Warna River, India

The Warna River is a 150 km long tributary of the Krishna river in peninsular India. The minor ethnic and traditional communities share cultural, spiritual, social, and economic relationships with the natural resources shaped by the river. These communities were displaced twice, first for the establishment of the Chandoli National Park (biodiversity) and second for the Warna dam to provide water to the flourishing agriculture and sugarcane industrial belt located in the middle and lower reaches. The displaced communities (about 32 villages) were not fairly compensated by the state and many people had to migrate to cities and downstream locations for better livelihood options. Some of them joined the locally established social movement, Krantiveer Babuji Patankar Lok Shastriya va Prabhodhan Sanstha (KBPLSP) to gain fair compensatory rights. Through the local social movement, the displaced persons received land for subsistence farming, and they were also able to form water user associations in the area. The lower part of the basin is a progressive agriculture and sugarcane industrial belt, where most of the displaced communities have migrated and work as agriculture laborers. In the Warna basin, the tentacles of neoliberal modes of governance have replaced the traditional knowledge and changed the intricate relationship of the communities with the riverscapes, challenging their identities. The ethnic communities in the upper part of the Warna basin shared cultural and spiritual relationships with the forests and the rivers which were reflected in their daily practices to conserve them as commons. This research looks into the historical development in the basin and explores the different power and political regimes which have shaped the current river governing practices.

PhD researcher: Sarita Bhagat

Humans and the more-than/non-human entities like the river, materials, and multi-variant species constantly interact creating and maintaining multiple realities. Framing rivers within the relational dynamics construct new meanings, values, norms, and knowledges in the physical, social, institutional, cultural, and political spaces which define ‘hydrosocial territories’. Powerful and dominant actors, often transcending national jurisdictions, create social norms and local rules, which to a varying degree lead to marginalization and loss of voice of other groups of actors, with less power, including the non-human entity. In this process of epistemic violence and silencing, important knowledges, meanings and information can be lost which are important to manage and govern rivers. This research will unravel these emergent relational dynamics in the context of the Warna watershed in India, to make space for other epistemologies animated by social justice, dynamics around social movements and river imaginaries to create and co-govern the Warna river commons, safeguarding rights of nature that go beyond the current legal frameworks in India. The overall research focuses on concepts emerging from political ecology, mainly focusing on notions of power relations and governmentality and actor-network theory. A qualitative research approach will be applied, with empirical and experiential field evidence to support my research, which includes creative and transformative learning methods to collect data.

Magdalena River – Ciénegas of the bajo-Magdalena, Colombia

The Ciénagas of the bajo-Magdalena form a dynamic swamp ecosystem with a mix of water from the Cauca and Magdalena rivers. The area is considered an important ecosystem and water buffer during extreme hydrological events. Moreover, the area is seen as vulnerable to climatic variability in the context of climate change and La Niña/El Niño episodes. Throughout the region, several adaptation projects have been implemented and shared as success stories of nature-based adaptation. These projects vary from social-cohesion projects to infrastructural projects. The development of hydrological models, together with participatory activities have informed the implementation of adaptation measures, both through grassroots initiatives and governmental support. Current debates on the future of the river and marshlands include ideas around the navigability of the river, ecosystem services of the river, fish-friendly rivers, and reforestation initiatives.

PhD researcher: Lotte de Jong

Climate change adaptation has influenced river management through an anticipatory governance paradigm. As such, futures and the power of knowing the future have become increasingly influential in water management. Yet, multiple future imaginaries co-exist, where some are more dominant than others. In this PhD research, the focus is on deconstructing the future-making process in climate change adaptation by asking “what future-making tools and practices in the context of climate change adaptation influence river infrastructure for the Meuse and Magdalena rivers?”. Firstly, this investigation explores existing river imaginaries of diverse epistemic communities in both case studies. Secondly, it explores how imaginaries are materialized in tools and practices for climate change adaptation. It herein focuses on numerical models and participatory practices. Thirdly, this research explores how dominant imaginaries are contested and mobilized in climate change adaptation. The power of future-making is approached through a combination of Foucault and Butler’s conceptualization of power. Imaginaries are approached through a science and technology lens in combination with hydrosocial territories, and the imaginary holders are approached through the concept of epistemic communities. A focus on empirical research methods will guide theoretical findings. Finally, a reflection on researcher’s own positionality in action-research will be presented – which will be an iterative process of learning and unlearning while navigating between the natural and social sciences.

