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Water in the Study of Southeast Asia



This paper advocates the use of a water perspective in the study of Southeast Asia. Such a perspective, it is argued, is multidimensional and complex, and incorporates an understanding of the physical characteristics of water, the transformations it undergoes through human intervention, and the sociocultural meaning that is applied to it by individual human communities. Moreover, water is a generic term that refers to a variety of types (salt, fresh, brackish, land-water) and forms (oceans, seas, straits, estuaries, rivers, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, canals). By citing examples across the world, this paper proposes the study of the differing combinations of types and forms of water in order to gain a greater precision of its role in Southeast Asia. At the heart of the water approach is the understanding that a body water should be studied as an equal partner to the human community. By examining the dynamic interaction of these two elements, important connectivities and new spatialisations based on water could greatly enhance our understanding of society. The seas, oceans, the littoral, and other forms and types of water are all understudied and deserve renewed attention if we are to find new ways of thinking and learning about Southeast Asia’s past, present and even its future.
KEMANUSIAAN Vol. 25, Supp. 1, (2018), 21–38
Water in the Study of Southeast Asia
Department of History, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, 2500 Campus Rd,
Honolulu, Hawai‘i 96822, USA
Published online: 20 December 2018
To cite this article: Andaya, L.Y. 2018. Water in the study of Southeast Asia. KEMANUSIAAN the
Asian Journal of Humanities 25(Supp. 1): 21–38.
Abstract. This paper advocates the use of a water perspective in the study of Southeast
Asia. Such a perspective, it is argued, is multidimensional and complex, and incorporates
an understanding of the physical characteristics of water, the transformations it undergoes
through human intervention, and the sociocultural meaning that is applied to it by individual
human communities. Moreover, water is a generic term that refers to a variety of types (salt,
fresh, brackish, land-water) and forms (oceans, seas, straits, estuaries, rivers, lakes, ponds,
reservoirs, canals). By citing examples across the world, this paper proposes the study of
the diering combinations of types and forms of water in order to gain a greater precision
of its role in Southeast Asia. At the heart of the water approach is the understanding
that a body water should be studied as an equal partner to the human community. By
examining the dynamic interaction of these two elements, important connectivities and
new spatialisations based on water could greatly enhance our understanding of society.
The seas, oceans, the littoral, and other forms and types of water are all understudied
and deserve renewed attention if we are to nd new ways of thinking and learning about
Southeast Asia’s past, present and even its future.
Keywords and phrases: ecology, historical spaces, rivers, Southeast Asia, water
More than 70 percent of Southeast Asia is water, and the monsoon rains are a
regular feature of the region, and yet few have attempted to focus on water as an
essential element – not just a setting – for understanding Southeast Asian society.
This paper is an attempt to gauge the possibilities of using a water perspective in
the study of this region, relying heavily on certain ideas of scholars who have been
pioneers in such studies in dierent parts of the world. The paper will begin with a
theoretical discussion of a “water system” and its three important aspects, and then
© Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2018. This work is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution (CC BY) (
Leonard Y. Andaya
proceed to examine the various types of water that can form the basis of a study. In
the discussion, I have emphasised those features that could be protably examined
in Southeast Asia, though the comments have general relevance for other parts of
the world.
Theoretical Ideas on Water
Terje Tvedt, a leading scholar of water, identies three layers in a water system
(Tvedt 2010a, 147, 157–159, 161). The rst consists of the physical form of water
and of its behaviour in relation to the human group. This involves learning the
nature of water (the patterns of precipitation, rates of evaporation, etc.) and its
environment. To take the study of a river, for example, the rate of ow of the
water changes depending on the width of the river, the volume of water it contains
at dierent times due to seasonal change and rates of sedimentation, the form
of the river, and the eect of other water features on the river, such as lakes or
tributaries. This particular physical water landscape determines the constraints and
the prospects of productive activity of a community.
The second layer is the modications or management of the physical water unit by
the human community. The building of dams or weirs, canals, reservoirs, ponds and
other water holes may aect the physical aspects of the river and hence the riverine
culture of the community. Through such human interventions, the technology and
managerial skills of a community can be known. It also reveals what particular
options were chosen and why, thus helping to gain a better understanding of the
social and environmental priorities of the community. One of the most impressive
examples of such water management in Southeast Asia is in Angkor. In order to
address the natural phenomenon of oods during the rainy season and lack of
water in the dry season, the Angkorians built a complex water system of village
tanks fed by rainfall and ground water, extensive reservoirs (baray), and canals
linked to rivers and the Tonle Sap (Great Lake). Through this water technology,
Angkor was able to expand northward from the Tonle Sap into marginal lands that
suered from water scarcity in the dry season.1
The third layer is the cultural attitudes towards water, which aect the relationship
between water and the community. For example, among the tribal Manang
community in Nepal, explanations for interment of the dead in the spring, summer
and fall, and cremation in the winter are structured in a spiritual manner but based
on a pragmatic consideration. It is possible to inter bodies when the ground has
not yet been frozen solid. The cultural explanation is that burial would not pollute
the air with burning esh and thus anger the gods, who could then withhold much
needed rains. In the winter, however, the opposite eect is desired so that cremation
Water in the Study of Southeast Asia 23
is practiced to anger the gods and make them stop sending more snow (Oestigaard
2005, 154). Water management practices may therefore be explained in religious
or supernatural terms. The same body of water may be perceived in radically
dierent ways by neighbouring communities based on their varying experiences
with that particular source of water and the divergent traditions transmitted by
their ancestors. There is no single nor unchanging “traditional” view of water,
but a shifting perspective that accommodates changes in hydrological and social
circumstances. Such changes can occur quickly and last for only a short time.
