Introduction — Thinking with Water

Professor Veronica Strang is an environmental anthropologist and is affiliated to Oxford University’s School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography.

Her research focuses on human-environmental relations and, in particular, people’s engagements with water. She has conducted research in Australia, the UK and New Zealand. She has held posts at the University of Oxford, the University of Wales, Goldsmiths University and the University of Auckland. Between 2012 and 2023 she was the Executive Director of the Institute of Advanced Study and Professor of Anthropology at Durham University. In 2000 she received a Royal Anthropological Institute Urgent Anthropology Fellowship, and in 2007 she was awarded an international water prize by UNESCO. In 2019 she was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. Key publications include Uncommon Ground: cultural landscapes and environmental values (Berg 1997); The Meaning of Water (Berg 2004); Gardening the World: agency, identity and the ownership of water (Berghahn 2009); Ownership and Appropriation (Berg 2010); and Water: nature and culture (Reaktion 2015). From 2013-2017 she was the Chair of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth.

Veronica’s recent research has focused on a major cross-cultural study of societies’ beliefs in water deities and how these illuminate different developmental trajectories in human-non-human relations. This has led to her most recent book, Water Beings: from nature worship to the environmental crisis (Reaktion 2023).


What could be more everyday than a cup of water – indeed, none of us would get through more than a day or two without it. But what a great choice it is as a container of meaning. This simple object connects every part of our lives, and every disciplinary, cultural and historical perspective. In a sense, it may be described as representing a connective flow between things. When we ‘think with water’, we can discern the relationships between social and material processes on every scale: between the cells and circulatory systems inside our bodies; between living kinds and the environments they inhabit; between individuals and societies; between societies; and between humankind and global ecosystems. 

Fig. 2. Fluidity. Photo Veronica Strang.

Let’s take a little ascent up the scales. In thinking with water, it is useful to begin by focusing on water as a material element whose properties and behaviours are agentive in composing our engagements with it, both internally, in being – along with air – an element upon which we fundamentally depend, and externally, in acting in myriad ways upon us and our environments. 

Water is unique in its physical capacities to hydrate cells, and to bond with other substances and thus to carry nutrients and remove waste. All living organisms are wholly reliant upon a flow of water through their cells and circulatory systems. This, of course, is because all living organisms began as microbial life, in ancient oceans. It took a while for nascent life forms to make it up onto the land, but when they did, they all retained their structural dependence on hydration. 

Fig. 3. Stream in Finse Norway. Photo Veronica Strang.

Dianna and Mark McMenamin describe this mutual dependence upon flows of water rather beautifully as a ‘Hypersea: a terrestrially located flow of water between living organisms and between them and environments. What this perspective usefully brings home to us is that the water flowing through the world is quite literally connecting everything in it, and this is helpful in two key ways. First it helps us to de-anthropocentrise our thinking, challenge nature-culture dualism and relocate humankind within the world and its infinite material and thus social interdependencies. Second, it helps us to understand why the core meanings encoded in water flow through all cultural and temporal contexts, and permeate every aspect of our lives 

Fig. 4. Water lilies, North Queensland. Photo Veronica Strang.

Because all living kinds depend upon water to exist, it is inevitably cast as the source of life and capacity to flourish. It is therefore no surprise to find that it appears not just in the biological origin story that I just mentioned, as the über generative substance, but in multiple religious visions of genesis describing primal oceans as the fluid chaos from which the world and all its beings emerge and ‘take form’. And – always dual in meaning – water similarly stands for the return to chaos and the loss of form at the end of life. 

Fig. 5. Glacier at Mount Cook, New Zealand. Photo Veronica Strang.

In its capacities to shift between taking solid form as ice, dissolving into fluid and evaporating into invisibility, and back again, water physically demonstrates the idea of fluid movements between form and non-form. The hydrological cycle provides a powerful imaginative model of individual life cycles that similarly move through material and non-material being. In this sense, the fluid properties of water provide the basis for ideas about flow, time, movement and transformation. It is a physical manifestation of a reality that everything flows, albeit with massive temporal variations, and that this applies to individual lives, and to much larger cycles of creation and dissolution.  

The use of water’s hydrological movements to think about life cycles and the conflation of this with ideas about spiritual being and non-being carries over into ideas about consciousness, producing associations between water and ideas consciousness and enlightenment. 

Fig. 6. Baptismal font. Photo Veronica Strang.

