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date: 26 June 2022

Human and Nonhuman Rights to Waterlocked

Human and Nonhuman Rights to Waterlocked

  • Veronica StrangVeronica StrangInstitute of Advanced Study, Durham University

Summary

All living kinds, human and nonhuman, require rights to water. A UN Declaration upholds rights to clean drinking water and basic sanitation for humans, and some environmental legislation seeks to assure minimal flows of water in ecosystems. However, such rights are situated within complex social and political relations that are often far from equal. The distribution and management of water is entangled in issues such as ethnicity, class, gender, and levels of enfranchisement, and is heavily dependent upon how beliefs and values about water are represented in dominant narratives. Although water has been regarded a “common good” for millennia, many forms of collective ownership of freshwater have been overridden by colonial appropriations and by attempts to enclose and privatize water resources and to reframe them as commercial assets.

An accelerating global water crisis caused by climate change, intensifying farming, and the over-allocation of water resources reveals unsustainable pressures on freshwater ecosystems. There have been concomitant losses of access to water for less powerful human communities, and most particularly for nonhuman beings. As a result, approximately two hundred species become extinct every day. Widespread environmental degradation has caused indigenous communities to critique the exploitative practices of colonial societies and to promote alternate and more egalitarian visions of human-nonhuman relationships. Inspired by these alternate cultural beliefs and values, and sometimes in alliance with indigenous people, conservation organizations and environmental activists have sought ecological justice to protect nonhuman beings and their habitats. Many are demanding that the UN should declare “rights for nature” and that the International Court of Criminal Justice should define “ecocide” as an international crime. Anthropologists have challenged dominant dualisms about culture and nature, providing accounts of diverse cultural worldviews in which all living kinds inhabit a nonbifurcated world. They have underlined the fluid interelationalities between human and nonhuman beings and the material environment. Building on a strong disciplinary history of advocating for human rights, they are exploring ways to articulate nonhuman needs and interests, for example, in new forms of river catchment management. There is growing consensus about the need to encourage forms of “pan-species democracy” that will ensure that all living kinds have sufficient rights to water and to the conditions that enable them to flourish.

Subjects

  • Sociocultural Anthropology

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