A diachronic study can therefore be revealing of this dynamic relationship between
a water resource and a human community.
Water can be divided into fresh water, salt water, brackish water and “water” that
incorporates both land and water. Units of fresh water would include rivers, lakes,
ponds, reservoirs, canals and even glaciers. Salt water may be conceived as oceans,
seas and straits, with distinctions made between the coastal waters and the open
sea, with the latter divided into a pelagic or upper layer and the demersal or deeper
layer extending down to the ocean oor. Brackish water is usually found at the
conuence of bodies of fresh and salt water at estuaries, along coastal mangroves,
and in wetlands. Finally, there is a continuum of land and water found mainly in
Oceania incorporating the mountains or hills, the river valleys, the coast, the reefs
and the lagoons.2 This combined perception of land and water can also be applied
to societies such as the Cham in Central Vietnam, where their former polities or
kingdoms were precisely delineated as consisting of an interior watershed in the
mountains, an intervening river valley, and the coast where the river reaches the
sea (Li 1998, 18–19).
Attitudes towards the dierent types of water are worth noting. Fresh water is
usually associated with life, fertility and benign gods, who are greatly revered by
societies dependent on the soil for a livelihood. Salt water, on the other hand, is
often viewed with fear and danger and with capricious and at times malevolent
gods. In some societies, fresh water and salt water are viewed as complementary,
while brackish water occupies a special place representing the union of fresh and
salt water. In Southeast Asia, beings or places that “cross” the dened spheres
of existence are believed to be spiritually potent (Calo 2009, 113–114, 124;
Capistrano-Baker 1994, 24), hence the association of brackish water areas as
sites of potential power. Among Oceanic societies, including ancient Hawai‘i,
an Austronesian society that had similar cultural roots as the societies in island
Southeast Asia, land and water form a single social and environmental entity in a
continuum from the mountains and the source of a river, to the valleys and plains
through which the river ows, to the coast, and out to the intertidal zone (and in
some Oceanic islands, to lagoons).3 Minor gods associated with the constituent
Leonard Y. Andaya
parts are controlled by a few major gods, thus spiritually preserving the unity. In
Hawai‘i, the powerful god Kane had two aspects: god of the ocean (Kane-huli-
koa) and god of fresh water (Kane-wai-o). The former was regarded as masculine,
active and external, while the latter was feminine, passive and internal (Malo 1971,
83; Water Resource Research Center 2006).
These are some of the theoretical and general considerations that should inform
any attempt to use water as an academic approach. The following sections are
elaborations on these general ideas in order to demonstrate the possibilities of
doing research using a water perspective.
Rivers and Other Fresh Water Sources
It is necessary to determine which type of fresh water one is examining, whether
rivers, tributaries, springs, reservoirs, ponds or irrigation channels. Of these fresh
water sources, rivers have been the most studied because river basins with their
fertile soils and eective drainage systems have historically been sites for the
largest population concentrations (de Blij 2005, 97). Expansion of settlements
occurred along major rivers, where goods and ideas arriving by sea moved from
the coast and spread throughout the length of the river and far into the interior
(Higham 1996, 323). While the role of rivers as the pathway for cultural exchange
has been well-recognised, other aspects of the river are usually left unexplored.
This thus presents an opportunity to re-examine the river in a dierent way that
may provide a new understanding of the past.
As in the study of oceans, rivers are often not problematised even though they
too are socially constructed and not unchanging neutral bodies of water. There
is often an unreective acceptance among the social sciences and humanities
of the idea that the river is a single entity along its entire course. Biologists and
ecologists, however, clearly view a river as consisting of three distinctive parts:
the headwaters, the mid-reaches and the lower reaches; each distinguished by the
change of the physical environment, such as the width of the river, character of
the water ow and its relationship to its bank.4 It is also important to examine the
natural changes that have occurred over time, as has been ably shown in a series of
studies of the Red River in Vietnam (Li 2016; 2006a, 125–139; 2006b, 147–162).
The natural course of a river may be diverted naturally through silting, but it could
also be altered because of its perceived social and economic value to the human
community. Diversion of the river could spell the doom of a once prosperous city
located on its banks and the emergence of a village into a new thriving settlement.
Water in the Study of Southeast Asia 25
By viewing water together with its adjacent land as an interrelated unit, one would
discover that the river is indeed perceived as being segmented, and that people
living along its banks have given a stretch of the river a specic name which they
themselves have adopted as an ethnonym. This is the case in Borneo and appears
to have been the case in Mindanao as well (Pringle 1970; Paredes 2016). Attitudes
towards the river may thus dier from one group to another depending upon the
section of the river that is associated with the group. The varying physical aspects
of the river may determine the local people’s belief of the kind of water spirit
that inhabits that space. In early Laos, for example, the Mekong River and its
many tributaries were all associated with a dierent sacred snake or naga, thus
highlighting the dierent domains (Mayoury and Nagaosrivathana 2007, 22).
