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Water Sustainability: Anthropological Approaches and Prospects



Water has become an urgent theme in anthropology as the worldwide need to provide adequate supplies of clean water to all people becomes more challenging. Anthropologists contribute by seeing water not only as a resource, but also as a substance that connects many realms of social life. They trace the different forms of valuing water, examine the often unequal distribution of water, explore the rules and institutions that govern water use and shape water politics, and study the multiple, often conflicting knowledge systems through which actors understand water. They offer ethnographic insights into key water sites—watersheds, water regimes, and waterscapes—found in all settings, though with widely varying characteristics. Anthropologists provide a critical examination of a concept called integrated water resource management (IWRM), which has become hegemonic in the global discourse of sustainable development.
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Water Sustainability:
Anthropological Approaches
and Prospects
Ben Orlove1and Steven C. Caton2
1School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027;
2Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138;
Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2010. 39:401–15
The Annual Review of Anthropology is online at
This article’s doi:
Copyright c
2010 by Annual Reviews.
All rights reserved
Key Words
value, equity, governance, politics, regimes, integrated water resource
Water has become an urgent theme in anthropology as the worldwide
need to provide adequate supplies of clean water to all people becomes
more challenging. Anthropologists contribute by seeing water not only
as a resource, but also as a substance that connects many realms of social
life. They trace the different forms of valuing water, examine the often
unequal distribution of water, explore the rules and institutions that
govern water use and shape water politics, and study the multiple, often
conflicting knowledge systems through which actors understand water.
They offer ethnographic insights into key water sites—watersheds, wa-
ter regimes, and waterscapes—found in all settings, though with widely
varying characteristics. Anthropologists provide a critical examination
of a concept called integrated water resource management (IWRM),
which has become hegemonic in the global discourse of sustainable
AN39CH24-Orlove ARI 13 June 2010 9:52
Total social fact:
Marcel Mauss’s idea to
talk about social
phenomena that cut
across virtually all
domains of society
Connectivity: the
articulation of the
multiple social
domains in which
water is used
We propose to study water as a “total social
fact” (Mauss 1990). Although Mauss had presta-
tions or “service exchanges” principally in mind
when he spoke of the total social fact, he did
not limit this kind of fact to them. It suffices
in these ‘total’ social phenomena, as we pro-
pose calling them, all kinds of institutions are
given expression at one and the same time—
religious, juridical, and moral, which relate to
both politics and the family; likewise economic
ones, which suppose special forms of produc-
tion and consumption, or rather, of perform-
ing total services and distribution. This is not
to take into account the aesthetic phenomena
to which these facts lead, and the contours of
the phenomena that these institutions mani-
fest. (p. 3)
In the conclusion of the essay, Mauss explains
that in his approach “[one] has the advantage
of ...seeing the social ‘things’ themselves, in
concrete form and as they are” (p. 80).
Although we have the tendency to reduce
water to a biological fact when thinking about
its nature, it is integral, even essential, to many
if not most domains or institutions of society—
economic, political, religious, leisure, etc., as
Strang (2004, p. 5) recognizes in her discus-
sion of the “essentiality” of water. In this way,
water is social and total in precisely the encom-
passing sense that Mauss had in mind. At the
same time, water as a social fact takes concrete
forms, even though physically and in the ab-
stract we conceive of it as a continuous and ho-
mogeneous substance. When washing our bod-
ies, we think of personal hygiene, and yet it mat-
ters to us whether water is delivered by a spigot
into a bath or by a shower head into a stall,
whether the spray is strong or weak, sharp or
gentle; and let us not even approach the cultural
nuances of water temperature and softness. In
these concrete forms, water is totalistically con-
nected to the domains of public health, popular
notions of water as an invigorating as well as a
sensually pleasurable substance, as a morning
social ritual, and as a political-economic aes-
thetic (as seen in accessories of showerheads,
metal fixtures, shower stalls, bathroom tiles,
mirrors, etc.). The choices and meanings are no
less complex for a Ugandan farmer, who squats
or sits on a low bench, first transferring water
(usually, but not always, heated over an open
wood fire) from a jerrycan or pot into a plastic
basin, and then dipping out the tepid or warm
or hot water (using either a plastic cup with a
handle or the two hands pressed together to
form a kind of scoop) and splashing it over the
back and the rest of the body. The farmer may
or may not use soap or washing powder; the
spilled water may be absorbed by an earthen
floor or mopped off a concrete floor.
Mauss was interested in the form or struc-
ture that prestations take (the acts of giving,
receiving, and countergiving), which the con-
creteness of water does not usually have, but
it might be said to have a system, although
again perhaps not quite as Levi-Strauss had en-
visioned in his logico-mathematical model of
kinship (Levi-Strauss 1949). Water connects
domains of life such that the water used in one
will affect the water used in others, and if the
notion of system suggests more integration of
these domains than is warranted, perhaps “con-
nectivity” might be a better term for what we
seek to define. That is, water connects differ-
ent domains of social life to each other in ways
that are not haphazard or accidental because
they depend on each other. Water’s connec-
tivity is mediated by levels of social organiza-
tional complexity (Hannerz 1992). Getting wa-
ter from something as apparently simple as a
spigot is, in fact, no simple matter because it de-
pends on a physical infrastructure that is both
extensive and complex, not to mention a bu-
reaucracy ranging from the most local unit (a
water-user association or a village water works
utility, for example) to national authorities and
international governance structures such as the
World Bank. Water’s management and control
also entail legal systems, oversight agencies, and
courts of law to regulate water use and adjudi-
cate violations or conflicts.
402 Orlove ·Caton
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Less apparent in Mauss’s definition, but
which we insist is critical to understanding wa-
ter as a “a total social fact,” is what we call the
materiality of water. Its molecular properties
give it many distinctive characteristics (trans-
parency; incompressibility; chemical neutrality;
odorlessness and tastelessness; an ability to ex-
ist as a gas, a liquid, and a solid at the tem-
peratures and pressures found on the surface
of our planet; an ability to dissolve many sub-
stances and to be absorbed by many substances).
