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Overall project

Volatile waters and the hydrosocial Anthropocene in major river deltas


How do global crises – in water, economies and climate – manifest in people’s everyday lives? How do delta inhabitants negotiate the ongoing and accelerating volatility of water? And what are the similarities and differences in the predicaments of different major deltas around the world?

Based on ethnographic field research, the Volatile Waters project will develop an empirically rich account of the lives of current inhabitants of four socioeconomically and geographically different river deltas. In a period of rapid cultural and environmental transformations, research on the volatility of social and ecological processes provides an important contribution not only for understanding the dynamics of these transformations, but also for correcting common assumptions about solidity and stability of life on earth. Delta inhabitants can provide particularly well-positioned information about intense and changing water fluctuations. Deltas are increasingly recognised for their biological significance and as often densely populated areas, coupled with high social and ecological vulnerability to wider changes that frequently manifest themselves through changing water dynamics. In-depth insights from ethnographic fieldwork are necessary for supplementing and counterbalancing the current bias towards abstract and often numerical knowledge in discourses on water and global change.

The project will conduct four ethnographic studies with delta inhabitants, spread geographically across different world regions in order to grasp the large variety in hydrosocially volatile dynamics. Fieldwork will be carried out by the respective project member in the Mackenzie Delta (Canada), the Parnaiba Delta (Brazil), the Sine-Saloum Delta (Senegal) and the Ayeyarwady Delta (Myanmar/Birma).

Together, these studies will develop a better understanding of everyday life in deltas and provide significant insights into local manifestations of wider changes, including globalisation and climate change, through water in everyday life. They will also help to integrate the theoretical strands of “hydrosociality” and “anthropocene” approaches in anthropology and beyond. Finally, they will establish and develop a systematic and comparative anthropological approach to life in deltas, focusing on its conflicts and correspondences through and with water dynamics.