Human attitudes depend upon a group’s immediate experience with a stretch of the
river, and so cultural attitudes may dier signicantly even among neighbouring
communities sharing the same river.
Mainland Southeast Asia has a number of long rivers that rise in the mountains
in China and ow out to the South China Sea after a long journey through the
various states. In addition there are numerous tributaries of these primary rivers
that crisscross the mainland. Island Southeast Asia has fewer major rivers, mostly
concentrated on Sumatra and Borneo, but there are many smaller rivers that made
these areas in the past truly “paddle cultures”, where boat travel was the only
feasible form of communication. One approach to rivers that Southeast Asian
scholars have used is to identify the important divisions between upstream and
downstream. By acknowledging the dierences and the complementarity of these
two major components of the river, they have been able to make useful statements
about their relative strengths and shifting relationships according to historical
circumstances (Andaya 1993; Kathirithamby-Wells 1993). In Southeast Asia,
scholars have usually regarded downstream polities as being more favourably
located to gain the material and cultural benets of maritime trade. Yet there are
examples in Burma (Myanmar), Vietnam, Cambodia, and even island Southeast
Asia where the upstream polities have long dominated the relationship. It is
therefore important to provide not only a synchronic but also a diachronic study
of a river to assess the relationship of its upstream and downstream components.
Extremely long rivers like the Mekong in mainland Southeast Asia and the Kapuas
in southwest Borneo may be understood in more complex ways than simply in the
upstream-downstream dichotomy. Let us take the Kapuas River as an example.
The Kapuas River has been the home of many dierent indigenous Dayak and
Malay communities, and until the mid-20th century they were organised according
to the demands of their natural environment. The river consisted of the headlands in
Leonard Y. Andaya
the interior mountains, the interior lakes, the “upriver” segments, the “downriver”
segments and the coast. Bennet Bronson’s dendritic model based on Sumatra’s
river systems is useful (Bronson 1977), but it needs to be modied by the situation
in each individual river. In the Kapuas River, there are additional elements that
complicate the model. Communities in the headlands of the Kapuas were not
isolated nor dependent upon the river for their survival or prosperity. They were
free to move using paths, some very steep and treacherous, through the mountain
interior to other headlands and attach themselves to communities outside the Kapuas
River. The lakes formed yet another ecological division, with shing communities
operating very much like other lake-dwelling populations elsewhere in Southeast
Asia. Then there were the various upstream communities that dotted the interior,
mainly along tributaries of the Kapuas. Their linkages were formed primarily with
the particular settlement located at the conuence of the tributary and the Kapuas,
as is suggested in Bronson’s model. Unlike in Sumatra, however, communities
linked by a single tributary tended to operate as one, enabling the settlement at the
conuence to become a minor kingdom. These independent, individual upriver
kingdoms had mutually benecial trade arrangements with a principal downriver
port kingdom, ruled by a royal family that originated from abroad and settled by
a largely migrant population (Andaya, forthcoming). To study the Kapuas River,
the upstream-downstream relationship requires modications to account for the
signicant variations along the course of the main river.
Another important consideration in studying rivers or other fresh water sources is
the eects of interventions from international, national or local bodies. In the case
of the Mekong River, which originates in China and ows through the countries
of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the upstream-downstream
communities may dier considerably because of such interventions. The decision
by China to build a dam at the upper reaches of the river has important consequences
for downriver settlements and countries. In addition, dierent national goals may
aect one bank of the river and not another, as in the Mekong which forms a
natural boundary between Laos and Thailand. Within countries themselves, there
could be conicting views regarding the development of the river. In the case of
Laos, there is the ongoing struggle between business people and environmentalists
as to the best way to use the river and its low-lying banks that are inundated during
the monsoon rains but become good arable land during the dry season. Rivers or
parts of rivers can thus be sites of contestation.
While rivers may be the most studied fresh water source, others such as man-built
canals, reservoirs and ponds can be studied individually or as a system. Canals
may link one waterway to another, or help to divert water from the main river
or tributary for irrigation purposes, but each society creates ways in which such
Water in the Study of Southeast Asia 27
diversion can be maintained to benet all. It is no coincidence that ancient irrigation
schemes have direct links to temples, a feature that is well-documented in Angkor
and Bali. In Bali’s subak system of irrigation, water from the highest and thus most
sacred source in Lake Batur in the mountains, is blessed by the high priest of the
“temple of the crater lake” as it ows down to the numerous downstream shrines
in individual elds. There is no need for government intervention, as the sacred
waters continue through local temples and hence provide a spiritual sanction for
the delicate balancing of water allocation for the individual elds and collective
eorts to control pests (Lansing 1991). Rulers in Bali and ancient Java promoted
the building of holy places with water, supported by funds from tax revenues to
assure their maintenance in perpetuity. It was believed that dead rulers occupied
these special places, and water formed the link between the world of the living
and the dead, “between the immortality of the spirit and the fertility of the soil”
(Christie 1992, 22). The presence of a temple or a sacred site is a visual reminder
of the protective power of the local deity and its supernatural sanction against
any infringement of water usage agreements sworn under oath. Such spiritual
sanctions have proved to be eective in enforcing water management schemes
(Mosse 2011, 226). In late 20th century Java, local initiatives employing spiritual
sanctions operated in tandem with state measures based on scientic ndings to
assure the successful ow of water from its source to downriver villages (Duewel
2014, 6, 7, 46).