These properties combine into two key mate-
rial attributes. Because a given volume of wa-
ter is fixed by incompressibility but threatened
with losses through evaporation, leakage, and
absorption by soil, the quantity of water is a
crucial matter. And because water can receive
so many chemical and biological contaminants,
only some of which are readily evident to the
human senses of sight, smell, and taste, the
quality of water is also a crucial matter. This
article, concerned as it is with sustainability,
addresses these two aspects, which might seem
to be simple universal attributes but which, as
we suggest, reflect the highly specific material-
ity of water in its interactions with human bod-
ies and human-made structures (Hamlin 1990,
Orlove 1998, Orlove & Caton 2009). To be
sure, quantity and quality are always experi-
enced as social constructions—a recent study
(Wilk 2006) traces historical shifts in meanings
of potable water in several countries, and an-
other shows the changing concerns over pol-
lution (Beamish 2000)—but they are not only
that. Thus, Americans feel the need for a min-
imum amount of water to sustain their general
sense of well-being. These needs are couched
in a naturalizing discourse of bodily or soci-
etal needs; however, as water becomes scarce
in California’s Central Valley or in the aquifers
under the High Plains, material pressures are
put on these constructions, forcing people to
begin questioning them and in time perhaps
to adopt new water-use practices. The point,
however, is not to determine where social con-
structions end and materialities begin, but to see
how complexly they are intertwined. The point
may be even more subtle in the case of water
Materiality (also
elementality and
essentiality): the
physical attributes of
water that affect its
relation to the human
body and environment
and that shape its use
Social construction:
the meanings and
values people give to
things so that they can
be discussed and
incorporated into
Waterworld: the
totality of connections
(see connectivity) that
water may have in a
given society
quality, as illustrated in an ethnographic case
study by Alley (2002); the water of the Ganges
is known to be polluted, but Hindus perform
their ablutions in it because of their belief in
the restorative powers of Mother Ganga. Some-
times cultural beliefs trump material realities
in stunning ways. And as Alley also shows, the
point is not to dispel supposedly misguided cul-
tural beliefs in favor of scientific truth (which is
contested in any case) but to see that these are
always complexly interconnected, thereby af-
fecting how water policy can be implemented.
A widespread tendency exists among anthro-
pologists to locate water’s primary locus in the
domain of agriculture and to extrapolate widely
from this foundation. After all, one of the most
influential works in Marxist social science is
Wittfogel’s (1957) hydrological theory of the
rise of the state. Indeed, a focus on the pro-
visioning of water in the agricultural sphere
marks some of the most interesting work done
in archaeology (Scarborough 2003) as well as
in social anthropology (Fleuret 1985; Geertz
1972; Gelles 2000; Glick 1970; Guillet 1998;
Ilahiane 1996, 2001; Lansing 1991; Rodr´
2006; Varisco 1983; Wilkonson 1977). Surely
one of the most brilliant ethnographic studies
of water provisioning in the agricultural sphere
is the analysis of the complex intertwining of
Balinese religious ritual and irrigation practices
by J. Stephen Lansing (1991). Yet, it is a fact of
water’s totality that it is extracted from and used
in many other spheres besides agriculture, and
for many more purposes than irrigation. It cir-
culates through practically all domains of social
life, rural as well as urban (Swyngedow 2004,
Swyngedow et al. 2002), is handled differently
by men and women (Bennet 1995, Bennet et al.
2005, Cleaver & Elson 1995, Elmendorf 1981,
Harris 2005, Tortajada 2003), and is important
in economic sectors other than agriculture, such
as industry, fishing, tourism, and sports.
To name the totality of connections that wa-
ter may have in any given society, we adopt
Hastrup’s term “waterworld” (2009a). (We
also share Hastrup’s sense that many water-
worlds, pressed by climate change, growing de-
mand, and social inequality, are in crisis.) This Water Sustainability 403
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connectivity means that water can mark the
boundaries of groups and communities, de-
fined by shared involvement with water (Orlove
1993). Raffles (2002) offers a particularly rich
ethnography of a waterworld, showing how a
major waterway has changed over time and has
also been imagined as a politically fraught space.
A counterexample is Mitchell’s widely read
book (2002) on colonialism, modernity, and
power in Egypt; despite its attention to forms
of control of persons, property, and knowledge,
this book pays scant attention to the Nile and
to the role of water management and regulation
in the shifts in political order.
To sum up the discussion so far, we have re-
marked on two of the central features of water,
its connectivity and its materiality, that ought
to be of paramount concern to anthropolo-
gists. The totality of connections in any spe-
cific case comprises what we call a waterworld.
We now suggest that any anthropological anal-
ysis of a waterworld ought to be concerned
with five principle themes: value, equity, gov-
ernance, politics, and knowledge.
Value: Natural Resources
and Human Rights
How do nature (or environment) and culture
(or society) intersect in waterworlds? One way
to answer that question is to say that water is
valued on the one hand as a resource for human
well-being and productive activity, and hence is
part of economic systems, and on the other hand
as a right that has meaning from its connections
to our place as conscious social beings who live
in a natural and cultural world, and hence is
part of political systems. Moreover, the value of
water can be negative as well as positive because
of hazards such as flood and erosion, the risks
of waterborne diseases, and lesser threats such
as rot. And the rights to water are associated
with obligations to use water prudently and to
support water systems.
Anthropologists are particularly well-suited
to consider the ways that water, a substance with
specific properties, is understood and used dif-
ferently in a variety of social settings (Bachelard
1942, Hamlin 1990). The connectivity of water
associates it with survival, sanitation, produc-
tion, pleasure, and other aspects of social life.
In Levi-Strauss’s term, it is “good to think”
(Renne 1991, Shapiro 1995, Sheridan 2002).
And water can be also termed “good to experi-
ence” (Anderson & Tabb 2002, Orlove 1997).
Water is a substance that richly engages the
senses (touch, sight, hearing, and taste) as medi-
ated through social products and practices that
have specific cultural value, as Limbert (2001)
has shown in her beautifully rendered ethnog-
raphy of the “senses of water” in an Omani
Equity: Access and Distribution
How is this valued substance to be shared
among the members of a society or the inhab-
itants of the world? This matter is tied to two
other linked issues: of justice, on the one hand,
and of political economy, on the other. A crucial
concern is the equity of access to safe drinking
water for people of all classes, of all ethnic and
racial groups, of all ages, and of both genders.
