Unquiet Waters: Environmental Knowledges and Technologies in India


Luisa Cortesi

PhD defended at: 

Yale University


My book manuscript, which I will finish by the summer 2019, traces the ways in which the flood-affected rural inhabitants of North Bihar, India, survive and get to know their increasingly difficult waters, whether these engorge rivers, arrive as a sudden inundation, collect in stagnant ponds, or find their way into technologies of water extraction and eventually into drinking glasses. This project examines the factors that inform behavioral and cognitive experiences of a frequently dangerous environment, perceptions of risk and pollution, and attitudes towards technological change. My research demonstrates how knowledge(s) of water, and of the technologies used to manage it, are not simply focused on coping with a changing environment, but are the conduits through which competing priorities of social status are negotiated. As a result, this project refines commonly used concepts such as disaster and vulnerability, environmental knowledge and justice, as well as basic categories such as water and dirt.
Unquiet Waters starts by ethnographically disproving assumptions about floods, which are either romanticized as a way of life or abstracted as a disaster. Surprisingly, even official designations of floods as a disaster do not depend on the amount of water present, nor on how destructive the flooding is in terms of loss of life or livelihoods. The category of disaster instead is defined by concepts of space, civilization, and governance, both engendering and justifying different experiences of citizenship across the landscape. Yet calling an inundation a disaster determines interventions from the state and international agencies, and therefore impacts the ways in which the affected people categorize, live through, and recover from floods.
The central part of the book narrates the unexpected ways in which water is understood, and therefore conceptually distinguished from, other substances with which it is in close material and ontological proximity, such as soil. Based on the fact that these fundamental distinctions are not shared across cultural groups, my research suggests the usefulness of thinking about water in more diverse and robust ways than H2O. The next chapter discusses mud, a mix of water and soil that is valuable for farming as well as for discriminating people. A sign of success on the farmer’s clothes, mud nevertheless means dirtiness and stagnation for his wife, who forbids her children from learning the life-saving skill of swimming in the river, therefore decreasing their resilience and preparedness. Yet the actual presence of mud is immaterial: discriminated people are seen as “muddy” and therefore dirty, even when obsessively clean. My research findings upset common assumptions about local knowledge and its strategic effectiveness in prioritizing survival, as it is often secondary to other considerations such as social aspirations and prestige. This indicates that water- and disaster-related policies cannot gloss over issues of social organization and justice as resources for disaster management.
The final section of the book investigates why local inhabitants across the social spectrum drink water they consider dirty, which smells foul and negatively impacts their health, yet which they still define it as “the best.” How do people choose which water to drink in a situation characterized by dirty waters, conflicting information from multiple knowledge-holders, and competing technologies of water extraction and purification? The reason why people outsource their knowledge of water to businesses and politicians they do not trust can be traced through the technology itself. At the historical intersection of the politics of knowledge and the decline of caste, technologies of water extraction are machines that provide access not necessarily to “improved” water, but to social power. These machines function by transforming power across scales, from macro-electoral politics into locally meaningful patronage and affiliation. In so doing, technologies are effective in hierarchizing sources of knowledge and masking with prestige the taste of the water they source.
My research joins a flourishing body of scholarship on challenging environments by questioning conventions in the study of human-nature relationships. In the wake of climate change, I confute ideas of environmental knowledge as embodied and effective skills for surviving in a set environment. In contrast with theories of adaptation, the lessons from North Bihar show how recurrent exposure to challenging conditions does not necessarily improve the ability of local people to overcome environmental challenges. Even when people know their surroundings intimately, repeated exposure to this kind of hardship integrates it with other social struggles and normalizes its negative consequences. It is by tracing the epistemic value of political, environmental, and technological change within the mechanisms of knowledge formation and negotiation, as well as by narrating the functioning of knowledge through its ontological and affective peculiarities, that we can comprehend categories of risk, adaptation, and vulnerability, and how they inform concrete actions.
This ethnographic study defines and uses new spatial or geographic categories for the study of Indian society in addition to caste, class, religion, and gender, all variables closely examined in my research. This perspective was verified by the large area considered: while rivers or watersheds are often used as units of analysis, my project bypasses these boundaries and investigates these issues across Bihar, in an area as large as Maryland and as populated as Texas, therefore overriding more small-scale features. Finding even more discriminatory principles of differentiation leads me to discuss imaginary disastrous futures beyond North Bihar and warn about increasing segregation practices as environmental conditions worsen.
To carry out this work I have drawn upon extended ethnographic research conducted for over three years after an analogous time in the area working as an applied anthropologist. Methodologically, I weave concerns of epistemologists in my qualitative data collection, but also include complex and participatory data on fluvial morphology, geological strata, and water quality. In terms of water quality, for example, villagers worked with me to measure iron using local tests with organic matter as a reagent; my field assistants and I tested water for several parameters, including iron and arsenic, through simple water quality kits made by an Indian NGO; I partnered with modern university laboratories to do standardized tests. I have learned to work with the multiple evidences that water and soil provide for informing us about their less-than-apparent qualities. This does not mean that I assume natural archives to be abstracted from human interactions, rather I insert them into ethnographic research strategies.