There are very few cultural or historical contexts in which water is not present in religious rituals. It commonly appears in rituals of baptism, whether in Christian churches, or in indigenous Australia, and this nicely draws attention to a whole set of related ideas about what constitutes a person, and how they may be part of a congregation, or kin group, in which water, as the major constituent of blood, is part of the material substance of social identity and connection, which flows down through the generations.  

Fig. 7. Grave marker made from wellhead, Dorset, UK. Photo Veronica Strang.

Water frequently appears in mortuary rituals too, representing a loss of form, being and consciousness, and a return to non-materiality. 

Fig. 8. Children in Kowanyama, North Queensland. Photo Veronica Strang.

A nice illustration of how water enables ideas about life and death comes from the hydro-theological cycle represented by the Rainbow Serpent that is the major creative figure in the traditional beliefs of Aboriginal Australians. The Rainbow Serpent very beautifully illustrates how people think with water to conceptualise time and cycles of life, and how water also flows into multiple ideas about social and political arrangements.  

I have worked with indigenous communities in Australia for many years, mostly along the Mitchell River in Cape York, where several language groups are located near the estuary, on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Each language group in Australia has its own stories or songlines relating to their ‘country’, but these generally describe a creative Dreamtime or Story Time in which totemic beings emerged from a flat, empty landscape and, by acting upon it, formed its features, generated all life forms and then ‘sat down’ back into the land to form an ongoing source of ancestral power. 

Fig. 9. Rainbow Serpent, bark painting, Arnhem Land, Australia. Pitt Rivers Museum:

The Rainbow Serpent, often simply called ‘the Rainbow’, is the major source of life, either spitting or spewing out all living kinds, including humans into the world. It is, in effect, a personification of the generative powers of water. This is a bark painting from Arnhem Land, in which, as you can see, the rainbow serpent is shown as the source of human beings.

Fig, 10. Hydro-theological cycle as expressed by the Rainbow Serpent. Image Veronica Strang.

In an Aboriginal cosmos, ‘the Rainbow’ flows between the non-material domain held, like an aquifer, in the land; the material world above its surface; and a celestial realm. In this sense it represents a classic hydro-theological cycle: it generates life out into the world to be manifested in material form, and at the end of life carries it back into the generative pool of ancestral power. Thus the Dreamtime is not an earlier temporal era, it is a non-material spatial domain, and in talking about it the elders generally say where rather than when. 

This orderly cyclical movement reflects indigenous ideas about the purpose of human life. These are very conservative. An individual is meant to relive the lives of the ancestors, over time growing closer to them, and becoming an elder, by acquiring secret, sacred knowledge at key life stages. The deepest secret knowledge, which provides healing and other powers, can only be gained by an immersive ritual of ‘passing through the rainbow’ and gaining access to the non-material underworld/otherworld of the Rainbow Serpent. 

When a person dies, their relatives sing their spirit back to its home place, to be reunited with its totemic ancestor in the pool of ancestral force held in the land. As the Kunjen elders therefore say: ‘we all come from the Rainbow’, and, at the end of their lives, ‘We all go back in’. 

As in other cultural belief systems, an individual’s return to the ancestral domain entails a loss of material form and consciousness, and a process of forgetting. But their spiritual being remains, in the pool of potentiality that the waters of the land provide, to be regenerated. And this regenerative potentiality is very clear in kin terminology, in which grandchildren are often called ‘little grandmother’ and ‘little grandfather’. 

Water, personified as the Rainbow Serpent, also permeates all social and material arrangements. In generating a person’s spirit, the Rainbow Serpent locates them both socially and spatially. Each individual emerges from a ‘home’ place in the clan land, usually a water body of some kind, associated with a particular ancestral being and their stories. The Kunjen term for this spiritual home, errk elampungk, translates as place (errk) eye (el) and home (ampungk). In effect, this means ‘the home place of your image’.

Fig. 11. Boy fishing for ‘yabbies’ (crayfish), North Queensland. Photo Veronica Strang.

Having a spiritual ‘home’ situates individuals both within a kin group and its country, and gives them social and economic rights. As a clan member they share collective ownership of this estate, which is defined by the sacred sites at which ancestral power is most concentrated, and by the stories that connect these. 

Flowing from the Rainbow, down the generations via songs, storytelling, dance and artworks, these stories – The Law – are a holistic template for Aboriginal life. They contain descriptive maps of the land and waterscapes; accounts of its features, its sacred sites and the associated totemic clans; descriptions of flora and fauna, and how to make use of and manage these. They contain social rules: who should marry whom (cross-cousin marriage being common) and prohibitions against incest or ‘wrong-way marriage’; how descent should be traced (this might be matrilineal or patrilineal); who can be joked with (often an uncle), and who should be ritually avoided (usually the mother-in-law). There is information about rituals, how to conduct these, who should do so, where and when. Many sacred sites require careful rituals, to pay respects to their ancestral beings or to increase resources.  

