The notion “riverhood” is a mid-19th century almost forgotten concept: “the state of being a river” (Oxford Dictionary). It expresses how different (formal and vernacular) cultures imagine, define, build and live with rivers as socionatural systems. Rivers as part of society, and vice versa. Rivers as an arena of (contested) co-production among humans and non-humans.
In the past decade, in the global South and North, a wide variety of new water justice movements (NWJM) have emerged. NWJMs are transdisciplinary, multi-actor and multi-scalar coalitions that challenge dominant river management approaches. They deploy a multitude of profoundly innovative strategies to restore or defend “living rivers”. A few examples are ecological flow clinics, the promotion of dam removals; federations designing new rules for shared catchment governance; citizens’ initiatives erecting river environmental health projects; and grassroots thinktanks. These NWJMs have the potential to revolutionize environmental debates, practices, laws and policies towards new, equitable and nature-rooted water governance. However, they are often excluded from policy and also academia has so far paid very little attention to them. Tools for understanding the emerging innovative river ontologies, normative frameworks, and commoning strategies are missing. Riverhood, thereto, aims to study, understand and support NWJMs, thereby contributing to more equitable, nature-entwined water governance.
Riverhood entwines new conceptual debates as Rights of Nature with frameworks that have been recently developed (e.g., on water justice and hydrosocial territories) to elaborate on new ones. In particular, rivers are theorized through four dimensions, and the new cross-scientific field of “riverhood” are being developed.
The project’s central question is: How do the new water justice movements shape and dynamize riverhood enlivening strategies, institutions and practices, and how can they potentiate radically new scientific and policy approaches for sustainable and equitable water governance?
Build innovative transdisciplinary concepts and methodological tools that enable analyzing and supporting the new water justice movements’ inventive institutions, strategies and practices of dynamizing “riverhood”, to contribute to radically new, equitable, nature-society rooted water governance. The project has four research lines, in accordance with the overall framework as explained under Concepts.
In order to investigate the central question of the project and pursue its objectives, PhD researchers together with local stakeholders work on eight cases studies in Europe (Netherlands and Spain) and Latin America (Ecuador and Colombia).
In the course of the project, Environmental Justice Labs (EJLs) are being employed. EJLs bring together riverine communities, artists, researchers, activists, and policy-makers to co-investigate and co-produce concepts, strategies and cross-cultural knowledge that express innovative practices, scientific insights, and creative policy potentials.
Project duration: 01 July 2021 to 30 June 2026 (60 months)
Project funding: Riverhood project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 101002921).
photo by Laura Giraldo-Martinez
The Riverhood project includes eight cases studies in Europe (Netherlands and Spain) and Latin America (Ecuador and Colombia). Both in The Netherlands and in Spain, mega-hydraulic development to control water and society at once, have a long tradition. Both countries have deeply influenced mechanistic water control paradigms and river basin transformations in Latin America up to these days. However, the pendulum may now swing back, with a different society-nature approach. Ecuador’s new Constitution has adopted “Rights of Nature” as claimed for by its citizens, and in Colombia rivers have become subjects, not objects, of law and societal platforms. European new water justice movements (NWJM) ask for mutual learning with their Latin American forerunner peers’ concepts and experiences. Both aim to creatively translate these notions in new hybrid riverhood approaches, considering contextual similarities, differences and opportunities.
Browse the research projects below:
photo by Laura Giraldo-Martinez
The central activities of Riverhood include:
Find more information on PhD Projects.
Environmental Justice Labs
The aim of the Environmental Justice Labs (EJLs) is to exchange experiences, create new ideas and concepts, and develop action proposals and site-specific interventions through learning-based partnerships between river communities, artists, researchers, activists, and policy-makers. This will be done through on-the-ground activities, local, national and international meetings, as well as through virtual tools and an international interactive platform. Besides developing EJLs in each case study site, interaction among EJLs will be also facilitated to enable a continuous cross-case and multi-scale engagement and learning.