Meuse River – Border-Meuse river section, The Netherlands

The Border-Meuse (Dutch: Grensmaas) section of the river Meuse forms the border between Belgium and The Netherlands. The Meuse enters The Netherlands below Maastricht and is named the ‘Grensmaas’ between the Borgharen dam and the Linne dam. In between, the river is free-flowing and considered natural. This section of the Meuse is not used for navigation and has seen substantial changes through the last decade through the implementation of the Grensmaas project. The Grensmaas project has nearly been implemented and is one of the success stories of climate change adaptation through nature-based solutions in The Netherlands. The riverbed has been widened through gravel extraction and nature can develop in the floodplains to increase water safety. Multiple ideas on how the ideal future river should look have been developed, which are shaped and reshaped by participatory and modeling practices. The materialized end-product is the result of negotiating these ideas. Current debates on the future of the river include ideas around the rights of nature/rivers, fish-friendly rivers, climate adaptation, and river quality initiatives.

PhD researcher: Lotte de Jong

Climate change adaptation has influenced river management through an anticipatory governance paradigm. As such, futures and the power of knowing the future have become increasingly influential in water management. Yet, multiple future imaginaries co-exist, where some are more dominant than others. In this PhD research, the focus is on deconstructing the future-making process in climate change adaptation by asking “what future-making tools and practices in the context of climate change adaptation influence river infrastructure for the Meuse and Magdalena rivers?”. Firstly, this investigation explores existing river imaginaries of diverse epistemic communities in both case studies. Secondly, it explores how imaginaries are materialized in tools and practices for climate change adaptation. It herein focuses on numerical models and participatory practices. Thirdly, this research explores how dominant imaginaries are contested and mobilized in climate change adaptation. The power of future-making is approached through a combination of Foucault and Butler’s conceptualization of power. Imaginaries are approached through a science and technology lens in combination with hydrosocial territories, and the imaginary holders are approached through the concept of epistemic communities. A focus on empirical research methods will guide theoretical findings. Finally, a reflection on the researcher’s own positionality in action-research will be presented – which will be an iterative process of learning and unlearning while navigating between the natural and social sciences.

Magdalena River, Colombia

The construction of ecological restoration strategies, carried out in the Middle Magdalena River by the NGO Fundación Alma together with artisanal fishers, establishes negotiation and agreement processes with the actors present in the territory. These strategies seek to mitigate ecological degradation from river diversion works and oil- and agro-industrial infrastructures and vindicate fishers’ communities as political subjects with economic, cultural and decision-making rights over the resources of the river. The building and development of these ecological restoration strategies, as well as the relations between fishers and other actors in the Middle Magdalena that result from such strategies, have not been studied in detail.

PhD researcher: Juliana Sandoval

Given the described background, the research on the Magdalena River poses the main question: How do the Middle Magdalena fishing communities’ agro-ecological river restoration processes build on interwoven artisanal peasant-fishing norms, practices, and strategies, and how are these negotiated and disputed with different actors in the river’s hydrosocial territory? First, the divergent understandings of the hydrosocial territory of the Magdalena’s middle basin will be examined through critical mapping and socio-spatial analysis of the different stakeholders’ ontologies, interests, and strategies regarding restoration. Second, the different infrastructures present in the Middle Magdalena will be investigated in order to identify how they affect the river and have conflicts with alternative agro-ecological and fishing technologies. Third, the dynamics of legal pluralism of the fishing communities will be analyzed so to identify how they negotiate their own normative and techno-organizational strategies. Finally, a reflection on how artisanal fishing as an ecological restoration strategy can be understood as a process of fostering environmental justice will be presented.

Ping River, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The peasant farming system of the Chiangmai valley was established more than 700 years ago with the majority of agricultural communities located across the intermontane basins of the Upper Ping River. These lowland settlements of Chiangmai Valley and their subsistence livelihoods had been built based on animism belief, sustainable natural resources management with population control, strategic geographic locations, and landscape planning strategies. Muang Fai networks, the traditional nature-based irrigation systems was an essential community component in the rice fields of the valley to control the crop productions, population growth in the communities, due to water limitations in the region. These networks have long been operated locally by social networks and multilevel coordination within the river networks with local knowledge and spirit cult.

Today, The agricultural communities of Chiangmai valley have experienced substantial socioeconomic and political changes in the past century as a part of nation-building. The communities that were based on subsistence-oriented production with limited resources have transformed into agroindustry with modern irrigation schemes, tourism industry, and rapid urbanization. The water resources are no longer sufficient for everyone. This has also drastically altered the river ecology and the livelihoods of the locals who have inhabited along the Ping River and its tributaries for many centuries.

Sumapaz River Basin, Colombia

In the Sumapaz river basin, in Colombia, several projects related to mineral extraction, hydropower production, and nature conservation are underway. These interventions alter river landscapes and territorialities, leading to conflicts over access to and use of water. Local populations throughout the basin have mobilized to ensure their permanence in the territory while proposing alternatives to challenge dominant water governance schemes. There, agrarian movements claim rivers and water as part of their territory and identity and envision new discourses and meanings around rivers, in which water is conceived as central to sustaining life.

