne University.


  • Babidge, S. 2016. “‘Contested Value and the Ethics of Resources’: Water, Mining and Indigenous People in the Atacameño Desert, Chile.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology 27: 84–103.
  • Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Culture in Japan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Carothers, C., C. Brown, K. J. Moerlein, J. López, D. B. Andersen, and B. Rutherford. 2014. “Measuring Perceptions of Climate Change in Northern Alaska: Pairing Ethnography with Cultural Consensus Analysis.” Ecology and Society 19 (4): 27.
  • Colson, E. 2003. “Forced Migration and the Anthropological Response.” Journal Refugee Studies 16 (1): 1–18.
  • Crate, S. A. 2008. “Gone the Bull of Winter: Grappling with the Cultural Implications of Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change.” Current Anthropology 49 (4): 569–585.
  • Davis, Wade. 2020. Magdalena: River of Dreams. London: Bodley Head.
  • Escobar, Arturo. 2008. Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Hawke, S., and Paul Stanhope. 2019. “I Am Martuwarra.”
  • Hastrup, K., and F. Hastrup, eds. 2017. Waterworlds: Anthropology in Fluid Environments. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
  • Hodge, F. W. 1893. “Prehistoric Irrigation in Arizona.” American Anthropologist A6 (3): 323–330.
  • Kaberry, Phyllis. 1939. Aboriginal Woman: Sacred and Profane. London: George Routledge and Sons.
  • Karim, A. H. M., H. Noon, N. M. Diah, N. A. Tajuddin, S. Mustari, S. I. Sarker, and S. K. Mazumder. 2016. “Problems and Sufferings of the Flood-Affected People in Malaysia: A Study of Three Villages in Kelantan.” South Asian Anthropologist 16 (2): 129–135.
  • Laborde, S., A. Mahamat, and M. Moritz. 2018. “The Interplay of Top-Down Planning and Adaptive Self-Organization in an African Floodplain.” Human Ecology 46 (2): 171–182.
  • Lahiri-Dutt, Kuntala, ed. 2006. Fluid Bonds: Views on Gender and Water. Kolkata: Kolkata Press.
  • Lansing, Stephen. 1987. “Balinese ‘Water Temples’ and the Management of Irrigation.” American Anthropologist 89 (2): 326–341.
  • Lansing, Stephen, and Andre Singer. 1988. The Goddess and the Computer. Watertown, MA: Ethnographic Film, Documentary Educational Resources.
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  • 1. The Native Title Act was introduced into Australian law in 1993–1994 following the 1992 Australian High Court Decision in Mabo v. The Commonwealth. Claims often rely on historical and contemporary ethnography about land and water, such as to rivers and seas.

  • 2. Film, storytelling, and paintings also tell of the Martuwarra’s cultural, economic, ecological, emotional, and political value, as well as the river’s agency, and the eternal sense of belong sustained by indigenous groups throughout time. See Toussaint et al. (2005) and Mangkaja Arts (1998).

  • 3. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be included here but will be updated in the next iteration. Guiding inquiries for future ethnographers might include: How has access to fresh, drinkable water limited or improved people’s resistance to Covid-19? To what extent has existing water scarcity been a factor in combating Covid-19 outbreaks? What meanings did certain societies attribute to water sources as a means of offsetting the pandemic, and did these contribute to existing inequality?