Overheating Seminar: “Water is Life" - Ethnographic reflections on well-being and prospection in Arequipa, Peru

Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen

PhD-fellow at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen; affiliated to the anthropological research projects “From Ice to Stone” and “Waterworlds”

In the city of Arequipa, located on the edge of the Atacama Desert in Southern Peru, water is a vital resource. The growing urban population of approximately 1 million inhabitants shares its waters with activities of agriculture, industry, tourism, hydropower and copper mining. Water sources are limited and as the demand for water grows, supply and distribution become contested issues. In recent years, the amount of conflicts related to water has increased.

Mining and industrial agriculture - two of the productive activities that have been driving the economic boom of Peru during more than a decade – are highly dependent on vast amounts of water. Increase in water-consumptive modes of production, as well as in the incomes from these activities, takes place at the same time as the Andean glaciers are melting at an increasing pace. The Peruvian State has responded to these processes with a new water law that states water to be a public good.

In this context, were multiple ways of knowing, doing and valuing water are played out simultaneously, the statement “water is life” is heard and seen repetitiously in manifold articulations, seeming to be the one thing all actors agree upon.

What kind of life does water make? What kinds of life are at stake? And why do so many actors publically insist on water being life?

In this presentation I lay out ethnographic expressions and analytical reflections based on my doctoral fieldwork in Arequipa in 2011; I examine how “water is life” emerges as an articulation of different notions of present and future well-being. I suggest to see “water is life” as a statement of political, material, economic dimensions that articulates a struggle between different ways of defining and making well-being. In this struggle, actors simultaneously position themselves critically to a present situation and prefigure possible future scenarios, in which anxiety about climate effects conflate with aspirations of economic and social prosperity.

Rather than concluding with a finished off analysis, the presentation will end in an invitation to discuss how to grasp and conceptualize water (or other elements / materials) as an ethnographic object; how to handle context with multiplicity; how to conceptualize differences within an urban waterscape.

Published June 4, 2013 9:20 AM - Last modified June 4, 2013 9:33 AM