PhD researcher: Sebastian Reyes Bejarano

The research on the Sumapaz River Basin focuses on analyzing how river ecological fixes related to governance and technology interventions aimed at addressing the current environmental crisis transform river landscapes and territories. It addresses the emerging conflicts around rivers in the framework of these arrangements, pointing out their material and ontological dimensions. It seeks to highlight the alternative co-governance initiatives that emerge during commoning processes developed by agrarian movements mobilized for environmental and water justice.

Cauca River, Colombia

The Cauca department in Colombia is home to a series of territorial and ontological disputes between companies, politicians, and extra-legal actors that represent the neoliberal logic of accumulation on the one hand and indigenous, peasant, and Afro-Colombian communities that defend collective proposals of dignified territorial governance and river commoning on the other. Extractive industry based economies and market-driven hydro-governance were forced upon a wide range of territories around the Cauca River through techno-political-economic reconfiguration schemes, fostering mining of gold and construction material; sugar cane plantations; wood production for carton; coca plantations; and energy production and water regulation through hydroelectrical dams. These were already imposed under colonial rule and now continue to be part of the economic interests around the Cauca River, resulting in multiple disputes that reshape the prevailing hydrosocial territorial relationships.

This research project, therefore, investigates how rural communities around the Cauca river understand hydro-social justices, the strategies that they use to advance in their realization of ‘river commoning’ and the possible role that the recognition of the river as a political subject can play in strategies to advance hydro-social justice. The Paletará indigenous community in the municipality of Coconuco, for instance, wants to articulate this specific research with their legal and political actions aimed to receive recognition of its Environmental and Economic Territorial Authority as well as legal special protection of its territory, since the spring of the Cauca River is within the territory of Paletará. Next, this research also wants to articulate with the struggle for agrarian reform by peasant communities in Cajibio by questioning land and water concentration by hegemonic stakeholders who own thousands of hectares of non-edible products in the fertile valley of the Cauca River in the center of the department. Finally, Afro-Colombian communities in Santander de Quilichao have been dispossessed by the sugar cane industry and the hydroelectric dam La Salvajina. Their legal and political struggle is focused on reparation, land reform, and water justices. Together with the riverine communities, the specific research questions will be collectively identified, to articulate them to their livelihood and territorial needs and claims.

PhD researcher: Moritz Tenthoff

This specific research is embedded within the program of the Belgian solidarity organization Broederlijk Delen in Colombia. It combines the accompaniment of an Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and farmer community, all of which are organized through the Comité Ambiental por la Defensa de la Vida, el Agua y el Territorio,  and immersed in territorial disputes with extractive industries in the Cauca river basin, with academic research. The main question of this research is: How are three rural communities in a context of territorial and ontological disputes around the Cauca River disrupting disciplinary techniques and the accompanying epistemologies and ontologies by hydro-hegemonies to materialize proposals of autonomy and hydro-social and ecological justice?

uMngeni River, South Africa

UMngeni River is a river in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. UMngeni river rises in the KwaZulu Natal midlands, and its mouth is at Durban which is the third largest city in the country. The river passes three dams including Albert Falls which consists of pastoral landscape where stock farming and forestry are practiced, Nagle Dam passing through informal settlements with thin vegetation and the catchment passes through the Inanda Dam to the Indian Ocean (Dikole, 2014).

UMngeni river is the primary source of water for more than 3.5 million people and generates almost 65 percent of the provincial gross domestic product (State of the River Report UMngeni, 2002). Thus, the UMngeni region is one of major economic, cultural and ecological importance and engagement with river co-management work is necessary if all these needs and activities are to be sustainable and more equitably shared, with all perspectives and values of the river equally respected (State of the River Report UMngeni, 2002). Currently, this is not the case, as water demand in the uMngeni catchment has outstripped the river’s ability to supply, and it is inequitably shared with local Black communities most disenfranchised as a result of the contamination of the streams and waterways with raw sewage and pollution due largely to unsustainable human settlements, aging infrastructure and inadequate proactive and sustainable development planning, failing local government institutions and inadequate support for civic-based engagement and monitoring activities

PhD researcher: Paulose Mvulane

Freshwater sources are central to the sustenance of life, economies, and ecologies  (Anderson et al., 2019). Despite this recognition of the importance of water, water shortages and degrading of freshwater sources is still a common occurrence globally (Sultana, 2018).   In South Africa, there are water shortages and some parts of the country rely on rivers and other freshwater sources for water. With climate change, water shortages are expected to get worse because of recurrent extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and heatwaves. Community involvement is needed to face such situations because they are implementers and may hold significant knowledge, different perspectives, and the ability to challenge perspectives that have not contributed to solving their issues. It is of utmost importance that communities are able to carry forward the work of protecting their catchments even when the experts have left or projects have ended. Thus, catchments as Complex Adaptive Social Ecological Systems (CASES) involve relationality, in particular, they require learning-focused approaches for effective and responsive management (Cockburn et al., 2019).