Reservoirs are used for irrigation, to conserve water for the dry season, to drain the
land during the wet season, or for religious purposes. Individual ponds built by one
family may serve as a source of water and irrigation for home gardens. Dierent
uses made of each water unit may inuence the manner in which it is conceptualised
by members of that community. Reservoirs and ponds are generally viewed as
placid and benecial. In Angkor, the large impressive reservoirs or barays are now
widely believed to have been built for the needs of the population during the dry
season and for religious purposes,5 and “evoked oceans surrounding Mount Meru
in traditional Indic cosmology” (Stark and Acabado 2014, 15). If the barays are
symbolic oceans, then the purication that occurs at these sites can perhaps be
likened to the purication associated with the ocean. This is made explicit in the
variant Javanese and Malay versions of the story of Bima discussed below under
the section on salt water.
In India, the Rig Veda cites Apah, the Waters, as the rst residence of Nara, the
Eternal Being, and so water is regarded as pratishtha, “the underlying principle
and the foundation of the universe” (Joshi and Fawcett 2006, 121). The sacred
Mt. Meru is associated with the heavenly lake Anavatapta, the source of the
elixir (amrta) of immortality and the waters of the Ganges River (Pham 2015,
Leonard Y. Andaya
32–33). All seven of the large rivers in India, but most especially the Ganges,
constitute the sacred geography, within which temples, holy tanks and places of
worship in riverbeds are found (Tvedt 2010b, 40). In a Javanese version of this
Hindu myth, the amrta contains the essence of plant sap, which contains potent
curative properties (Sbeghen 2004, 131–134, 154). In Balinese macrocosmic
ideas, kaja means mountain-wards and hence “higher”, while kelod is seawards
and “lower”, with similar metaphysical connotations as in the West (Lansing 1974,
57–58). Upstream water is therefore regarded as nourishing, possessing life-giving
properties, while downstream is associated with water that cleanses pollution.
A farmer will build a small shrine on the plot of land regarded as sacred because
it is where the irrigation water ows from upstream into the rice eld (Lansing
1991, 54–55). Modern European view, on the other hand, is a pragmatic, business
one in which the prot motive overrides all other considerations. Rivers in Europe
are regarded as a form of natural capital that could be harnessed for productive
purposes, such as the taxing of barge trac. Amount levied required consideration
of the nature of the river at various times, how often goods had to be loaded and
unloaded at various parts of the river, the seasonal variations in the availability of
river transport, and the volume of cargo that could be carried by the various types
of river transport (Tvedt 2010b, 33).
Equally important in discussions of fresh water sources is ownership. In lands
where there are limited supplies of fresh water, the diversion of water could
substantially alter the nature of the community. A striking case is from Hawai‘i,
where American-owned plantations in the late 19th and 20th centuries obtained
rights to divert river and underground water from their natural channels to the
plantation elds. This diversion disrupted precious water from the kalo (taro)
patches that produced poi, the staple food of the people. Not only was a major
food source undermined, bringing hardships to the community, but the fate of the
kalo plant itself, regarded as the ancestor of the Hawai‘ians, came to symbolise the
demise of a people and their way of life (Castle and Murakami 1991, 149–151).
Salt Water Bodies: Oceans, Seas and Straits
The oceans and seas have long fascinated the Western public, particularly stories
of shipwrecks, pirates and adventures among fabled people inhabiting oceans at
the ends of the world. The “South Seas”, the Caribbean and the various Asian
seas have for centuries elicited great interest and encouraged authors to spin tales
in an attempt to satisfy a seemingly insatiable public appetite for exotic South
Seas and other maritime adventures. The “seas” in these types of writings simply
formed a backdrop for fantastic tales that served to conrm popular knowledge
of the “Marvels of the East”. Only in the last few decades has the study of oceans
Water in the Study of Southeast Asia 29
and seas become a proper source of academic research, spurred on by increased
interest in the environment and in global connections. The growing number of
studies of oceans and seas has spawned noteworthy eorts to delineate “seas” or
“zones” as proper research objectives. There are now sucient theoretical debates
on the seas to inform discussions on salt water bodies. The debate has become so
precise that the 2007 volume edited by Jerry Bentley, entitled Seascapes: Maritime
Histories, Littoral Cultures, and Transoceanic Exchanges (Bentley, Bridenthal
and Wigen 2007) was criticised for not distinguishing between oceans and seas.
The seas provide the local variations within an ocean, thus contributing to a more
complex picture of the connectivities within this space. The result of this attention
to the dierences between oceans and seas is a more nuanced examination of the
functioning of these bodies of salt water that can serve as models for innovative
frameworks and more subtle interpretations of all forms of water.
Until recently the primary research focus has been on oceans: rst the Atlantic
(which has been viewed from various perspectives, such as the “Black Atlantic” or
the “Latin Atlantic”), then subsequently the Pacic and the Indian Oceans. Specic
journals have arisen to cater to the increasing interest in the various aspects of
communities living along the continental shores of these oceans (and far less on
those living “on” the oceans). The major exception to this ocean-centric approach
is the Mediterranean “Sea”, which is the most studied body of water in the world
and which has set a model for all other investigations of oceans and seas. The
South China Sea, which has been used for centuries as the major maritime trade
route to and from China, is now receiving far greater attention for its disputed
waters which contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. The claimants – China,
Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have begun
to stake claims using (and misusing) evidence from the past.
