Posted by: Johan Normark | March 13, 2012

An anthropocentric history of water

In her book on the meaning of water, Veronica Strang views the water management in the River Stour area in the English county of Dorset from many different perspectives. One of this is how the increased privatization of water sources has changed relations between different groups of people. Social fragmentation has led to a shift away from collective ownership and management into the hands of a small group of people that either “own the infrastructure and rights to abstract and supply water, or are empowered by specialized knowledge and expertise” (p 21). In this process, the wider population has become passive recipients in water management, often disenfranchised from participation.

The process began with the Roman invasion. Earlier Celtic use of water resources were low-key use. The Romans also introduced water wheels and mills which established the idea that water creates physical energy. Roman aqueducts were destroyed by “Barbarians” and this is by Strang seen as a revolutionary act targeting the colonizing force of the Romans. In medieval times the well, pond or ford became the heart of each village in the Stour valley. Village pumps became symbols for village continuity. Carrying water from the well became a reminder of its value. To carry water is to make it a part of you, to embody it.

Strang argues that women were one of the first groups that became disenfranchised from water control during this period. Since women usually were the water carriers made them the “bearers of life”. The village well was a female space. The invention of the technology to pump water was initiated and constructed by men. Male engineers slowly gained control of the water resources. Water was led to more individuated individual domestic spaces. These were the first steps towards the fact that most people became reliant on (male) technology and a commercial interaction with environment and resources. This is related to the idea that enclosure allows a “patriarchal control of Culture over female Nature”. Female roles became fewer and they were excluded from new economic activities as they became confined to the domestic sphere.

As population increased after medieval times land holdings were organized to maintain access to water courses. The Industrial Revolution and demographic mobility dissolved local structures surrounding earlier water management. More distant suppliers emerged and they became grand corporations and municipal institutions. Hence, over time water managements has lost agency and ownership. It is now a product of the water industry rather than the local women. Water is now only a commodity to be bought and sold.

Strang, Veronica (2004). The Meaning of Water. Berg.

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