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Workshop I: Anthropology of and for River Deltas, 23.-24. August, 2016


Whose deltas? What is amphibious life? And what is a delta anyway?

We have just run a very exciting inaugural workshop for the project, which not only gave us a lot to think about, but also confirmed to us that we are on to something unique. Under the title of “Anthropology of and for river deltas,” we discussed for two days (August 23-24, 2016) how such an anthropological approach might be conceived. 

We started off with Franz introducing the general aims of the DELTA project, pointing out that it looks into three classic dimensions of social research – water/land use; mobility (of people and landscapes); and belonging (in the sense of both property relations and sense of place) – but narrows these down by two foci – on water/hydrosociality on the one hand, and volatility/creativity on the other. 

Our first guest to speak was Atsuro Morita from Osaka University, who discussed his thoughts on “Revisiting multispecies infrastructure: changing multispecies rhythms in the Chao Phraya Delta” with us. Adding to his recently published work on floating rice as infrastructure in the Thai Chao Phraya Delta, he shared his thoughts about the temporality of infrastructures (drawing inspiration from Mauss’s study on Inuit seasonality) and the importance of flows other than that of water, especially that of soil, which is  accelerating quickly in the Delta. It became clear that as the rhythms of different infrastructures resonate and conflict with various possible multispecies relations in the delta; for instance, the hydrosocial rhythms that enable the production of three rice crops a year are detrimental for the newly popular paddy fishing. 

Benoit then introduced us to different historical and geographical stages of infrastructuring in the Ayeyarwady Delta in Myanmar, distinguishing horizontal and vertical expansion of infrastructures. Entitled “Perspectives on the modes and effects of infrastructuring the Ayeyarwady Delta,” his presentation explicitly probed into the rhythmpatterns engendered by different infrastructures. The discussion centered especially around the positionality of social actors within infrastructural arrangements, the likely controversies over priorities in infrastructuring spacetimes, and the situated knowledges and practices of people affected by and affecting delta infrastructures. Benoit emphasized that it needs multi-sited ethnography to begin to understand these complex relations.  

Subsequently, Sandro took us on a reflective journey “On attending and representing flows in the Tana Delta.” Introducing the Kenyan Tana Delta as a fluid space, both in terms of water and sediments and in terms of unstable meanings and relations, he pondered ways of understanding such a space inspired by semiotic and anthropological approaches, among others Kohn’s work. In experimenting with an epistemology for amphibious life, Sandro probed into the trope of multidirectional flows that make forces and places, and that of sedimentation with its homologues in learning, emergence, dislocation, fertility and waste.

Nora’s discussion of “Rhythm, relation and memory in the Parnaíba Delta” presented the Brazilian Parnaíba Delta as shaped by volatilities and rhythms, including those of the tides and of historically changing economic opportunities. She noticed the difficulty in eliciting the social and cultural life of an area that is represented in the published literature mostly through a natural science perspective. Nora went on to probe into the question of memory in a volatile environment, where inhabitants have been described as ‘without memory’, perhaps because their memorial and forgetful practices cannot be recognized through mainstream memory frameworks. We discussed the relation of this invisibility with the role of deltas as anarchic spaces of the Other.

The afternoon took off with Franz’s presentation entitled “Livelihoods, identities and hydrology: toward a holistic approach to multiple volatilities in the Mackenzie Delta, Canada.” He sketched some of the ever-changing dynamics that have characterised life in the Mackenzie Delta over the past century, and suggested that these different dynamics can be considered holistically by focusing on the rhythmic temporality: boom-and-bust cycles in economic development, ethnic hybridisation and revival of essentialisms, and the seasonal and historical transformations of waters in the delta. Franz explained that the term ‘volatility’ – established in both financial and climate discourses– may open up the conceptual space needed to rethink life in a changing world beyond the more common frameworks of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’, that retain (if often implicit) a bias towards equilibrium/homeostasis.

Next, we discussed three questions building on the morning presentations in small groups with shifting membership, a so-called Open Space exercise. The questions were:

  • What dialogues can we identify or create between infrastructures/infrastructuring and rhythms/temporality?
  • How to work with or approach memory in volatile and rhythmic places?
  • If everything flows and interrelates – how to categorise, draw boundaries and account for cause and effect?

After more than an hour of discussing, we had raised at least as many more questions as we had found answers, but we did feel we had started to get our heads around some of the core conceptual and methodological challenges of the project.

During the remainder of the afternoon, we had the chance to learn about two other research projects at the University of Cologne that relate to water, wetness and amphibious life. Benjamin Casper, a doctoral candidate in geography with a background in architecture, presented a paper entitled “The Chao Phraya Delta - Amphibious Urban Morphology.” We learned about different housing types in relation to water, and about urban developments in Bangkok, sometimes in resonance with, at other times in spite of the area’s amphibiousness.