Philip E. Steinberg has examined how ocean space in the past was conceptualised
and used by dierent societies. He contends that oceans and seas were socially
constructed following three dierent models with three dierent emphases:
(1) the Mediterranean model based on imperial Rome’s view of the sea as a space
that can be subject to a state’s social inuence but not owned by any individual
state; (2) the Micronesian-style model, where the ocean is treated like the land,
where cultural signs and attitudes towards usufruct of the ocean are the equivalent
of those on land; and (3) the Indian Ocean model, which constructs the ocean as a
special trading space insulated from the power struggles of land-based societies,
and where the ocean is primarily a transport surface (Steinberg 2003, 44).
The geographer Martin Lewis has argued, however, that to focus on oceans is
unproductive, and that it is better to identify “oceanic arcs”, i.e., points along the
ocean which are meaningfully connected (Lewis 1999, 204).
Leonard Y. Andaya
International trade has always been a major way of creating meaningful connections.
By determining what constitutes the major focus of an exchange, one can plot out the
various routes and communities that form the necessary nodes in the network. One
can then proceed to examine the role of each community, and the cultural reception
and ideological impact of such an object. Some nodes in the connection are merely
transitional ports, with perhaps only one or a few of the communities interested in
the object or objects being traded. Other parts of the connection may be involved
in order to obtain other objects, and so a number of dierent objects may circulate
in the same network but with specic objects having a special meaning to specic
communities. When Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell wrote their highly
regarded work on the Mediterranean, they described their study as “the human
history of the Mediterranean Sea and its coastlands” (Horden and Purcell 2009,
9). In contrasting their work to that of Fernand Braudel’s magisterial opus on the
Mediterranean (Braudel 1987), they argue that studies should be of communities
interacting within (hence being “of” the ocean) and not just coincidentally located
in (“in” the ocean) that body of water. Their detailed and sophisticated examination
of the Mediterranean and its littoral continually places the human element to the
fore, but the signicance comes in the manner in which people interact with the
various aspects of the environment. It is a model that focuses attention on the
continual and shifting interaction between the human and physical environment of
the sea and its coasts.
As in fresh water, there is an intermediate point between the ocean and the seas,
which is the “strait”, a narrow waterway that links one ocean or sea to another. One
of the most famous is the Straits of Melaka, which connects the Indian Ocean to
the South China Sea and has continued to be one of the busiest and most important
waterways in the world. Until at least the middle of the second millennium CE,
the Straits of Melaka was the only known body of water that linked the major
civilisations to the east and west of Southeast Asia. While neither an ocean nor
a sea, the strait exhibits characteristics that combine features of both. It is more
likely than in seas of oceans for a state to exercise stewardship over or even direct
control of a strait. When a strait connects oceans, as has been the case with the
Straits of Melaka, then it becomes the nodal point for interlocking global networks.
Salt water in some societies have a cleansing and purifying function as is made
explicit in the variant Malay tellings of the story of Bima, one of the Pandawa
brothers in the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. In the Malay version of the Javanese
Dewa Ruci (also known as Nawarucci and Bima Suci), Bima goes in search of
kawitra water (air kawitra) to cleanse his body of pollution. Only two places
contain that special water: a pond at the foot of the sacred Hindu Mt. Mahameru,
and in the middle of the sea (di pusat tasik) (Arps 2018, 70–71). Ancient Hawai‘ians
Water in the Study of Southeast Asia 31
viewed salt water as the ultimate source of purifying power. They mixed salt water
with turmeric or red earth and sprinkled the mixture onto a site or an individual in
order to cleanse them of impurities. The process of training dancers for the sacred
hula was fraught with spiritual dangers, and so those who were entrusted with
building the structure dedicated to the training of hula dancers were forbidden to
use improper language, have sex or eat certain food. If such infractions occurred,
the oending person was immediately sprinkled with the salt water and turmeric
mixture. Students entering into the structure to learn the hula had to be sprinkled
with this water before entering the sacred ground. At the conclusion of training and
before the admittance of the participants into the guild of hula dancers, they took
a plunge in the ocean totally naked in order to cleanse them from all impurities.
Finally, the kumu or “priest” or head of the school (halau) bathed in the ocean
to complete the process of purication at the end of the training (Emerson 1909,
14–15, 29, 31).
Water in the “In-between” Spaces
Among many societies, including those of Southeast Asia, the ability to move
across spheres or planes is regarded as a feat of supernatural signicance. The
reason is that the area in between two planes is regarded as a liminal space with
spiritual potency. In the view of the anthropologist-philosopher Greg Dening,
it is these “crossings” between heaven and earth (rainbows), between land and
sea (canoes), and land and sky (feathers) that are favourite symbols employed by
Pacic islanders (Dening 2006, 15). A similar observation can be made of Southeast
Asia, where such creatures as frogs, crocodiles, birds (and the associated feathered
headdresses of humans) occupy this liminal “in-between” space and hence have
an important cultural role in society. The presence of these in-between images on
the mantles of the ancient Dong Son drums identies the drums as repositories of
spiritual powers and legitimises their function in conrming political power of
leaders of the community and in assuring the fertility and prosperity of the group
(Calò 2009, 84; L.Y. Andaya 2016).