Integration and dissemination
Integration and comparison of insights from the different case studies, as well as dissemination of findings through scientific articles, movies, policy papers, this website and others, are constantly being done by the project staff and postdoc researchers throughout the project. You can find all outputs under the tab publications.
photo by Laura Giraldo-Martinez
ABSTRACT: Megadams are controversial ventures. Despite their contentious benefits, the negative impacts on local communities are enormous. This has prompted substantial disapproval and resistance, particularly from the communities that endure the most of its adverse effects. While many megadams have been constructed in the face of opposition, others have been halted or altered as a result of the fierce protests of affected people and their allies. A better understanding of the latter is key to promoting equitable and just water governance throughout the implementation of hydraulic infrastructure. Based on ethnographic and historical research carried out between 2014 and 2017, the article shows the power relations, social actors and historical-contextual factors that have influenced the development of the Daule-Peripa and Baba megadams on the Ecuadorian coast. From a political ecology and subaltern studies perspective, this article describes and analyses the social, territorial, and historical interconnectedness of the local communities of Patricia Pilar and Daule-Peripa dam in coastal Ecuador that successfully stopped the construction of a dam and had a great influence on its final hydraulic design. I argue that, given the adequate socio-political conditions and a systematic process of knowledge and experience exchange among affected communities, anti-dam struggles can emerge with significant capacity to influence in their favour the megadam implementation processes and other hydraulic infrastructures.
ABSTRACT: Preserving cultural heritage and achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of protecting life below water do not always go hand in hand. The case of the Serpis River sheds light on the political, cultural and legal tensions that may arise when pursuing these two policy goals. To better understand these tensions, we propose acknowledging that rivers are complex natural-cultural systems imagined and shaped through various actors’ values, interests, practices and infrastructures (Boelens et al. 2016). River restoration initiatives generate divisions between actors and institutions with different ways of defining and valuing natural and cultural heritage.
ABSTRACT: Efforts to shape more sustainable and just land and water management practices are increasingly turning to the past for inspiration. However, what the past looked like exactly and what can be learned from it and applied to present-day challenges is not straightforward. Peru is one of those places where reviving ancestral land and water management practices and knowledge has become popular. This article starts with a project that aimed to recuperate ancestral water infiltration structures in the Peruvian highlands. Drawing on interviews conducted shortly after the project’s implementation, the author analyses how history and “the past” are imagined differently by various actors, according to their current worldviews, interests and values. The author unpacks the consequences of these diverse pasts for present-day relations and project implementation, calling attention to the importance of making explicit the “politics of the past,” including how the past is portrayed and by whom, and which past is to be recuperated or revalorized.
Hoogesteger, J., Suhardiman, D., Boelens, R., de Castro, F., Duarte-Abadía, B., Hidalgo-Bastidas, J. P., Liebrand, J.W., Hernández‐Mora, N., Manorom, K., Veldwisch, G.J. & Vos, J. (2023). River Commoning and the State: A Cross‐Country Analysis of River Defense Collectives. Politics and Governance, 11(2). https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v11i2.6316
ABSTRACT: Grassroots initiatives that aim to defend, protect, or restore rivers and riverine environments have proliferated around the world in the last three decades. Some of the most emblematic initiatives are anti-dam and anti-mining movements that have been framed, by and large, as civil society versus the state movements. In this article, we aim to bring nuance to such framings by analyzing broader and diverse river-commoning initiatives and the state–citizens relations that underlie them. To study these relations we build on notions of communality, grassroots scalar politics, rooted water collectives, and water justice movements, which we use to analyze several collective practices, initiatives, and movements that aim to protect rivers in Thailand, Spain, Ecuador, and Mozambique. The analysis of these cases shows the myriad ways in which river collectives engage with different manifestations of the state at multiple scales. As we show, while some collectives strategically remain unnoticed, others actively seek and create diverse spaces of engagement with like-minded citizen initiatives, supportive non-governmental organizations, and state actors. Through these relations, alliances are made and political space is sought to advance river commoning initiatives. This leads to a variety of context-specific multi-scalar state–citizens relations and river commoning processes in water governance arenas.