Along with the other totemic beings held in the land, the Rainbow Serpent also enforces the Law: it is always present and watching. Moving about in a sentient landscape requires care. In cultural mapping exercises conducted with the Kunjen community, elders would often call out to the ancestral beings, explaining what we were doing there; asking permission for photographs to be taken of the site, or to record the senior clan members telling the stories relating to each place.  

(Fig. 12. Baptism of the author by Kunjen elder, Alma Wason, Kowanyama, North Queensland. Photo Viv Sinnamon.)

Small children and visitors to Aboriginal land must be baptised so that the resident ancestral beings will recognise them, keep them safe, and provide them with resources. Individuals failing to undergo such rituals, or trespassing without permission into sacred places, may be afflicted with an injury or illness. A serious transgression might result in a person being swallowed by the Rainbow Serpent, never to return. 

As this implies, the Rainbow Serpent, as the personification of the substance of life, and as the element vital to all activities, commands deep respect. It is the most powerful of deities in a relationship based on notions of partnership and reciprocity between human and non-human worlds. This allows us to consider some very different kinds of societal relationships with water. 

(Fig 13. Water serpent beings. British Museum.)

What we now describe as nature worship pertained throughout most of human history. Prior to the emergence of new religions in recent millennia, it appears, from archaeological evidence and more recent ethnographic research with hunter-gatherer societies, that it was the norm for human societies to worship and propitiate nature beings. Their water deities, generally manifested in serpentine, watery form, were – for obvious reasons – centrally important. 

They conducted rainmaking rituals, which as they transited from hunting and gathering to agriculture became more focused on ensuring annual rains to produce crops. And when religions humanised their deities, as with the Greco-Roman pantheons, and the new monotheisms, the powers to provide beneficent rain, or to impose the law with the threat of floods and droughts, passed to new patriachal gods. 

(Fig. 14. Jesus providing water and enlightenment. Wikimedia Commons.) 

Just as the Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist gods replaced earlier nature beings, the age of science in the modern era, of course, has somewhat disenchanted the world, reducing water to H2O. But throughout all of these changes water has nevertheless retained its core meanings in relation to generative and regenerative capacities, not just as the substance essential to human health and reproduction over time, but as the basis for every economic activity, every effort that societies have made not only to feed and clothe themselves, but to create wealth and well-being. 

Fig. 15. Wivenhoe Dam, Australia and Guadiana Dame, Portugal. Photos Veronica Strang.

As is now painfully clear, however, many societies have done so more and more at the cost of other living kinds. With ever-increasing efforts to instrumentalise the material environment and to direct water towards human needs and interests, large societies have simultaneously overridden the needs and interests of all of the other species who are equally dependent upon water flows to maintain themselves and their supportive habitats. They have cleared forests and drained wetlands for farming; logged forests for timber; and above all redirected water to support crops and to supply industrial activities and urban areas. Thus we are now witnessing an anthropogenically-caused mass extinction event which is – above all – based on redirecting water flows into human interests. This runs contrary to the principles of ecological justice, which demands that both human and non-human needs for water should be met.  

Fig, 16. Imperial canal, The Forbidden City, Beijing. Photo Veronica Strang.

This provides a stark recognition of the intrinsic relationship between water and power, famously highlighted by Karl Wittfogel in the 1950s. To hold and control water is to hold power, and water – who owns it, who decides how it flows, who has access – is always a perfect mirror of power relations both between human groups, and between humans and other living kinds. 

Fig, 17. Washing in the river, Mua community, Malawi. Photo Veronica Strang.

So who gets to have a clean cup of water; who gets to have potable water piped to their home; who gets to have sanitary arrangements in which waste water and sewage is safely removed; who gets to have access to water supplies for their own purposes: these arrangements are all directly reflective of social and political relationships and their relative equality, just as they reflect ecological justice, or the lack of it. 

Fig, 18. Historic standpipe, Stalbridge, Dorset. Photo Veronica Strang.

So – our little cup of water contains some massive issues about water ownership and control. Here in the UK, as you will know, Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of the water industry in 1989 was massively controversial and continues to be a source of resentment. To put into private hands control over the elemental substance of life, the source of all wealth, health and well-being, ran contrary not only to notions of water as a common good, but also to the most fundamental meanings that water has always held across cultures, and across history. No wonder then that even the phlegmatic British population rose up in protest at this enclosure. 

