The matter of water

This post is the third in our series on drought, flood and water. In this series we are making connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcasing our research. This week, Leah Gibbs writes on the materiality of water, as discussed in her forthcoming paper in Environment and Planning A, Bottles, bores and boats: agency of water assemblages in post/colonial inland Australia.

The politics of water in Australia is marked by an idea that water is separate, discrete matter. ‘Stuff’ that can be moved, used, manipulated as and when we humans choose. We drill bores, build dams, dig irrigation channels, desalinate the sea, to extract, contain, direct and now make fresh water. This idea of water as separate extends to how we think about water and how we govern it. We separate water physically, conceptually and bureaucratically. And unfortunately, the idea of separate water contributes to a good deal of misinformation and conflict.

But we don’t have to look far to see that water isn’t separate. And perhaps we can create ways of overturning the notion. In my watery research, I have found myself wondering how we might rethink water to provide a constructive alternative to the outmoded concept of separate water. In particular, I’ve been wondering what would happen if we took seriously the materiality of water. I’m in good company here: my musings are part of a body of work by geographers and friends in related fields interested in ‘taking materiality seriously’.

The problem of separate water  Separation has become central to Australian water governance. We bureaucratically separate water from land, and conceptually separate social, cultural, economic and environmental processes. These false divides frame and limit how we think about, write policy around, govern and live with water.

Back in 1994, for instance, the Council of Australian Governments committed to a series of water reforms that separated water property rights from land title, and institutionally separated water resource management, regulation and service provision. The changes made possible transferable water entitlements and water trading, now key processes in water governance in Australia, as elsewhere.

In another example, the Murray Darling Basin Authority is currently working, through an ongoing planning process, ‘to change the balance between water for the environment and water for economic benefit in order to restore the environmental health of the Basin and preserve and enhance its long-term productivity’. In some ways this may seem a laudable goal, but in reality this ‘balancing act’ has served to pit society against nature in a heated public debate – and at times fiery conflict.

The source of separation  The idea of water as separate lingers on from the colonial period and early relations between settler Australians and the environments and climates of this strange new continent. Expectations and hopes were shaped by knowledge of other places, and by modes of thinking prominent at the time: ideas of separation and hierarchy intrinsic to Western dualist thought. The new colonists tried to control nature, bending it to their will through bore drilling, irrigation and river diversion. They sought to transform dry and variable country to reliable production landscapes. But expectations went unfulfilled and hopes were dashed.

Colonial ideas continue to influence how we relate to water in this country. Now we combine physical tools of separation with new bureaucratic ones. And they continue to fail: in many parts of the country, for instance, water entitlements are frequently not met, as highly variable water regimes refuse to deliver designated quantities.

Taking seriously the matter of water  But as I said earlier, we don’t have to look far to find that water isn’t separate. Paying attention to the materiality of water quickly shows us that water is really part of an assemblage – a network of sorts – of all manner of different things. A ‘water assemblage’ is comprised of molecules of hydrogen and oxygen in liquid form, and also of biophysical matter, people, decision-making processes and institutions, pipes, pumps and taps, and cultures of daily practice. And what is really important about this assemblage is that it has agency; it has the ability to shape and inspire events.

So I find myself wondering, rather than framing water as separate, might we understand water as assemblage? And rather than positioning water as inert matter upon which humans act, might we not consider water assemblages as having agency to produce effects and shape events, actions and reactions?

Mungerannie bore, on the Birdsville Track, South Australia. Photo: Leah Gibbs

In the deserts of central Australia, the matter of water can illuminate relations between water, people, landscapes, ideas, objects, climate, expectations, actions, animals. Paying close attention to these interactions shows how water is not a separate entity, discrete and inert, as imagined in the realm of water management. Instead, it is part of an assemblage, and both the assemblage and the things that comprise it, have agency. In my forthcoming paper I discuss six such objects in detail – two bottles, two bores, and two boats – to explore the ability of water and watery assemblages to act.

The dominant processes of water management that we currently rely on to negotiate how we live with water position humans as always the ones to act – moving, using, and bending water to our will. But I want to think about how water influences what happens in the world. How would the politics of water look if we shifted our thinking? Reconceptualising water as assemblage provides, I believe, a productive alternative to the crazy notion of separate water.

More on water in three weeks time, when I write about ‘Water and the politics of environmental knowledge’. Next Tuesday: Lesley Head on drought and climate change. After that, Emily O’Gorman on floods and stories.

Follow Leah on Twitter @LM_Gibbs 

2 thoughts on “The matter of water

  1. Pingback: Drought and climate change: more of the same or a new normal? | Conversations with AUSCCER

  2. Pingback: Water and the politics of environmental knowledge | Conversations with AUSCCER

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