ABSTRACT: In this opinion piece, we argue for the need to acknowledge, study, and engage with New Water Justice Movements around the world. What we term NWJMs is in fact a colourful assembly of grassroots groups and initiatives, as well as regional networks and nongovernmental alliances, that mobilize to protect or revive rivers, and to challenge dominant ways of understanding, ordering and exploiting rivers and riverine inhabitants. Whereas previous water justice initiatives have mainly focused on issues of fair distribution (of environmental ‘goods’ and ‘bads’) and representation for human groups, the more recently emerging movements also explicitly include nonhuman concerns and intertwine distribution and representation with related struggles for cultural justice and socio-ecological, intergenerational integrity.
ABSTRACT: In this article we introduce the notion of imaginaries as a conceptual entry to study and better understand how and why commons re-create and transform. We do so by first exploring imaginaries as assemblages, and second by analytically dividing imaginaries in dominant and alternative imaginaries. While the former refer to how people imagine and live their social existence around built expectations and their underlying notions, the latter refers to imaginaries that critique instituted society and through it create ‘germs’ that can lead to transformation. Through this lens we analyze contestations that have emerged around the introduction of drip irrigation in two irrigation communities in the Valencia Region of Spain. These two case studies (Carcaixent and Potries) show how, among the commons, alternative imaginaries are challenging the dominant imaginaries of drip irrigation. We show how these alternative imaginaries result from a different way of assembling irrigation and the social, cultural, material, and economic relations around it. These insights, we argue, open up avenues that allow us to better understand the imaginary creations that reproduce a specific existing order, as well as the germ(s) that can lead to transformations and change.
ABSTRACT:Rivers are ecosystems indispensable for the survival of both humans and non-human species. Yet humans often disregard their importance and modify the existing socio-natural equilibrium of rivers in the pursuit of economic and political agendas. With a focus on new water justice movements, this article advocates a perspective that recognizes rivers as hydrosocial territories, actively and continuously co-created, co-inhabited, and transformed by a multiplicity of human and other-thanhuman beings. Such a perspective opens a path to a multispecies justice framework that involves rethinking the relations between human and non-human beings in the worlds we share as a medium for creating more socio-ecologically just and biodiverse water worlds.
Boelens, R., A. Escobar, K. Bakker, L. Hommes, E. Swyngedouw, B. Hogenboom, E.H. Huijbens, S. Jackson, J. Vos, L.M. Harris, K.J. Joy, F. de Castro, B. Duarte-Abadía, D. Tubino de Souza, H. Lotz-Sisitka, N. Hernández-Mora, J. Martínez-Alier, D. Roca-Servat, T. Perreault, C. Sanchis-Ibor, D. Suhardiman, A. Ulloa, A. Wals, J. Hoogesteger, J.P. Hidalgo-Bastidas, T. Roa-Avendaño, G.J. Veldwisch, P. Woodhouse & K.M. Wantzen (2023). Riverhood: Political ecologies of socionature commoning and translocal struggles for water justice. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 50(3), 1125–1156. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2022.2120810
ABSTRACT: Mega-damming, pollution and depletion endanger rivers worldwide. Meanwhile, modernist imaginaries of ordering ‘unruly waters and humans’ have become cornerstones of hydraulic-bureaucratic and capitalist development. They separate hydro/social worlds, sideline river-commons cultures, and deepen socio-environmental injustices. But myriad new water justice movements (NWJMs) proliferate: rooted, disruptive, transdisciplinary, multi-scalar coalitions that deploy alternative river–society ontologies, bridge South–North divides, and translate river-enlivening practices from local to global and vice-versa. This paper’s framework conceptualizes ‘riverhood’ to engage with NWJMs and river commoning initiatives. We suggest four interrelated ontologies, situating river socionatures as arenas of material, social and symbolic co-production: ‘river-as-ecosociety’, ‘river-as-territory’, ‘river-as-subject’, and ‘river-as-movement’.
ABSTRACT: This paper analyses the discussions surrounding dam removal in Spain and, specifically, ongoing contestations around the Toranes Dam. Engaging with scholarship about the temporalities of infrastructure and imaginaries, I show how dam removal is a trend that comes forth from temporally situated and shifting relations in the sociopolitical, technical, financial and environmental networks in which dams are embedded. More than simply a consequence of material decay and expiring use licences, dam removal is also intrinsically related to changing imaginaries about dams, rivers and nature. However, dam removal is contested. Central to it are debates about the definition of, and relations between, nature, society and cultural heritage in the past, present and future. People’s subjectivities – shaped by the dam and its intended and unintended effects on the environment and hydrosocial relations – are also a source of anti-removal mobilisation. The paper demonstrates how dam removal is a fascinating topic that draws attention to the different temporalities dams hold, including the stage of material and potentially also ideological ruin. Dam removal, however, does not (yet?) represent a clear paradigm shift; rather, the reality is messy, with dam construction and removal at times being promoted simultaneously.Download here the photo report.
