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Report: Workshop on Water in Asia

19. Mär. 2015

"Epistemologies of Water in Asia" was the title of an international workshop organised by Dr. Ravi Baghel on behalf of research project MC9 "Waterscapes in Transcultural Perspective". In December 2014, a group of young scholars met at the Karl Jaspers Centre to discuss the epistemologies of water in regard to the three aspects discourses, controversies, and semantics.

In the following report, Lea Stepan and Ravi Baghel review the workshop.


On December 13 and 14, 2014 our Research Group hosted the second international workshop organized by Dr. Ravi Baghel in Heidelberg. We invited a small group of 12 early career researchers, post-doctoral fellows, and PhD candidates. Together with two participating professors of the project and the projects’ two PhD candidates we constituted a diverse group bringing together diverse disciplines (anthropology, human geography, cultural studies, philosophy, sociology, area studies and development studies) from 12 leading institutions around the globe. The young scientists were coming from SOAS, UCL, LSE and Robert Gordon University in the UK, Yale University, Tel-Aviv University, Università degli Studi di Milano, University of Tübingen, McMaster University Canada, ZEF University of Bonn, Boğazici University Istanbul and Heidelberg University to gather in the Karl Jaspers Centre and discuss their current work and develop further research questions pertaining to the ‘Epistemologies of Water in Asia’.

Group of workshop participants in front of the Karl Jaspers Centre Heidelberg

The underlying idea of the workshop was the premise that there is something distinct to water, to water experiences and water knowledges in Asia. A closer look at the experiences with, and the diverse meanings of water are worth deeper examination especially as water is widely considered as sacred and large parts of Asia are facing a serious water crisis and/or environmental destruction (shortage, pollution, flooding). The centrality of water in everyday practices of life shapes the knowledge about it. The loss of knowledge, absence of knowledge, altered knowledge, uncertainties, shifts, and other aspects influence the way in which water lives in our lives, how meanings of water are negotiated and travel between different knowledge systems. The aim of the workshop was to tackle these issues and get a better understanding of how we can best describe the epistemologies of water in Asia. Furthermore, it raised the question of any analytical implications that can be traced from the findings that challenge or request to re-examine our own scientific epistemologies.

The workshop was opened with an innovative Academic Speed Dating session. This proved to be the foundation for a fruitful workshop atmosphere as each participant learned about the various backgrounds and interests of their fellow researchers. This created a familiar group feeling and a productive working spirit that stimulated further discussions and future collaborations. The two-day workshop was structured into three panels, discourses, controversies, and semantics. The second day each panel small-group discussed commonalities, differences and contributions for the final concluding discussion.


Participants in discussion

Naranjana Ramesh, PhD candidate at UCL, opened the panel session on discourses with her presentation on desalination plants in London and Chennai. She compares these new technologies and strategies of sustainability and claims that water mediates politics of knowledge, and that discourses of sustainability need to be contextualized. Ricki Levi, a philosopher from Tel Aviv University, presented her work on the philosophy of water in Rajasthan, where she is investigating philosophy and technology of water conservation, wells and other waterbodies. Dr. Vera Lazzaretti, of Università degli Studi di Milano, also conducted research on wells in India. She argues that a dispute over a well between local Muslims and Hindus and the resulting new management created a manufactured heritage that impacted and altered the knowledge and practices connected to the well. The panel ended with Lea Stepan (MC 9.3, PhD candidate) of Heidelberg University presenting on kinaesthetic knowledge in irrigation practices and current perceptions of water in the context of organic rice farming in Bali. Georgie Carroll, a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London, contributed to this panel with her poster on eco-aesthetics of water as it is depicted in Indian courtly poetry. The contributions in this panel engaged with various actors and the different discourses on water, the interminglings, negotiations, conflicts, shifts that occur at the interface of ‘the epistemologies of water’.