(Fig, 19. Street protests in Bolivia. Wikimedia Commons.)

Similar indications of passionate resistence to the loss of public control over water was evident in the riots that erupted when a major American corporation, Bechtel, was brought in to privatise water supplies in Bolivia in the early 2000s. There is a wonderful film, which you may know, called También la Lluvia, (Even the Rain) which was directed by Icíar Bollaín in 2010, which describes how what are now called ‘the water wars’ erupted as the company tried to extend its control even to the rainwater gathered by households, and how the indigenous population rose up – successfully in this instance – to resist this appropriation. 

But there have been multiple water privatisations since, though the P-word is not used: water trading schemes that have quietly transformed public allocations of water into private, tradable assets. Such schemes have enabled major transnational corporations to buy up multiple allocations and to establish giant irrigation companies. 

Fig, 20. Cubbie Station, South Queensland Australia. Google Earth. 

A notorious example – but there are many others – is provided by Cubbie Station, which is located in Queensland, just north of the New South Wales border. In order to grow cotton and wheat in one of the world’s most arid regions, the station abstracts a quarter of the water that would otherwise flow down the Darling River into the Murray Darling Basin – which is now, because of many such activities – in an almost permanent state of crisis. 

This is a pattern that – with the constant imposition of new water infrastructures – is being repeated all around the world. Such transnational corporations, and their directors and shareholders, often have little or no local accountability, and no connection with the local people or environments from which they are abstracting water. Meanwhile, the legislation that is meant to protect rivers and their dependent human and non-human populations is weak and poorly enforced. 

(Fig, 21. Statue of Liberty, New York. Wikimedia commons.)

This loss of material control over the most basic resources by national governments raises some very important questions about the extent to which basic democratic principles can be upheld. If a society no longer owns the water on which everything depends; has little choice about how water is directed; and cannot regulate water use effectively, how can it function properly as a democracy?

And even where some public ownership and regulatory control is maintained, the pressing demands of growing populations and expanding industries tend to override the needs and interests of rural and indigenous human communities, and of the non-human species dependent upon waterways. 

(Fig, 22. Extinction Rebellion. Wikimedia commons.)

With a confluence of research, and a range of indigenous and environmental countermovements critiquing such exploitative practices, it clear to many of us that there is a need for a paradigmatic shift in thinking: that we need to reconsistute our relationship with other living kinds and ecosystems in ways that are less anthropocentric and based more on principles of partnership and reciprocity. 

A starting point of reciprocity takes is into a discussion about rights for nature, in which water features centrally. 

(Fig, 23. Kogi priests. Wikimedia commons.)

Some indigenous communities, such as the Kogi in Colombia’s Sierra Madre have presented a passionate critique of exploitative practices, In some instances, such as in Ecuador and Bolivia, indigenous people have succeeded in persuading their respective governments to give constitutional rights to Pachamana – Mother Earth. However, this has yet to have much impact on the ongoing destruction of their homelands by logging and extractive industries. 

(Fig. 24. Earth Law. Earth Law Centre.)

But other shoulders are being put to the wheel. There are new groups, such as the Global Alliance, whose major aim is to lobby the UN to make a formal declaration of ‘rights for nature’. There are also specifically legal groups, such as the Earth Law Centre, which aspires to be ‘a global force of advocates for the rights of nature’. 

There is the work of activist lawyers such as Polly Higgins, seeking to persuade the International Court of Criminal Justice to make Ecocide an international crime, thus strengthening governments and activists’ capacities to pursue the transnational corporations who so often wreak ecological havoc without being held to account. 

There is a strand to this conversation that I think is particularly useful, and that is the debate about the extent to which non-human beings, rivers and even whole ecosystems can be considered to be persons. For anthropologists accustomed to engaging with multiple cultural concepts of personhood, this is not difficult to encompass. As I described earlier, we are accustomed to indigenous notions of sentient landscapes and waterways inhabited by totemic ancestral beings who watch over and guide contemporary communities. 

(Fig, 25. Pets as persons, Wikimedia Commons.)

There is also some well established research on human-animal relations in which pets and domesticated animals are treated as kin, and more recent multispecies ethnographies that have made imaginative journeys into the lifeworlds of non-human beings. 

Fig. 26. Orangutan, Singapore Zoo. Photo Veronica Strang. 

A foundational contribution to these debates was the Great Apes Project initiated in 1993 by philosophers Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, who drew on the UN’s Human Rights declaration of 1948 to argue that ‘non-human hominids’ should enjoy the right to life, freedom and not to be tortured, and should be regarded as sentient ‘persons’.  Their work persuaded Spanish, British and New Zealand Governments to ban scientific experimentation on ‘higher’ primates, and laid the foundations of the contemporary Animal Rights movement. 