The competition among uses and economic
sectors is also crucial (Donahue & Johnston
1997). Political scientists have studied the com-
plex factors and strategic interests that shape
water distribution within and between nations
(Fischer 2006), as well as the consequences of
treating water as a commodity and allowing the
market to allocate it in the name of efficiency
(Whiteley et al. 2008). Peters (1994) offers a
telling account of the factors that have led to a
grossly unequal distribution of water in colonial
and postcolonial Botswana.
Governance: Organization and Rules
How far do institutional economics and
economic sociology lead us in understanding
the organizations that manage and distribute
water? This question is particularly complex
for the case of water, with its multiple scales
404 Orlove ·Caton
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that link storage facilities with dispersed users.
The uneven availability of water worldwide
promotes the development of large-scale water-
distribution systems. Considerable capital and
labor must be invested to build and maintain
water facilities. Indeed, recent discussions
of common-property resources draw heavily
from examples of irrigation works, which have
been a locus both of participatory governance
(Ostrom 1990) and of state parasitism
(Wittfogel 1957). This study of water orga-
nization is a particularly promising site for
the integration of economic, sociological,
and anthropological perspectives on water,
as Geertz (1972) noted in his contrast of
irrigation in Indonesia and Morocco and as
Mosse (1997) describes in his account of the
patterning of irrigation institutions in semiarid
zones in India. These questions of governance
can be particularly important at times of crisis
and scarcity, and the uncertainty surrounding
the resilience of water supply may be as much a
question of governance as it is a question of the
physical availability of water ( Johnston 2003,
Roth et al. 2005, Wagner 2009).
Politics: Discourse and Conflict
How do the three previous questions lead us
to understand the struggles to control water
in civil society and the public sphere? As
Ernst (2003) shows in his study of political
conflicts over regulation of Chesapeake Bay,
three categories or concepts seem to dominate
the analytical talk about water sustainability:
conservation, justice, and governance. The
term governance is useful, but its association
with the notion of management may presume
the agreement of all parties on the goals that
they share and on the values that they place
on water: The debates and conflicts over these
goals and values lead us to the sphere of politics.
With its propensity to flow, and with its ready
partibility, water is almost without exception
shared among people and among localities and
is therefore linked to collectivities. The orga-
nizations that manage water operate within a
broader political and regulatory context. These
public contexts draw on a variety of forms of
discourse, including property laws and human
rights (Boelens & Doornbos 2001, Derman &
Ferguson 2003). As Guillet (1998) indicates,
water law is often a crucial site of contestation
between earlier regional customary law and
nationalist reform. The political contestations
over the construction of dams and distribution
of water show these interacting forces with
particular clarity because they lead water to
shift between different individuals and groups
(McCully 2001, Scudder 2006, McCormick
2007). In a discussion of dam-building in
colonial and neo-colonial Rhodesia and post-
colonial Zimbabwe, Hughes (2006) shows that
the striking visual transformation of the land-
scape by water projects can become a subject
of contestation as important as the actual dis-
tribution of water for drinking and agriculture.
Many anthropologists look to see how different
groups insert themselves in the larger debates
over water sustainability. This question leads
researchers to examine the strategies of water
sustainability discourse and to compare the
framings that consider practical challenges with
solutions and the framings that address broader
relations among states, societies, and envi-
ronments. The power of such representations
can lead to massive mobilizations, whether in
Bolivia, where municipalities privatized water
supplies (McNeish 2006), or in Peru, where
mines altered traditional systems for irrigation
and potable water in rural areas (Li 2009b). To
be sure, the question of discourse as it relates
to the problem of water sustainability is not
only one of politics. When faced with such
scarcities in the past, Muslim societies have
responded with rain prayers, an ethnographic
example of which can be found in the analysis
by Caton (2006) of a recent drought in Yemen
that occasioned elaborate and quite intense
mosque supplications for rain.
Knowledges: Local/Indigenous
and Scientific Systems
Water management, whether ancient or mod-
ern, depends on various kinds of knowledge. Water Sustainability 405
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Watershed: an area
of land through which
water drains downhill
to a lowest point; a
possible management
Anthropology and other researchers have long
studied the great diversity of irrigation prac-
tices and the knowledge they entail. Needham
(1971) documented the debates between Con-
fucian and Taoist approaches to irrigation in
Imperial China, and Carney (2001) showed how
the rice plantations in coastal areas of the an-
tebellum South depended not only on the la-
bor of African slaves and their descendents but
also on Africans’ specific knowledge of water
management in humid lowland environments.
Researchers in the Andes trace the com-
plex conceptual systems that underlie water
management in terraced agriculture in steep
canyons (Gelles 2000, Trawick 2003). Water
use in the household requires a kind of knowl-
edge (often undervalued) that is different from
what is required in the agricultural field, a
matter of gender difference.
In contrast, anthropologists have conducted
fewer studies of water scientists and their
knowledge, although we can glimpse what such
studies might look like when we read the
ethnographies of Walley (2004) on conserva-
tion experts in the development of a Tanzanian
marine park, of Mehta (2001, 2005) on the con-
struction of scarcity in India by water experts
who have little grasp of local understandings
and management, and especially of Helmreich
(2009) on scientific narratives about ocean life
and its beginnings (see also, Alatout 2007a,b; Li
2009a; Molle 2008, 2009; Nichter 1985; Orlove
et al. 2010; Paolisso & Maloney 2000). These
works can be classified within the history of sci-
ence as well as within science and technology
studies (Haraway 1989; Jasanoff 1995; Latour
1987, 2004; Latour & Woolgar 1986; Rabinow
1999; Shapin & Schaffer 1985). An example of
anthropological research that links the study of
science, the state, transnational institutions, and
capital in Yemen appears in a later section of this
Having reviewed general attributes of wa-
ter and central themes in the study of water
sustainability, we now suggest that anthropo-
logical analyses of waterworlds could produc-
tively explore three specific sites: watersheds,
water regimes, and waterscapes.
The term watershed (or water catchment) is
widely used in scientific and policy contexts.
