Water Culture Matters (especially in Brazil)


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Managing water and water governance, is also to manage cultural activities, cultural memories and media representations. Therefore, to find the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies, at the University of Warwick, very open to stretching and defining what counts as ‘cultural policy’ opens up new ways of thinking about what has recently been termed ‘hydro-citizenship’ by the AHRC funded project running from Bath-Spa University, led by co-author Prof Owain Jones. (His work on ‘tree-cultures’ for example influenced the research I did in the Forest of Dean on Dennis Potter’s TV fans, extras and audiences in the forest).


But, I digress. The last two years have found me exploring not simply why water culture matters in the UK (where institutionalisation of both cultural and water industries may obscure access to a clear understanding of the importance of rivers, flooding and drought to the nation, to regions, to those living with too much or without water) but to the trans-national and trans-cultural connectivity of water stories.


Why Brazil?

Water culture really matters to the Brazilian colleagues and social actors I have met in São Paulo State and in the State of Minas Gerais. As part of the Narratives of Water project, I have been working with Dr Danilo Rothberg of Unesp, to find connections and disconnections between how water is managed as an economic and cultural resource and how the management of water is represented and communicated through media and cultural activities.

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Developing hydro-citizenship in the Brazilian context is very much participatory in those ‘water councils’ that conjoin the social, cultural and economic. The Manuelzao Project (Worldwide Movement for Rivers) on the das Velhas River (Belo Horizonte) is a good example of this. Abers and Keck (2013, 187) in Practical Authority: Agency and Institutional Change in Brazilian Water Politics, note the connection between social movements, activism, political popularity and media mobilisation at a local water basin scale for river revitalisation. To move from armchair to policy and action meant ‘creating organizations with the capacity to implement projects, to mobilize complex, diverse networks of actors, and to communicate with a broader public’ and all this requires gaining access to media, occupying spaces where decisions are made, and insisting that water is not only understood through a hydrological, hydraulic and economic perspective.

In fact, I am reminded by my Brazilian colleague Prof Gilson Schwartz from USP that Jean-Jacques Rousseau made this point quite some time ago, concerning how water creates community because it requires co-operation, communication, social interaction and dialogue if its use, quality and availability are to be sustained as an emotional as much as an economic benefit:


‘There the first ties between families formed; there were the first rendezvous of the sexes. Young women came to fetch water for the household, young men came to water their herds. Their eyes accustomed to the same objects since childhood began to have softer ones. The heart was moved by these new objects, an unknown attraction made it less savage, it felt the pleasure of not being alone. Water became imperceptibly more necessary, the livestock were thirsty more often; one arrived hurriedly and left regretfully. There were held the first fêtes, feet leapt with joy, the impressed gesture no longer sufficed, the voice accompanied it with impassioned accents, pleasure and desire mixed together made themselves felt at the same time. There was finally the true cradle of civilizations, and from the pure crystal of the fountains rose the first fires of love’ (Essai sur l’origine des langues où il est parlé de la mélodie et de l’imitation musicale, translated and cited in ‘Diverting Water in Rousseau: Technology, the Sublime, and the Quotidian’ by Julia Simon, 2012, p. 87)


My visit to Brazil last month was, then, full of meetings and presentations at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of São Paulo (USP), and at São Paulo State University. Where I discussed the RCUK DRY Project currently underway and explored the ‘anecdotes, stories and narratives’ of drought that have had such an impact on British collective memory and mediated representations of hot weather, current dry spells and discussions of drought among differently invested stakeholders and publics. A significant part of the DRY Project is not only public engagement but co-production of knowledge about drought through memories, storytelling and imagining future scenarios. In Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility, Gregory and Miller state that ‘lay people mobilise a broad array of tools to solve problems through science, culture, emotion, ethics, morality, trust relationships, and customs. These may be small tools…but they cut through the tangle of contemporary existence and produce solutions that sit more easily with people’s lives and consciences’ [1998, p. 65].


As the UK press publishes more stories of water shortage, after a dry winter 2016-2017 and low rainfall in April 2017, citizen scientists through blogs and discussion postings are creating their own platforms for debate, mobilising social media tools at local and meaningful levels. While the press addresses the issue quickly through shorthand templates of hosepipe bans, balmy weather, blazing headlines and reference to 1976, we do need to address the complexity of understanding drought in terms of an absence of culture as much as an absence of water, or at least make the case that if water is absent then it is not only due to something much larger and global that we may feel we cannot do anything about such as climate change. If water and culture and memory are so intimately connected, then drought is some kind of forgetting, drought is forgotten where the mediatization of flood provides spectacular copy.

jo image for blog may 2017 3I have had many discussions in Brazil over the last ten days about how drought is framed in news. My colleagues, there, are of course surprised by the lack of ‘politics’ to the UK framing of drought in terms of discussion of WHO is exactly using the water, and that hot weather is often welcomed in a way that misses the point about how water is or should be managed even in a country that is associated with wetness and flood. Brazilians have an interesting phrase I often heard at various meetings. ‘It is not that we don’t have water, we do have water, lots of it, it is just missing.’ There is also a famous Brazilian geographer who said ‘seca’ (drought) is not the problem but ‘cercas’ (fences), the point being to emphasise ownership of land and the management of resources as far more important to the debate than endless surprise that it’s a dry spell. Any shame and blame often directed at domestic users in media stories must be thoroughly and critically understood through the ‘moralities of drought’ framework, especially if the majority of water is being used elsewhere. So we need to return to water, we need to turn the benches alongside the river around so they face the water, and remember its cultural value; and in the meantime we have in November 2017 in Brazil, a social action for connecting to global water movements through the work of Waterlution who are planning a water festival for young people.


It is also worth reading two British books on drought often forgotten (the first more so than the second): The Great Drought(1976) by Evelyn Cox tells the ‘true’ story of 1976 from the perspective of a young mother and farmer: ‘The drought divided us into two nations – those whose lives were deeply, at times dangerously disrupted, and those to whom the drought was at most an over-publicized inconvenience. The drought provided, for those caught up in it, a common, shared experience unlike any other in Britain since the Blitz. I hope it will be useful to have an immediate record of what the drought was like, before we begin to forget it or before – which is more probably – we begin to embroider our memories into myths’ (p. 9). There is also The Drought(1965) by JG Ballard. ‘The drought at the heart of The Drought is cultural. Culture is withering. In the guise of rainfall, old social and political meanings run down to the sea and are decreasingly renewed. Where the land seemed fertile, its inhabitant can now admit that it is exhausted.’ John Harrison’s introduction to The Drought (2009). Both, in different ways, conjoin water with culture and memory, as the key female character of Ballard’s novel notes: ‘Catherine gazed out at the exposed lake-bed. “It’s almost dry. Don’t you feel, doctor, that everything is being drained away, all the memories and stale sentiments?’”

Dr Joanne Garde-Hansen



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