Thus, there is a need to investigate and understand how riverine communities, especially those who are directly dependent on the river for their day-to-day water needs can be included in processes that are aimed at protecting and encouraging sustainable catchment use. There are a number of projects in South Africa that are aimed at the rehabilitation and management of catchments and other freshwater resources. This research project seeks to understand how to include those who are considered to be marginalized, namely the poor communities that suffer from river or catchment degradation into meaningful river co-governance and management.

Cuando River, Southern Africa

The Cuando/Kwando River is a transboundary river located in the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) in Southern Africa. It is shared by Angola, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia with its headwaters in Angola. Being central to KAZA TFCA, the river is crucial to the area as it provides drinking water to both the people and an array of wildlife species in the Area as well as providing fish as a source of protein to the people. As fishing is one of the activities common to the river, there is an unharmonized vision on fishery management as well as governance of the river from a local to a regional level. The research will be focused between countries, Namibia and Zambia which both lie in the middle of the river and the middle of Angola upstream and Botswana downstream.

PhD researcher: Chisala Lupele

River Governance is crucial for the Cuando/Kwando River due to the importance it serves to the Area. As the different riparian countries contribute to its governance, still an unharmonized vision on its management and governance has not been reached, especially with regular activities on the river such as fishing. Fishing is said to have both sustainable and unsustainable practices that contribute to river governance. These practices are often shared within and across fishing structures. This study investigates how a learning process (social learning) in and between fishing structures as ecologies of practices of Zambia and Namibia contribute to river governance of the Cuando/Kwando River. As a qualitative study, the research uses the Participatory Action Research approach in a social learning context and seeks to answer the research goal by addressing the cultural-discursive, material-economic and social-political dimensions of the fishing practice in and between local communities as well as in and between national to regional communities. This will be based by understanding the relationship between social learning and river governance in Southern Africa. The research further concludes with implications of the fishing practice on the river governance of the Cuando River. Data-generating methods to be used include, semi-structured interviews, and river co-learning arenas in the form of dialogue workshops catalysed by a river basin game on fishery management.

Cauvery delta, Tamil Nadu, India

The Cauvery delta is situated at the mouth of the 800 km-long Cauvery river. This delta, also known as the ‘rice bowl of southern India’, is composed of a complex network of distributaries that support an ancient irrigation system and an intensively cultivated region.

Today, it faces numerous anthropogenic and natural threats, like reduced surface flows, saltwater intrusion, and high-amplitude cyclones. These environmental changes are coupled with socio-economic issues like the propagation of commercial shrimp farming at the cost of agricultural land, rising unemployment, and the continued oppression of landless labourers.

Against this background, the delta is witnessing both confrontation to resist and reform hegemonic powers, as well as productive efforts to re-imagine and create new water management practices. In the Vennar command area, the state government started an internationally financed climate adaptation project in 2016. This is being contested by local actors, who perceive it to be increasing inequity and marginalization. Alongside efforts that challenge centralized developmental interventions, the delta has also seen grassroots efforts to manage water. For instance, there has been a proliferation of bottom-up government- and community-led tank rejuvenation initiatives to recharge groundwater. Inspired by the citizen movements and aiming to create open knowledge, ATREE has started a citizen science initiative to enable local citizens to collect groundwater data, analyze it and interpret it to tell their own story.

This research will probe the above developments in the delta and support efforts to democratize (what counts as) scientific data by adding knowledge into scientific circles and making data publicly available.

PhD researcher: Tanvi Agrawal

Within the landscape of studying rivers from a commons perspective, deltas can be seen as microcosms of the ‘hydrosociety’ at large. At the same time, they are highly vulnerable geographies and need special focus. Technocratic delta management strategies to ‘keep the water out’ have been largely unsuccessful and exclusionary, leading to the growing recognition of the need to learn to live with water in more inclusive and sustainable ways.

With an intention of exploring the challenges and possibilities for delta governance, this research focusses on the Cauvery delta, situated at the mouth of the 800km-long Cauvery river in Southern India.

As in any settled geography, there are several stakeholders of the delta, with varying understandings of (‘ontologies’) and aspirations for it. The power negotiations among these actors lead to infrastructural and governance interventions, which shape the water sinks and flows, in turn impacting the deltaic ecology and society.

Recognising that the story of water is determined by the variables that enact it, this research asks the question “what is the delta’s water”, as a prerequisite to thinking about “how to manage the delta’s water”. This research explores how the interconnections among people, nature (particularly the hydrology of surface water, groundwater, rainwater, and seawater), and technology in the delta are translated through its multi-layered geography. Understanding this veritable palimpsest of spaces makes for opportunities to address these challenges and plan for the future in this complex multi-layered geography.