The notion is simple and powerful: Because wa-
ter flows downhill, each spot in the world can be
assigned to a specific topographical basin. The
water in each connected basin forms a water-
shed, and each watershed can be managed and
governed as a unit. The boundaries of a water-
shed define a set of participants in this manage-
ment, which includes natural scientists, govern-
ment officials, members of local organizations,
and ordinary citizens. In the past few decades,
many watershed councils have been formed
that are generally nonprofit participatory
organizations that seek environmental quality
and sustainable development. Other groups
also promote more effective, equitable, and sus-
tainable water management in a participatory
way; the semiarid region of northeastern Brazil
contains a number of examples (Broad et al.
2007, Lemos & Farios de Oliveira 2004, 2005).
At a much larger scale, some watersheds, such
as the Rhine River basin (Cioc 2002), extend
across national boundaries and are managed by
organizations whose members span nations.
Although we recognize that these councils
and other groups have done much work that ad-
dresses basic human needs and rights and that is
broadly sustainable, we include a few words of
caution about the term watershed. The concep-
tual boundaries that humans use reflect cultural
systems as well as the natural world, so it gives us
as anthropologists pause to hear that an admin-
istrative unit has an a priori material or natural
existence. Other environmental and ecological
categories, such as “forest” and “wetland,” in-
clude both natural and social elements, given
the complex nature of their characteristics and
Watersheds may be simpler, more straight-
forward units than forests and wetlands, but
406 Orlove ·Caton
AN39CH24-Orlove ARI 13 June 2010 9:52
they are not entirely and unproblematically
present in nature, as Strang shows in her
account (2004) of the River Stour in England.
First, watersheds vary enormously in scale,
with a single watershed sometimes containing
smaller subwatersheds, thus making the selec-
tion of a particular scale in part a social choice.
[The Colorado River Compact of 1922, which
divided the Colorado River watershed into
upper and lower basins, is a particularly clear
example of such a choice (Reisner 1986).]
Second, water moves in many ways. Ground-
water, a crucial resource in many regions, is
located in basins whose boundaries do not
always correspond with watersheds so that
residents of a given watershed may dig wells
that directly affect the residents of another
watershed. Deforestation in one watershed
may reduce the amount of water vapor that is
carried to another watershed downwind of it,
creating water scarcity in this second water-
shed. And the long human history of digging
canals, leveling hills, and constructing dikes has
also led water to move from one watershed to
another. In this way, watersheds are not always
the well-bounded management units that water
managers and others often assume them to be.
Moreover, the notion of watershed tends
to go hand-in-hand with the notion of stake-
holder, understood as the residents, property
holders, and public bodies within the bound-
aries of the watershed, all of whom, presum-
ably, seek to assure sustainable water use be-
cause of their commitments to the watershed.
The participatory democratic practices of wa-
tershed councils and other groups rest on this
notion of the responsible stakeholder. But such
a focus on watersheds can rest on a na¨
ıve and
simplistic view of ecological citizenship. Stake-
holders may engage in exclusionary practices
while caring deeply about areas far from the
ones in which they live [the idea of stakeholder
can be linked to the archaic and widely re-
jected principle of allowing only property own-
ers to vote (Holston 2008)], and even among the
stakeholders who gain seats at the discussion ta-
ble, there are some who are more powerful than
others (Broad et al. 2007, Roncoli et al. 2009).
Water regime: the
aggregate of
institutional rules and
practices for managing
water resources in a
specific setting or
Water Regimes
A second term, water regime, had a specific
meaning within the field of hydrology referring
to the pattern of water flow in a freshwater
ecosystem, but it is increasingly used in polit-
ical science and other fields. The term regime
comes from the field of international relations,
in which it is defined as “sets of implicit or
explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-
making procedures around which actors’
expectations converge in a given area” (Krasner
1983, p. 2); it has helped explain how nations
might cooperate. It can be similarly employed
to examine cooperation and coordination
among water users, who, like nations, could
seem to be autonomous and to have conflicting
interests. For example, the political scientist
Stefan Lindemann (2008) traces the multiple
factors that have led to successful management
of water quality in the Rhine and Elbe water-
sheds. But the term can also apply to specific
national systems for regulating and managing
water. Buller (1996) compares the French and
British rules and institutions in the period of
increasing integration into European frame-
works. Galaz (2004) contrasts the water regimes
in periods of public and corporate provision of
water in Chile. He offers useful insights into
the ways that the more recent water regime,
consistent with other politics of privatization
and market regulation of resources, weakens
the rights of several groups of water users and
reduces their ability to voice their concerns.
Anthropologists and other researchers have
made important contributions to the study
of water regime changes. Researchers have
shown regime changes to be slow because
physical infrastructure, reflecting earlier rules
and institutions, remains in place, because
water regulations overlap with other often en-
trenched legal institutions, and because social
understandings do not shift overnight. Bakker
(2001) discusses opposition of the shift from a
state- to a market-centered regime in Britain,
where people, accustomed to being treated as
citizens with rights to water, do not readily
accept becoming consumers purchasing water Water Sustainability 407
AN39CH24-Orlove ARI 13 June 2010 9:52
Waterscape: the
culturally meaningful,
sensorially active
places in which
humans interact with
water and with each
Integrated water
(IWRM): a paradigm
for the management of
water resources that
holistically treats the
use of water in
different sectors of
as a commodity. Similarly, research on the
indigenous fishing villages of Lake Titicaca in
Peru examines conflicts between local and state
regimes that govern water, manage economi-
cally important aquatic plants, and grant rights
to fish and to travel on the lake (Orlove 2002).
Moreover, the notion of water regime can be
associated with resilience because the rules and
institutions that form part of specific water
regimes shape response to external pressures
such as climate change (Hastrup 2009b).
A third term, waterscape, has been used since
the mid-nineteenth century, by analogy with
the word landscape, to describe works of art that
depict scenery with bodies of water. In recent
years, natural scientists have spoken of water-
scape ecology as an aquatic specialization within
landscape ecology, the discipline that stud-
ies the interactions of contiguous ecosystems.
This term gained attention after its appearance
in an influential 1999 article by the geogra-
pher Erik Swyngedouw, in which he consid-
ers Spain in the period from 1890 to 1930. He
draws on political economy approaches within
geography to examine the production of wa-
terscapes, emphasizing the ideological dimen-
sions of place in the construction of dams and
canals and the creation of new administrative
units based on watersheds. Other works exam-
ine the visual, experiential, and cultural aspects
of waterscapes more extensively (Baviska 2007).