In the study of water, it is brackish water that occupies this in-between space
between fresh and salt water. Fresh and salt water meet and mingle at estuaries to
form a brackish water environment, where special ora and fauna thrive. Estuaries
(Mal. Kuala) are themselves in-between sites and thus associated with spiritual
potency. The Helong people of West Timor have a legend that ascribes their
origins to the island of Seram. When they left Seram and reached the northern
coast of Timor, one of the brothers turned into a crocodile and led the group to the
estuary of the Koinino River, where they founded a kingdom (Hägerdal 2012, 95).
It is also worth noting that the crocodile is itself regarded as special because of its
ability to live both on land and sea.
Leonard Y. Andaya
The brackish environment of the estuaries, the mangrove swamps and the interior
wetlands are exploited fully by the sea people (Orang Laut and Sama Bajau) and
the forest people (Orang Asli), two groups who themselves occupy an in-between
space in society. Among the Sama Bajau of eastern Indonesia, the place of great
value is the sago palm swamp (gonggang), for it is trunk of the palm which is
processed to obtain the sago that forms their staple diet (Lowe 2003, 127). The sea
peoples in the past lived much of their lives on the sea in boats but took temporary
shelter on land during dangerous monsoon weather. A similar crossing of spheres
is attributed to the Orang Asli, who live partly in the forest in the realm of animals,
and partly at the forest edge in the land of people. For these reasons, both the sea
peoples and forest peoples are believed to possess extraordinary spiritual powers.
The liminality of the brackish environment is also captured in folklore, where in
Mandar traditions in South Sulawesi the wife of Nabi Khidir walks the area along
the coastline, where sea meets land, serving as a guardian at the division of these
two worlds. In this local tradition she is entrusted with maintaining watch at the
borders of land and sea in the transition zone on the coast (B.W. Andaya 2016,
254).6 The implication is that there is need to preserve the land from the dangers
from the ocean, which is precisely the attitude of the Lumad towards the Dumagat
(“sea people”) (Paredes 2016, 334–337).
Another in-between space that has come to be studied with increasing frequency
is the littoral. The term itself specically refers to the shoreline and shoreline
communities, but the culture of the coast is far more complex. There is a dierence
between communities that are “littoral” and oriented to the sea, and those coastal
communities whose inhabitants look inward to the land and are farmers and only
occasionally shermen (Pearson 1985, 1–8). In Timor, the coastal dwellers shun
the sea and rely on neighbouring islands to provide both boats and navigation,
as well as goods from the outside world. By contrast, there are communities that
occasionally till the land or forage on shore, but whose primary preoccupation
is the sea. It is these seaward-looking communities that constitute the true
littoral communities, where the land is a secondary consideration to the seaward
orientation. In island Southeast Asia, there is a Malay-Indonesian term for the
littoral, which is pasisir. It incorporates not simply a living space but a way of life,
and in Indonesia it is often associated with the port cities that looked outward to
the sea, participated in trade, and were the entry points of foreign goods and ideas,
including foreign religions.
Littoral communities have even been described as “amphibious”, moving between
land and sea with connections extended in both directions. Geographers have used
the terms “foreland” to refer to a littoral community and its principal port’s relations
Water in the Study of Southeast Asia 33
to other littoral communities around a common ocean or even around the globe;
and umland for the immediate environment of the port and its community. This
littoral community is separated culturally from the “hinterland”, which is land-
based and orientated to the interior (Pearson 2006, 353–354; Pearson 2003, 31).
Littoral communities are an example of connectivity, not attached to the land nor
even to a linking sea, but to a world-wide network of culturally similar societies.
In the ideological sense of in-between places, the littoral is a powerful mediator
of inuences and goods between the outside world and the world of the interior.
The Land-Water Continuum
This last category of “water” has characterised societies living on small islands or
isolated coasts where the ocean or the sea is the dominant feature. While it is the
communities in the Pacic Ocean that have constructed this perception of water,
similar examples can be found in the seas of eastern Indonesia. In a land-water
continuum, the mountains, plains, streams, beaches, reefs and lagoons form the
“land” unit. But it is the sea portion of the continuum that is most signicant.
It contains the pathways that crisscross the surface of the ocean connecting the
islanders to their relatives and friends in other places, as well as to specic areas
of the sea where food and trade products are gathered. Their world is a web of
pathways identied by rocks, reefs and other signs on a well-traversed ocean
(Steinberg 2003, 55). The connectivities spanning the entire length and breadth
of the Pacic is a reason that Epeli Hau’ofa has rejected the view that people in
the Pacic are isolated on tiny islands in a vast, forbidding ocean. Instead, he
emphasises the connections of the islands to other places on the ocean and beyond
to whatever lands and seas settled by the Pacic diaspora. He prefers to speak of
this sea of islands as “Oceania” to emphasise the connectivity and the dynamism
of this unied Pacic Ocean world (Hau’ofa 1994, 155–157).
The cultural beliefs of these societies reect the successful adaptation to their land-
water continuum. In keeping with their unied view of land and water, their gods
and heroes move seamlessly through the dierent spheres of the skies, the land and
the seas (Hau’ofa 1994, 155–157). In the case of Hawai‘i, as mentioned above,
the powerful god Kane contained two aspects: as the god of the sea and as the god
of fresh water. The histories of societies from the land-water continuum reect the
transcending of worlds, as gods, humans and other creatures inhabiting the various
spheres interact together since the time of the origins of the group (Hau’ofa 1994).