Afterwards, Matian van Soest, doctoral candidate in anthropology, presented an overview of the multidisciplinary project “GlobE - Wetlands in East Africa: Chances and Challenges of Wetland Agriculture,” especially the research on wetlands in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda that he and two other anthropologists at the University of Cologne were involved in. Among many other things, we learned about the entanglements of wetland use in all sorts of different domains, including public health (e.g. malaria), food production and discussions of ‘ecosystem services’. We also discussed some of the joys and challenges of anthropologists working in large interdisciplinary projects. 

Having not fully recovered from this intense first day, we headed straight into the second, with Tanya Richardson’s (Wilfrid Laurier University) presentation on “Sedimental Journeys: Politics, Poetics, and Place in Ukraine’s Danube Delta.” She reflected on her research experience in the Delta, especially in Vilkovo, often dubbed as the “Ukrainian Venice.” Originally expecting fieldwork to be mostly about and on water, Tanya summarises that her research was “blocked by flow, and unblocked by avulsion” – life in the Danube Delta is not all about water, but about a host of other things, too, including sediments. Probing into ‘ecopoetic’ writing about delta life, Tanya structured part of her talk along the terms ‘scraping’, ‘salt plains’, ‘hiding and seeking’, and ‘slowing’, which led to a lively discussion about the uses and abuses of watery metaphors, and about the potential of ecopoetics to experiment with new ideas and create empathy for delta inhabitants’ issues, rather than formulating policy recommendations. 

The rest of the morning we discussed the processes by which an area becomes a delta. This was based on Atsuro’s summary of the international and interdisciplinary research project “Deltas’ dealings with uncertainty: Multiple practices and knowledges of delta governance (DoUbT),” in which he has a central role. This project traces knowledge networks in delta governance and aims to formulate policy recommendations as part of its research outputs. Emerging findings include the fact that the delta as a concept, as well as the hydrological models to frame and scientifically understand deltas, have emerged in particular parts of the world, and spread across the globe with colonialism and international development. The vast majority of hydrological models and associated technologies, in particular, come from Denmark and the Netherlands. Deltas must therefore be seen as scientific, technological and administrative entities which are being spread as travelling ideas and models; in the process, local knowledges and practices are reorganised around the notion (and spatial/hydrological entity) of a ‘delta’. Western European expertise is ‘deltafying’ the world.

This insight provided an important impetus for our final discussion on the workshop’s overall question: What should an anthropology of and for river deltas look like? And what should it do? We organised this discussion in a format inspired by the World Café method. Only when we had run well into the time scheduled for lunch, we ended this discussion with many ideas on how to continue thinking about this, but few (if any) conclusive answers to our initial questions. Let us summarise three clusters of thoughts that figured prominently:

  • The question to what extent ‘delta’ is the appropriate frame of reference: given the peculiar history of deltas as socio-spatial entities, we have to be aware of the politics of knowledge behind our categories, careful in finding out what references matter locally, and open to the possibility that deltas might not turn out to be what we think they are.
  • The question of the audience or public: in formulating an anthropology with useful implications for delta inhabitants, we have to critically identify who the groups and persons are that we are working with, and for whom these insight are to be useful. For instance, we need to ask whose knowledge we are representing, whose interests this serves, whose frameworks we are employing, whose language we are using, etc.
  • The question of amphibiousness: agreeing that a defining feature of delta life is its positionality in between wet and dry, water and land, floods and droughts, we must find ways to attune our ethnographic attention to the specific features of such amphibious experience, for instance its rhythms; key for this is to acquire the networks and skills to accompany people in the water, in their boats, on the dikes and in the mud, alongside the more conventional research localities such as porches, living rooms, plazas and cafés.

After this productive discussion, we walked to the centre of Cologne, where we followed a guided tour on water in the city, entitled “Aqua Colonia – Not just Eau de Cologne.” The guide, as much informative as enthusiastic, walked with us from the cathedral, along streets and across squares, to the Rhine, and helped us appreciate the wet history of Cologne: from the Roman 100 km long drinking water supply channel and elaborate sewage system, to the medieval trade routes (for instance in relics) along the Rhine, spectacular floods, and the drop of the groundwater level due to increased extraction, nearby mining and the re-engineering of the Rhine, among many other things, not least of which the local brew, Kölsch, of which we enjoyed a glass or two after the successful workshop.   


If you are interested in some of the ‘live’ notes from the workshop, have a look at #deltaworkshop on Facebook and Twitter