Historian David Blackbourn’s (2006) account
of the reshaping of rivers, marshes, lakes, and
coasts in nineteenth- and twentieth-century
Germany is a good example, paralleling similar
efforts, although on a smaller scale, in Iceland
alsson & Huijbens 2009). These and other
studies show that water is not merely an eco-
nomically valuable resource that flows through
spaces, but is also a culturally and experien-
tially meaningful substance present in places.
Although humans are never fully aquatic, they
are often, perhaps always, hydrophilic, and the
human sense of place often engages with water
as well as with land, as Strang shows in her anal-
ysis of two very different Australian waterscapes
(2009, p. 30) and Orlove documents in his ac-
counts of the cultural importance of glaciers
(2009a,b). A number of examples can be found
in the anthropological literature; of particular
importance are the accounts of irrigated rice
landscapes in East Asia and Southeast Asia by
Conklin (1980), Bray (1986), Lansing (1991),
and others.
A number of studies consider all three
sites: watersheds, water regimes, and water-
scapes. Rodr´
ıguez’s (2006) ethnography of
community-managed irrigation in northern
New Mexico examines watersheds, showing
that the social boundaries of parishes and the
hydrological boundaries of basins are close but
not always overlapping because local residents
redirect water between drainages. The study
considers water regimes by tracing conflicts be-
tween customary practices and new state regu-
lations. It also depicts the sensory and ritual as-
pects of waterscapes and shows how the annual
cleaning of canals and other ritual practices by
local residents inscribe them in the landscape
and in the multilayered ethnic history of their
Integrated water resource management
(IWRM) has become the new and, many would
claim, the hegemonic paradigm for discussing,
legitimizing, and implementing policies re-
garding the management of the world’s water
resources, subsuming within it the notion of
sustainability of 1970s and 1980s development
discourses. This notion was enshrined in the
World Water Council’s World Water Vision (of
the 2000 World Water Forum), which states
that “to ensure the sustainability of water, we
must view it holistically, balancing competing
demands on it—domestic, agricultural, indus-
trial (including energy), and environmental.
Sustainable management of water resources
requires systemic, integrated decision-making”
408 Orlove ·Caton
AN39CH24-Orlove ARI 13 June 2010 9:52
(Cosgrove & Rijsberman 2000, p. 1). However,
there is no fixed or universally agreed-upon
definition of IWRM, nor does it lead to
uniform policies in the international organi-
zations that advocate it or the states that are,
voluntarily or not, attempting to implement it
in their water resources management, although
certain basic themes or principles are evident
even if their formulation remains necessarily
First, IWRM argues that solutions to water
problems cannot be found in only one sector
of society, such as agriculture, because water is
used across society as a whole (a view that we
share in our notion of water as a total social fact);
therefore a broad, multisectoral approach must
be taken, one that attempts to integrate what
is happening with water in each sector into a
holistic view of the overall situation, delimited
in IWRM usually by country or national bound-
ary, if the water resource, as is often the case
for rivers, is shared. Second, although it has a
healthy respect for normal and universal scien-
tific knowledge in being able to help solve prob-
lems, as one might expect of a paradigm that has
emerged primarily from expert scientific net-
works, IWRM at the same time evinces skepti-
cism toward narrow technological solutions for
overcoming the world’s water problems (a re-
action, in part, to large-dam construction that
came under heavy fire in the past two decades)
by suggesting that these methods must be in-
tegrated with other approaches—bureaucratic,
legislative, economic, political, cultural, etc.—
depending on the water problems in question.
A third theme is the stress on the manage-
ment of water resources, implying that it is un-
likely that significant new sources will be found
(through desalination, the discovery of under-
ground aquifers, massive transfers from water-
sheds with low human populations, and other
such methods) to alleviate water scarcity or con-
tamination and that instead a finite and rapidly
diminishing resource must be managed. The
idea of management that is invoked is bureau-
cratic, though at varying levels of complexity
and integration. The basic or fundamental level
is usually seen to be the watershed (for reasons
given above in our discussion of watersheds),
but it is understood by water managers that this
notion is not enough because the regulation of
watersheds must be integrated to meet the to-
tal demands on water by the various sectors and
groups in society. To accomplish this integra-
tion, one should enlist the help of regional and
national levels of bureaucracy such as gover-
norates or provinces as well as the nation-state.
In some versions of IWRM, a fourth theme
is evident: educating water users in a society
about its water problems and the steps to
alleviate them, starting with the ordinary
citizen whose water-conservation practices are
constructed as a civic duty to the nation as well
as a gift of water (to invoke Mauss once again)
to future generations. In other versions of
ferred to as value, also becomes important. For
example, in the World Bank’s (2003) “Water
Resources Sector Strategy,” water is explicitly
valued as an economic good or commodity,
leading to market solutions to managing the
allocation of the world’s water; the resulting
patterns of distribution are not necessarily op-
timal for the world’s poor. But there is another
valuation of water: as a basic human right to
be equitably distributed among all peoples
of the world according to need, which is not
consonant with water’s market value (although
in theory the two values are not necessarily
incommensurable). This is the view taken, for
example, in the 1997], Comprehensive Assessment
of the Freshwater Resources of the World,bythe
United Nations Commission on Sustainable
Development. Still other views argue that three
values—economic efficiency, social equity, and
environmental sustainability—must be coordi-
nated (Glob. Water Partnersh. 2000). The fact
that all these valuations of water can be put
forward in versions of IWRM demonstrates
how contradictory the concept can be.
IWRM emerged as a discursive construct
over the previous two decades, mainly in the
work of international cadres of water experts (a
broad array that includes, for example, scientists Water Sustainability 409
AN39CH24-Orlove ARI 13 June 2010 9:52
such as engineers or experts on water pollution,
members of nongovernmental organizations
concerned with equitable water distribution,
international aid and development experts in-
volved in water conservation and water-delivery
projects, economists who study water as a com-
modity, and members of international agencies
such as the Food and Agriculture Organization
or the World Water Council concerned with
water distribution) and as such is not the brain-
child of any one organization. [For a history of
the concept, see White (1998), and for a critical
analysis, see Conca (2006).] IWRM is discussed
in academic conferences and scientific journals
and ratified in world treaty agreements. It is, in
short, an example of the impact of expert knowl-
edge on water policies in the world today, which
we refer to above as a crucial component to an
anthropological understanding of water.