Dialogue during coffee break

The focus of the presentations in the second panel on controversies was laid on the fact that the different epistemologies of water create controversies about the daily practices and what is actually labelled as expert knowledge. Dr. Heather O’Leary, McMaster University, argued that water, while moving between different social classes in Delhi, has a symbolic meaning as currency, whose value rapidly changes with time. Whereas Heather O’Leary figures boundaries of management between social classes, Dr. Joe Hill found such boundaries pertaining the management of irrigation across high mountain valleys of Asia. He was part of Crossroads Asia programme at University of Bonn and according to him the circulation of knowledge about irrigation techniques is hindered and blocked along the artificial state borders. Instead single development interventions are favoured which are interpreted as the personal achievement of local village personalities to attract and receive development funds. Finally Aditya Gosh, Heidelberg University, presented his research about the embankments at the Indian Sundarbans and the resulting controversies between the local residents and conservation initiatives. This panel was rounded off by a poster by Dr. Sabrina Habich (University of Tübingen) on the implementation of central water policies at local level in Yunnan Province, China, and another poster by Marielle Velander (London School of Economics) on her current research on discourses and controversies surrounding disaster management after heavy flooding in Kashmir.


In the third, and final, panel on semantics, Luisa Cortesi, PhD candidate at Yale University, examined the embodied value of embankments, as physical, cultural, and political walls where safety is assumed but never assured. She presented her fieldwork about shifting responsibilities that are caused by a lack of knowledge about introduced or configured technologies and challenge techniques and modes of knowing safe and healthy drinking water. A rather different approach was taken by Dr. J. H. Blake who researched power structures of water supply and irrigation management in Thailand and considers the current regency of the Thai king as a form of Wittfogel’s hydraulic despotism. The last presenter of the panel was Dr. Leslie Mabon (Robert Gordon University Aberdeen) discussed the ways in which uncertainties about radioactive contamination are created and mediated after the Fukushima disaster. This panel on semantics also included two poster presentations, one by Frances Niebuhr (MC 9.2, PhD Candidate) Heidelberg University, about her current research on the dialectic interconnections and ascribed meanings between a big hydropower project, the re-location of the temple of the local goddess of the stream and a major flood event in the area of Uttarakhand, India that triggered diverse discourses and ascribed semantics. The second poster by Amelie Huber (Bogazici University) examined the socio-political implications of a hydropower project in the eastern Himalayas.

Lively discussion in small groups during the workshop

Concluding Discussion

In a concluding discussion the participants developed some key questions for future research on the theme of the workshop. Beyond pragmatic research matters and questions, the discussion addressed the manner in which research insights affected and deconstructed analytical and epistemological implications of research with water. One common question that emerged was whether, and to what extent the engagement with water could open a new tool box that would help to challenge or recalibrate common hermeneutics and epistemologies of water.

One prospect for future collaborations that emerged out of this two-day workshop is a planned edited volume, which will address these and other issues that came up in the concluding discussion. Dr. Ravi Baghel has already received an offer by Routledge to publish this volume in their Earthscan Series, and the book is now at the planning stage.

Additional Information

About the workshop

The workshop "Epistemologies of Water in Asia" took place at the Karl Jaspers Centre at Heidelberg University from December 13-14, 2014.

About the organiser

The workshop was organised by Dr. Ravi Baghel on behalf of the interdisciplinary research group MC9 "Waterscapes in Transcultural Perspective" coordinated by Prof. Dr. Marcus Nüsser and Prof. Dr. Jörg Gengnagel. Dr. Ravi Baghel is a postdoctoral researcher working in the Project MC 9.1 "Himalayan Glaciers".

About the authors

The report was written by Lea Stepan together with Ravi Baghel.

Lea Stepan is PhD candidate with project MC9 "Waterscapes". Special interest in her Ph.D. project is laid on recently perceived problems of water scarcity and pollution caused by transformation processes like the growing tourist industry in Bali.


Blog Post: The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) published a report of the workshop by Marielle Velander on its blog. Marielle Velander presented a poster at the workshop. She studies Anthropology and Development at LSE.

Workshop Poster: Download the poster announcing the workshop.