The Secondment was a 2-month course designed to provide Riverhood and River Commons PhD students with action-research tools and experiences in preparation for their actual fieldwork in various countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. In this course, the PhDs developed a short-term action-action project in partnership with local initiatives and institutional actors working on the Meuse River, in the Netherlands. Three excursions, to different locations along the Meuse River, were organized as part of the groups’ assignments. The first excursion was to Limburg; the second, was to Brabant; and the last trip was to Biesbosch. Download here the photo report.
The Seminar Rivers, Commons, Movements took place in Valencia, Spain, and gathered scholars and PhD researchers who focus on theoretical and methodological concepts, strategies and experiences related to studying and supporting evolving ‘river commons’ and new water justice movements (NWJMs), to revitalise rivers. The seminar’s case presentations and research frames and proposals engaged with conceptualizing river systems in all senses, and understanding and supporting river knowledge co-creation and democratisation from the bottom up. Click here to download the Seminar Rivers, Commons, Movements Report.
World’s rivers are fundamental to social and natural well-being but profoundly affected by mega-damming and pollution. In response to top-down and technocratic approaches, in many places, riverine communities practice forms of ‘river co-governance’, integrating ecological, cultural, political, economic and technological dimensions. In addition, new water justice movements (NWJMs) have emerged worldwide to creatively transform local ideas for ‘enlivening rivers’ into global action and vice versa. The Summer School aimed to provide PhD students who conduct research on these ‘river commons’ and NWJMs with transdisciplinary concepts and approaches for studying their emerging ideas, concepts, proposals and strategies. The different sessions thereby focused on conceptualizing river systems in all senses, and capacity-building for (understanding and supporting) river knowledge co-creation and democratisation from the bottom up. Click here to download the Summer School Report.
ABSTRACT: Utopians organized space, nature and society to perfection, including land and water governance – rescuing society from deep-rooted crisis: “The happiest basis for a civilized community, to be universally adopted” (Thomas More, 1516). These days, similarly, well-intended utopian water governance regimes suggest radical transformations to combat the global Water Crisis, controlling deviant natures and humans. In this essay I examine water utopia and dystopia as mirror societies. Modern utopias ignore real-life water cultures, squeeze rivers dry, concentrate water for the few, and blame the victims. But water-user collectives, men and women, increasingly speak up. They ask scholars and students to help question Flying Islands experts’ claims to rationality, democracy and equity; to co-create water ontologies and epistemologies, and co-design water governance, building rooted socionatural commons, building “riverhood”.
ABSTRACT: Infrastructures and their roles and connections to and in territories and territorialization processes have increasingly become objects of study in political geography scholarship. In this contribution, we build on these emerging insights and advance them by further conceptually disentangling the agential role of infrastructure. We bring together the notions of territory, governmentality, imaginaries and subjectivities, to clarify how exactly hydraulic infrastructure acts to transform relations between space, people and materiality. We start by introducing territorialization as a process of ‘ordering things’ in a certain space and time through different techniques of government. We then show how, at the base of such territorialization processes, are imaginaries that contain normative ideas about how space and socio-territorial relations should be ordered. Imaginaries are consequently materialized through hydraulic infrastructure through the inscription of morals, values and norms in infrastructure design, construction and operation. This set of materialities and relations embedded in infrastructure brings changes to the existing relations between space, water and people. In particular, we highlight the repercussions of infrastructure for how people understand and relate to each other, the environment, water, technology and space: in other words, how subjectivities change as an effect of hydraulic infrastructure constitution. Last, we show how infrastructure and the related hydrosocial territories that develop around it are a dynamic arena of contestation and transformation. We argue that socio-material fractures, emerging counter-imaginaries and the disruptive capacities of subjectivities constantly challenge the ‘fixes’ that infrastructures aim to inscribe in hydrosocial territories. Throughout the paper, we use empirical examples from recent research on hydraulic infrastructure and territorial transformations to ground the conceptual ideas.