IWRM has a vision of the waterworld with
many parallels to our own, namely of water as
a total social fact. It also includes all the themes
(value, equity, governance, politics, and knowl-
edge) that we hold to be essential to address the
problems of water scarcity and degradation. For
example, with its emphasis on management,
IWRM is a regime—a global regime—for gov-
erning the world’s water resources (just as with
forests or the atmosphere, water is seen as a
global and not just a national resource). Thus it
falls under what we have termed the politics of
water, although we hasten to add that IWRM’s
explicit or stated political engagements do
not go beyond two concerns: the supposed
democratic participation in decision making
regarding local-level water management, and
equitable and affordable access to safe drinking
water, especially for the world’s poor.
What IWRM does not venture into is the
complex political question of how its principles
will be struggled over and fought out in con-
crete settings, a prime subject for anthropolog-
ical inquiry. It is the politics that lies between
conceptualization and practice that is crucial
for understanding results, a politics of local ac-
tors supposedly nearest to the source of water
in the ground, a politics of national bureaucra-
cies established to manage water resources, and
a politics of international donor agencies that
is supposed to assist them (Mehta 2005, Or´
2005, Strang 2009). Moreover, IWRM’s narra-
tive of normal science overlooks the disagree-
ments among scientists over precise measure-
ments and ignores the pressures to arrive at a
broad consensus to conceal these rifts or dis-
agreements. In contrast, Budds (2009) provides
an ethnographic analysis of hydrological assess-
ment in Chile that documents the intense po-
litical struggles about the construction of mea-
sures and interpretation of statistics, showing
that such struggles frustrate planning and lead
to skepticism over the authority of science.
As for the valuation of water, what is meant
by a basic right or a commodity is hardly ques-
tioned as if these matters were settled long ago
in philosophical and scientific discourses and
need not be revisited in settings where these
concepts are highly contested or do not hold
sway. Anthropology has an important role to
play in keeping these questions open rather than
to consign the discipline to the study of how
the “natives” value and use water locally. That
said, the meanings and values placed on water
by their users and the contestations over these
among those same users (along class, gender,
and ethnic lines, as well as urban versus rural di-
vides) will fundamentally affect how water can
be managed at the watershed in the first place,
and here anthropology has an obvious and per-
haps singular contribution to make to the un-
derstanding of water’s valuation. This incom-
plete treatment of the valuation of water reflects
the tendency of IWRM to overlook waterscapes
because it assumes that water is a resource that is
used for specific ends, rather than a meaningful
substance that is present in specific settings.
Let us illustrate an anthropological study
of IWRM and these themes by examining the
way it has been put into practice in a concrete
situation: the Republic of Yemen. For a partial
example of how anthropology might do an
ethnography of IWRM, the reader should
consider the article by Caton (2007), which is
concerned with water sustainability in Yemen.
410 Orlove ·Caton
AN39CH24-Orlove ARI 13 June 2010 9:52
Four sites were studied, all of which are closely
connected to IWRM as a concept and as a
practice: a 2005 scientific conference in Yemen
on integrated watershed management, in
which experts affirmed the primacy of IWRM
practices; the Yemen Center for Water and the
Environment, which teaches IWRM to Yemeni
water engineers with the assistance of Dutch
IWRM experts, an example of the transnational
circulation of expert knowledge; an assessment
of Yemen’s water-management policies and
practices conducted by international donors
(Dutch, German, and British) invested in
Yemen’s five-year water plan, an example of
the global governance of water resources; and
finally, but not least, an examination of how
expert knowledge gets transmuted into local
knowledge at the watershed level by interna-
tional development experts working in a water
basin north of Yemen’s capital, San’a. Political
contestations among experts were clearly visible
in every site as were conflicts between national
and international management agencies with
their own legitimacies at stake. IWRM experts
welcomed anthropological knowledge as help-
ful for understanding local stakeholders at the
watershed level but were unsurprisingly am-
bivalent about the prospect of them becoming
subjects of anthropological research as well.
What have we learned about the world’s water
problems? There is no one solution, whether
technological, economic, bureaucratic, or po-
litical, that works globally. A combination of
approaches must be applied in each case, de-
pending on the particular materialities and con-
nectivities in specific contexts.
However, waterworlds must be studied
ethnographically, in all their components, in-
cluding the often-neglected waterscapes as well
as the more commonly examined watersheds
and water regimes. The wide range of peo-
ple, agencies, and processes involved in address-
ing concrete water problems all require sus-
tained scrutiny. Too often in the past, water
consumers have been the sole concern, along
with their national governments; this mindset
is no longer sufficient when one realizes the pro-
found presence and involvement of the transna-
tional community of water experts. It is likely,
therefore, that an anthropology of water can
fruitfully link up with science and technology
studies, even while continuing to connect with
other specific, longer-established approaches,
such as political ecology and material culture
studies, and with the broad integrative styles of
analysis that characterize the discipline.
The authors are not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that
might be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.
We offer our thanks to the many people whose research, insight, and comments have helped us to
develop our thinking on the subject of water sustainability. Sadly, space constraints do not allow
us to name the numerous colleagues and associates who contributed to this review, so we will
mention only the groups in which they participated: the Water Sustainability Field of the Dis-
sertation Proposal Development Fellowship Program, supported by the Social Science Research
Council; the two-year workshop, sponsored by the Department of Energy at the Center for Mid-
dle East Studies at Harvard, on the politics of water sustainability; the cultural ecology seminar
on water sustainability at the University of California, Davis; and Waterworlds, a Center for An-
thropological Climate Research, funded by the European Research Council, at the Department
of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. Water Sustainability 411
AN39CH24-Orlove ARI 13 June 2010 9:52
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... Throughout history, peasant communities in Andean countries have ordered and mutually connected their available resources (natural, material, human, etc.) in highly diverse ways, shaping culturally-specific forms of irrigation water management to reproduce their livelihoods (e.g., Gelles 2000; Lynch 2012; Orlove and Caton 2010;Paerregaard 2013;Rasmussen 2015). By constructing specific relationships with their hydrosocial context, peasant communities have developed culturally embedded rules, hybrid norms and organizational entities to access and control water resources. ...