In recent times, the culture of communities from a land-water continuum has re-
emerged as a legitimate rendering of the past, eectively countering the dominant
historical narratives that are products of Western colonisation of indigenous
knowledge. Vilsoni Hereniko, for example, argues that traditional forms of
Leonard Y. Andaya
knowledge on his home island of Rotuma, such as ctional stories called te hanuju
(a type of gossip of the ancestors), as well as song and dance, etc., are legitimate
and important historical sources. Yet these types of texts have been neglected by
Western and Western-trained local historians who regard them as “unreliable”
(Hereniko 2000, 78–81). Studies such as Hereniko’s are models that could be
protably applied in Southeast Asia, where similar environmental conditions exist
as in Oceania.
The objective of this paper is to introduce the idea of water as an approach to the
study of Southeast Asia. A water perspective is multidimensional and complex,
and incorporates an understanding of the physical characteristics of water, the
transformations it undergoes through human intervention, and the sociocultural
meaning that is applied to it by individual human communities. Moreover, water
is a generic term that refers to a variety of types (salt, fresh, brackish, land-water)
and forms (oceans, seas, straits, estuaries, rivers, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, canals).
Each of these types and forms can be studied in dierent combinations in order to
acquire greater precision. At the heart of the water approach is the understanding
that a body water should be studied as an equal partner to the human community.
By examining the dynamic interaction of these two elements, one can gain a greater
understanding of the connectivities and new spatialisations that are created. The
seas, oceans, the littoral, and other forms and types of water are all understudied
and deserve renewed attention if we are to nd new ways of thinking and learning
about Southeast Asia’s past, present and even its future.
1. There is a fairly substantial literature on Angkor. Sydney University is undertaking
a 15-year study called the Greater Angkor Project, which is under the direction of
Professor Roland Fletcher of the archaeology department. Using laser imaging, they
have been mapping the city of Angkor with its intricate water works. For an excellent
study of the eect of environmental change on the water system, which may have
caused Angkor’s demise, see Penny (2010).
2. Steinberg refers to this form of “sea” as a Micronesian model (Steinberg 2003, 52–
57). But this is a conception that is shared among other Oceanic societies (Hviding
1996; D’Arcy 2006).
3. The intertidal zone refers to the slope of the island and the reefs that are permanently
covered by sea water, but when exposed could at times be even more extensive than
the island. It is a zone of rich plant and animal life and hence an important economic
resource for its inhabitants (Ammarell 1999, 25, 28–29).
4. This is known as the River Continuum Concept and may have been rst discussed in
Vannote et al. (1980, 130–137).
Water in the Study of Southeast Asia 35
5. The building of such large reservoirs would have required large amounts of labour
and expense, hence demonstrating the great powers and benecence of the ruler.
The barays may not have been used for irrigation but for supplying water for the
use of the large population in the Angkor area during the dry season when water
became scarce. Philip Taylor has shown that, among the Khmer community living in
Vietnam’s Camau Peninsula, only the wealthiest could build ponds large enough to
supply a family in the long dry season. Others were forced to work cooperatively to
build communal ponds for the use of everyone. The massive size of the barays would
have been understood by the people as symbols of the incomparable powers of the
Angkorian ruler (Taylor 2014, 114–117).
6. Nabi Khidir is regarded as a mystical gure with variant Islamic and non-Islamic
traditions, and so the use of “Nabi” (prophet) reects one such tradition. It is
interesting that it is his wife, and not Nabi Khidir himself, who is the subject of the
Mandar tale.
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... [3] Distinctively, more than 70 percent of Southeast Asia is water, and the monsoon rains are a regular feature of the region, and yet few have attempted to focus on water as an essential element which not just a setting but for understanding Southeast Asian society. Study from Andaya, 2018 stated that the evaluated availability of water resources on average within the region is very considerable compared to the world and Asian averages [1]. However, there is a large variation between countries in average annual surface water availability per capita. ...
... Water Withdrawal in Southeast Asia Study from Andaya, 2018, reservoirs or dams are used for many purposes for our daily activities which is for irrigation, to conserve water during dry season, drain the land during the wet season and also for religious purposes. [1] There are three sectors that Southeast Asian countries require high demand of water consumption due to the climate in Southeast Asia can be categorized as tropical which most of the time tends to be humid and hot in several part of the year. Moreover, countries in Southeast Asia are experiencing a fast-paced of globalization era and also major focus in the world in many aspects. ...
... Andaya (2018) suggests that the association of brackish water areas as sites of potential power is significant for people in this region because beings or places that "cross" defined spheres of existence are believed to be spiritually potent (p, 23). ...