ABSTRACT: This article analyzes how smallholders of Subtanjalla, in coastal Peru, conceive irrigation water as a central element and carrier of hydrosocial relations and territories. We base our analysis on an exploration of the local notions of agua nueva and yocle. These two notions bind together time, space, nature and culture into specific understandings of territorial connections and reciprocities. Through these understandings water is much more than H2O. Instead of just representing an economic good or a material input for irrigated agriculture water is seen as a binding element that bridges and brings together the Andean world with that of Subtanjalla in the Peruvian coast. Water is, from this perspective, a lively and always in-the-making composition of humans, non-humans, and more-than-humans in which there is no clear distinction between nature and culture, past and present, object and subject. We argue that water as an assemblage opens up now lines of inquiry into hydrosocial territories and relations across time and space through the departure of a fundamentally relational understandings of water, its use and governance.
This book builds a comparative and analytical narrative with a historical basis on the modernist utopian thought that shapes hydroterritorial planning policies in Colombia and Spain. At the same time, it highlights contemporary dystopias and analyses the role of social movements in protecting their rights and reviving the flow of rivers and their territories. The book is the result of Bibiana’s Ph.D. research. It’s available at Ríos, utopías y movimientos sociales – Editorial Abya Yala
Rutgerd Boelens, Juliana Forigua-Sandoval, Bibiana Duarte-Abadía & Juan Carlos Gutiérrez-Camargo (2021). River lives, River movements. Fisher communities mobilizing local and official rules in defense of the Magdalena River. The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, 53:3, 458-476
ABSTRACT: The Magdalena River, Colombia’s main river backbone, features multiple tensions and socio-environmental conflicts. They manifest themselves in the river’s ecological degradation and negatively impact the riparian communities and artisanal fishermen, whose productive activities and rights of access to water are restricted. For these communities, the river is a means of passing down and exchanging knowledge between generations. However, their knowledge and practices are not recognized in the dominant governance processes over the Magdalena River. In an interview with Juan Carlos Gutiérrez-Camargo, environmental activist, researcher and companion of artisanal fishermen, we illustrate the universe of epistemologies and worldviews of these communities. We discuss, from a legal-pluralism perspective, the contradictions between state norms and authorities, parastatal powers, and the customary rights of fishing communities. We analyze how the simultaneous presence of various authorities and the complex, unequal arena of legal, extra-legal and illegal forces, hinders enforcement of fishermen’s customary socio-legal repertoires and also of the Colombian Constitution to protect riverside communities’ human rights. The interview reflects on the great complexity of exercising community leadership, environmental protection and defense of artisanal fishing in the midst of a socio-normative political arena permeated by state abandonment and paramilitary violence. For this reason, the interview stresses the importance of recognizing artisanal fisher collectives as political subjects in river co-governance. It also highlights the ambivalent implications of granting rights to nature and rivers: their meaning, functions and impact depend on their political trajectory and mobilization by grassrooted collectives. Finally, Gutiérrez proposes strengthening knowledge networks to bolster river co-governance where the political-cultural and socio-normative frameworks of riverside communities play a preponderant role.
Rutgerd Boelens (2021). Largescale water infrastructure, territorial transformation and water rights dispossession. In Elgar Encyclopedia of Environmental Law (pp. 425-437). Ed. Joseph Dellapenna & Joyeeta Gupta. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, Cheltenham and Camberley, UK and Northampton MA, USA.
ABSTRACT: This chapter uses a political ecology approach to examine how large dams and megahydraulic infrastructure in many parts of the world dispossess smallholder families and communities of their water and water rights, transforming and disintegrating territories environmentally and socially. It deploys the notion of ‘hydraulic property creation’ to look at the relationships among hydraulic infrastructure development and changing water rights frameworks. It contrasts mega-hydraulic projects that separate designer-builder and user worlds, and user-developed hydraulic systems. It presents important points of attention for more people- and nature-inclusive water governance and hydraulic intervention projects that build on social and environmental justice.
photo by Laura Giraldo-Martinez