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In recent years, irrigation projects worldwide, and in the Andean region of Bolivia in particular, have besides solving water problems also generated water conflicts. Historically, most irrigation systems in Bolivia have been set up by peasant communities, and only more recently some government irrigation projects have been established. As part of these processes, peasant communities developed their own organizational and regulatory frameworks to arrange access and control of water. These are manifested in the ways they conceive, defend and claim water rights. The lack of understanding of this water rights frameworks, by planners and designers of irrigation development, commonly results in the implementation of prescriptive, top-down irrigation projects, which commonly aim to transform locally established water rights and governance frameworks. In many instances, these proposals for re-ordering local irrigation systems are fiercely resisted by groups of actors who are adversely involved in or bluntly excluded from these processes. Therefore, the research problem of this thesis focuses on the lack of knowledge about the interaction between irrigation development and the changing and divergent approaches to water rights that the actors involved apply. Focusing on the case study of the Pucara basin, the thesis addresses the following main research question: How have changing approaches to water rights shaped irrigation development and control over water for different stakeholders in the Pucara river basin? The main research question has been investigated by scrutinizing and answering the following four sub-questions: - What heuristic conceptual framework on water rights can be formulated to analyse the diverse ways in which different actor groups legitimize their claims to water use in a river basin? - How have different stakeholders, throughout history, strategically used diverse “legitimation languages” to claim water use rights in the Pucara river basin? - How did the expansion of the Totora Khocha irrigation system lead to the negotiated construction of new water networks to control the Totora Khocha reservoir waters in the Pucara river basin? - How did changing hydrosocial territorialization by different stakeholders, lead to the reiterated re-design of the planned interbasin expansion project of the Totora Khocha irrigation system? Through the integration of empirical-theoretical notions of water-user driven normative frameworks, with water networks and hydrosocial territory theoretical approaches; the thesis examines the expansion and reconfiguration of irrigation systems in the Pucara river basin. It does so through the identification and analysis of diverse and divergent languages of water rights legitimation as deployed by the different stakeholders. This thesis is based on the study of irrigation development in the Pucara river basin, located in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Herein, it focuses in-depth on the study of historical development of the Totora Khocha irrigation system. The theoretical knowledge, discussed in this study, is developed inductively from empirical data collected through qualitative methods, at three analytical scales: river basin, irrigation system and interbasin scales.
... The disruptive materiality and active capacities of natural resources have been taken more seriously within geography and other social sciences, transforming the way that environmental management is understood . The material properties of water in particular -heavy, changeable and fluid -have been shown to occasion centralized, bureaucratic forms of management, while its transitory, lifegiving nature has also attracted a profound cultural symbolism Orlove and Caton, 2010). This makes water socially sticky or 'promiscuous' (Linton, 2010, p. 4), tending to connect different spheres of human organization. ...
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In the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal, development actors strive to ‘develop’ female mollusc gleaning. In an apparently boundless amphibious environment, domestication underlined by discursive dispossession figures as an attractive alteration of enclosure and material dispossession. It intervenes especially temporally in human and mollusc life and overlays the (material) dialectic of capitalist ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ with one of bringing humans and molluscs from an ‘archaic’ and ‘wild’ ‘outside’ into a ‘modern’ and ‘cultivated’ ‘inside’. However, domestication projects remain entangled with the unruliness of molluscs and waters, and struggle with organisational problems and the agency of gleaners. The latter seek to foster and profit from the continuous production of ‘outsides’ and ‘insides’. They attract, appropriate and undermine projects and integrate them as mere additions into their gleaning practice. In upholding their gleaning practice and complicating mollusc domestication in alliance with unruly molluscs and waters, I argue, gleaners can also resist their own domestication.
Anthropology brings a uniquely holistic sensibility to the study of water. It examines water from multiple dimensions and in its myriad forms to understand the many ways that people make meaning and a living from water. Anthropology’s study of water provides a foundation for contemporary application and practice by anthropologists and others toward solving a wide range of water-related problems. In this introduction, we introduce the seven articles that form this special issue on applied anthropology and water. Collectively, the articles provide valuable and diverse insights on the application of anthropology to a wide range of water issues. The articles also demonstrate the capacity of research and practice centered around applied anthropology to highlight local impacts and responses at multiple scales and across institutions. Here, we discuss four thematic areas shared across the articles that suggest wider commonalities for applied anthropological research and practice. These areas are configurations of clean water access; multiplicity and heterogeneity of the lived experiences of water; injustice, inequities, and inequalities related to water; and ethnography in applied research on water. We conclude by suggesting characteristics and qualities of applied anthropological research on water, which might guide future research and practice.
One of the lasting physical legacies of colonialism in Southern Malawi are tea estates. In Mulanje District, tea estates take at least 30% of the land. While much of the contestation between these tea estates and communities in the district has been over land, water is another resource whose control appears to be a potential future contestation. Building on his fieldwork in Mulanje District, the author highlights how the control of water in the district is an issue that is built on colonisation and perpetuates colonial structures. Tea estates are the most dominating structures that have sought to impose colonial knowledges of water on the people of the area. In so doing, they control and regulate the use of the water resources. Colonial green crimes here are manifest in the erasure of local knowledge of water. They are further highlighted in the control of what the community has long regarded as a common. The author further highlights how the impacts of climate change on water availability threaten to worsen the precarious situation of local people as the demand for water, which is reducing in volume, will increase, especially among the tea estates, as they ramp up on irrigation.
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Water is a gift of life from Allah. In Al-Quran, it is stated “And We sent down from the sky water (rain) in (due) measure, and We gave it lodging in the earth, and verily, We are able to take it away.” (1). Though water is indispensable for life and livelihoods, it is becoming a world-pressing societal and geopolitical critical issue, knowing that 800 million people worldwide cannot afford primary access to potable water and that nearly 2.2 billion people lack access to a safe water supply. As a result, freshwater scarcity is now the world's second most pressing concern, after the prompt population increment issue. If the problem of freshwater scarcity persists, ‘the world will miss water-related SDGs by a wide margin’; more than 40% of the world's population will be living in ever-seriously water-stressed regions by 2035 (2); ecosystems will become weakened and will be unable to meet population freshwater supply ; and developing countries will be the most affected, with 80% of their illnesses caused by a lack of access to water as well as poor water quality. To tackle the increased water shortage, reasonable water management methods are required. This article proposes three efficient sustainable water techniques for producing fresh water and thus meeting water scarcity's massive demand, along with their benefits and drawbacks. They are Condensation, desalination, and water recycling.