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This study provides a critical transnational examination of films from three culturally and historically interrelated nations in Southeast Asia: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Films from these countries are often studied as national cinemas distinct from one another. However, this thesis argues for a theorisation of these cinemas through the concept of Nusantara which speaks to the geographical, social, and cultural patterns of the region before the advent of film and nationalism in Southeast Asia. The overlapping cultural significance of the cinematic representations of these countries is analysed through themes of cultural identity, mobility and belonging. “Nusantara cinema” (or archipelagic cinema) is used as a strategy to evade national political boundaries, thus providing a critical look at transnationalism in film studies (Higbee & Lim, 2010) endeavouring to illustrate such links through motifs that speak to the region’s archipelagic culture of mobility, specifically the concept of tanahair (literally, ‘land and water’ meaning ‘homeland’) and merantau (to sojourn), as well as the treatment of borderland populations and cultural cosmopolitanism. Nusantara, a portmanteau for ‘between islands’ is a Malay word referring to island Southeast Asia. Drawing on Homi Bhabha’s theories of in-betweenness, hybridity and liminality, I argue that cultural representation in films from the three countries transcends the ethnonationalist frameworks of national culture and national cinema. Firstly, nusantara is a place where cultures meet and regularly compete in asymmetric power relations among groups and individuals who continually seek a feeling of belonging; it is not just their home, but also a ‘contact zone’ (Pratt, 2002). However, the multifaceted nature of merantau offers a rather complicated sense of place and homeland. Furthermore, the path of sojourners in films reacted to the political and cultural negotiations in the 1960s, 1970s and late 1990s. Currently, films from these countries highlight the borderland communities in liminality, thereby giving credence to transnational cultural identities, as well as promoting cultural and spatial connections across countries and linking Southeast Asia’s diversity.
... 3 In fact, Leonard Y. Andaya on 'Water in the Study of Southeast Asia' also provided a clear picture of the types of raw water sources that can be used in water supply in southeast Asia. 4 While existing research is still incomplete and focuses on the interests of certain authorities alone, it provides guidance and encouragement to other researchers to carry out research on water supply in Malaya in the future. ...
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Alor Setar was the earliest location in Kedah which received the implementation of the domestic water supply plan by the British beginning in 1909. This initiative was due to administrative, economic, health, population and other relevant factors. Thus, the British built several water plants and the projects turned into a water supply module in other locations in the Kedah state. This paper would like to see the role of the British in developing the water supply system in Alor Setar from 1909 to 1957. This research began in 1909 due to the introduction to British advisers in the state of Kedah and ended in 1957 as the year was the final phase of the British domination in Kedah Water Company (SADA). The results of the study found that British advisers in Kedah successfully abandoned the water supply module in Alor Setar and succeeded in raising the standard of living of the residents at the stated locations.
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This article is an attempt to stand back and re-imagine the landscape of the Red River over the last two millennia. The only static components of the Red River valley and delta are its mountains and geological deposits, everything else has changed over time. By marrying historical records with recent scientific findings on the Red River, this article outlines aspects of these changes; including changes to the climate and landscape, the possibility of shifting river courses, the movement of historical trade routes, and the rise of Thang Long–Hanoi.
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This article explores the relevance of water in the cultural traditions of indigenous Lumad peoples of Mindanao island in the southern Philippines. Historically, Lumad identities and networks (whether political, social, or economic) were conceptualised according to the rivers on which people dwelt. Important ties stretched from the coast to the interior (i.e., between upriver and downriver communities), with water providing the path of least resistance in rough terrain. This stands in contrast to the present-day cultural and political divide between the uplands and lowlands, which are now dominated by mainstream ‘Filipino’ settlers, referred to locally as dumagat or ‘sea-people’. Given that Lumad ties to the land are profoundly visualised according to rivers, the salt-water origins of dumagats locate these interlopers at, or more often, beyond the moral boundaries of the Lumad universe. Meanwhile, in Lumad oral traditions, the movements of people across one generation to the next are traced according to river systems they have occupied, with proximity to water often equated with degree of civilization and cultural purity. Despite the passage of time, and decreased linear proximity from the original rivers, these primal riverine origins remain significant in the present day, as Lumads continue to socially prioritise the genealogies and networks of traditional political authority that are upstreamed from these oral traditions. Focusing on field data from the Higaunon ethnic group of northern Mindanao, this article analyses five examples of water being employed as a hermeneutic for how Lumads locate themselves in relation to other ethnic groups, the state, modern Filipino society, and their own cultural traditions.
The conventional view of global hydrography, which maps three or four oceans (Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, and, sometimes, Arctic) did not emerge until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Previously, markedly different conceptions of sea space prevailed, conceptions that changed not only to reflect new discoveries but also in accordance with changing intellectual fashions. By examining the history of global hydrography and by entertaining novel schemes of oceanic division, one can see the world afresh and perhaps discover connections that are obscured by conventional geographical divisions.
The technological societies generate new risks and increasing worries between citizens. The notion of risk has turned into a social, political, economic, juridical and including ethical question. This observation generates, during the eighties, the sociology of risk that explores these zones of fracture between confidence and vulnerability. Another perspective has enriched this vision interesting in the individual conducts of risk and his meanings. Based on the analysis of numerous concrete examples and theoretical works, this article analyses the social construction of risk, which supposes to study his evolution, perception and control; without forgetting his relation with the notion of safety sensation. After re-constituting the history of risk, we defend the analytical relevancy of the contextual perspective and the need to displace the center of attention to social dynamics associated with risk and his conflicts, because it is what rationalist, cultural and pragmatics traditions neglect. Without ignoring the epistemological and ontological debates about risk, we believe that an analysis centered in sociology of risk must anticipate a shock between knowledge, perceptions and attitudes in our relationship with risk.