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En este escrito me propongo, entrar en diálogo con perspectivas ecopolíticas antipatriarcales, para pensar conjuntamente sobre la necesidad de plasmar una transición energética justa desde relaciones hidrosociales alternativas al modelo de desarrollo económico- político y civilizatorio moderno imperante. Para ello, parto describiendo en primer lugar el actual momento de crisis civilizatoria que estamos viviendo desde el capitaloceno y el chtuluceno, ambos horizontes necesarios para buscar transiciones justas. En segundo lugar, presento la propuesta de pensar con el agua como punto de partida para avizorar alternativas al modelo extractivo. Luego, profundizo sobre el enfoque de las relaciones hidrosociales alternativas entrelazándolas con los enfoques de la justicia decolonial, la feminista territorial y la multiespecies. Finalmente, comparto algunas reflexiones finales a modo de dejar abierta la invitación a seguir pensando con el agua transiciones justas.
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Using the case of the Israeli Water Law, passed between 1955 and 1959, this article makes three arguments about the relationship between legal discourse and management of natural resources First, it argues that categories (natural and cultural) that find their way into law do not necessarily correspond with reality; rather, they should be seen as the conclusion of a process of social construction, marking winners and losers in a game of interpretation and of politics. Second, once these categories are codified, once they become part of the legal discourse, they tend to become powerful instruments in structures of power; they shape natural and political orders, despite contestations and varying interpretations. Third, one of the sources of power is the fact that these social and natural categories are articulated together in ways that make legal codes seem extremely commonsensical - what Antonio Gramsci describes as the most powerful form of ideology. On the substantive level, this article argues that the Israeli Water Law of 1959 articulates together three categories: water scarcity as "fact"; the strong and centralized state as an appropriate form of political organization; and citizenship of the modern nation-state as the ultimate fulfillment of Jewish subjectivity. These categories and their articulation with one another shaped the water law into a strong instrument in Israeli structures of power that solidified the Jewish character of state institutions and contributed to the marginalization of Israel's Palestinian citizens.
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Our study draws attention to the multiple ways water is "valued" in international, national, and local discourses and how these different dialogues are used by actors to position themselves and their interests in Zimbabwe's water reform process. It raises questions concerning the liberatory nature of Zimbabwe's supposed populist political agenda in land and water reform. Water reform in Zimbabwe serves as a means of demonstrating the grounded, decentered, and engaged approach of political ecology. Focusing only on one pervasive discourse, such as neoliberal economic policy or the growing scarcity of water, and studying its effects on people and the environment, misses much of the complexity embodied in the reform. Our emphasis draws attention to the role of multiple actors, history, ambiguities, and contestations. We have found that the old systems for managing water are no longer functioning while the new systems are not in place. This means that the years of careful planning and implementation of water reform are now in jeopardy due to unforeseen events and processes.
Rough Watersexplores one of the most crucial problems of the contemporary era--struggles over access to, and use of, the environment. It combines insights from anthropology, history, and environmental studies, mounting an interdisciplinary challenge to contemporary accounts of "globalization." The book focuses on The Mafia Island Marine Park, a national park in Tanzania that became the center of political conflict during its creation in the mid-1990s. The park, reflecting a new generation of internationally sponsored projects, was designed to encourage environmental conservation as well as development. Rather than excluding residents, as had been common in East Africa's mainland wildlife parks, Mafia Island was intended to represent a new type of national park that would encourage the participation of area residents and incorporate their ideas.While the park had been described in the project's general management plan as "for the people and by the people," residents remained excluded from the most basic decisions made about the park. The book details the day-to-day tensions and alliances that arose among Mafia residents, Tanzanian government officials, and representatives of international organizations, as each group attempted to control and define the park. Walley's analysis argues that a technocentric approach to conservation and development can work to the detriment of both poorer people and the environment. It further suggests that the concept of the global may be inadequate for understanding this and other social dramas in the contemporary world.
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Water is a key component of critical ecosystems, a marketable commodity, a foundation of local communities and cultures, and a powerful means of social control. It has become a source of contentious politics and social controversy on a global scale, and the management of water conflicts is one of the biggest challenges in the effort to achieve effective global environmental governance. In Governing Water Ken Conca examines political struggles to create a global framework for the governance of water. Threats to the world's rivers, watersheds and critical freshwater ecosystems have resisted the establishment of effective global agreements through intergovernmental bargaining because the conditions for successful interstate cooperation—effective state authority, stable knowledge frameworks, and a territorialized understanding of nature—cannot be imposed upon water controversies. But while interstate water diplomacy has faltered, less formalized institutions--socially and politically embedded rules, roles, and practices--have emerged to help shape water governance locally and globally. Conca examines the politics of these institutions, presenting a framework for understanding global environmental governance based on key institutional presumptions about territoriality, authority, and knowledge. He maps four distinct processes of institution building: formal international regimes for shared rivers; international networking among water experts and professionals; social movements opposing the construction of large dams; and the struggle surrounding transnational water "marketization." These cases illustrate the potential for alternative institutional forms in situations where traditional interstate regimes are ineffective. ***Winner of the International Studies Association's Harold and Margaret Sprout Award for best book on international environmental affairs
Environmental anthropology can help make explicit the roles of beliefs, values, and experiences in the formation of cultural models. These cultural models allow individuals to understand complex environmental problems confronting their communities and threatening their livelihoods. We present results from an ongoing anthropological study of environment and pollution on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. We first focus on how farmers view themselves as equally if not more concerned about the environment than urban residents and identify key cultural themes or schemas that underlie farmer environmentalism. Next, we compare the views of farmers and environmental professionals on Pfiesteria through a correspondence analysis of key terms. In contrast to existing public opinion, farmers and environmental professionals are similar in their general knowledge and views on Pfiesteria. We conclude with arguments for integrating farmer environmentalism into ongoing programs and policies to control nutrient runoff and improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay region.