However, it is more challenging for many people – particularly those in secular industrialised societies – to encompass the notion of rivers as a persons. Hence successful efforts to declare the personhood or rivers such as the Ganges, or the Atrato River in Colombia, have sparked a lot of debate internationally. 

Fig. 27. Cape Reinga, New Zealand. Photo Veronica Strang.

An example from New Zealand/Aotearoa gives us some interesting ideas. Here, Māori beliefs see the world as emerging from primal waters and the human spirit returning to it to find their way to Hawa’iki via this sacred site at Cape Reinga, at the northernost tip of the country.

I worked with Māori communities for a number of years, assisting a major claims to try to regain ownership or at least some managerial control over New Zealand’s rivers. The case rumbled through the Waitangi Tribunal, the High Court and then the Supreme Court. Predictably – given the interests of the Crown – this did not restore indigenous ownership of waterways, but it did strengthen the position of Māori as co-managers of them. 

Fig. 28. Taniwha at Moana Marae, Auckland. Photo Veronica Strang.

In debates about what water means to Māori iwis, water beings (taniwha) have also played a central role in debates. In a recent case concerning the Waikato River, the extension of personhood to the river is encapsulated in the kin term that local iwis use to describe it: Tupuna Awa, which defines it as ‘an important tribal ancestor’. 

As the descendants of the river’s spiritual being, Māori iwis have a responsibility for katiaki (stewardship) to protect the well-being of the ‘living ancestor’ for future generations. In 2017 this ancestral connection provided the basis of a successful legal action which established the personhood of the Whanganui River as a ‘living entity’, with concomitant legal rights.

(Fig. 29. The Whanganui River, New Zealand, Wikimedia Commons.)

Building on an earlier case providing legal identity and rights to the homeland forest of the Ngäi Tuhoe iwi, the legal ruling on the Whanganui defined ‘the River from the mountains to the sea, its tributaries, and all its physical and metaphysical elements, as an indivisible and living whole’. From now on, the courts agreed, the river would have rights similar to those conventionally granted to corporate ‘persons’ such as trusts, companies and societies. As the ruling put it: ‘Te Awa Tupua is a legal person and has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person’. Nominated individuals – a representative for the Crown and one from the Whanganui iwi – would have a responsibility to ‘speak for’ the river and promote its rights and interests, not just in terms of its management and use, but also within the legal system. A new role, To Pou Tupua was created by the Bill ‘to be the human face of Te Awa Tupua and act in the name of Te Awa Tupua’. Māori commentators expressed the hope that this successful action would provide a model for similar efforts elsewhere.

Fig. 30. The River Thames, Oxford UK. Photo Veronica Strang. 

And indeed it has. Being involved in this areas has helped me to think about how to compose less anthropocentric ideas about how to engage with rivers elsewhere; and how to relocate humankind conceptually in a more egalitarian vision in relation to non-human beings. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s well-known work ‘Imagined Communities’ in which he explores how people envisage their various kin, social and professional networks, I composed the idea of Re-imagined Communities, which widens the concept of community to include all of the human and non-human living kinds co-inhabiting ecosystems. 

Making use of the example offered by Māori and other indigenous communities I began to think about how we might make practical use of people who could speak not only for the river, but also for a cross-section of the species dependent upon it: who could articulate their needs and interests and ensure that in managing waterways, these were not simply ignored or overridden. 

This idea also benefited from many years spent interviewing all groups in river catchment areas – farmers, fishers, recreational water users and so forth – and a parallel set of activities working collaboratively with the various disciplinary experts – the botanists, the aquatic biologists, the soil specialists, the foresters – all of whom are able to provide insights into the lives on the non-human beings in the catchment, right down to the microbes. 

There are some echoes here of earlier efforts to create integrated catchment management, which sought to bring together different kinds of expertise. But the majority of such approaches have had little impact: major rivers around the world continue to suffer extreme degradation. In reality, there is a world of difference between speaking about and speaking for, and as long as anthropocentricity reigns, there is little chance of shifting direction. 

So I think we do need to reimagine our relationships with other living kinds, and to bring this into practice, I would propose that, drawing on local and disciplinary knowledge, every decision-making process about rivers should be advised by an impartial and diverse council of experts whose major role would be to speak for a cross-section of the non-human beings inhabiting the catchment area. 

Such councils should be formally established and supported, so that their role becomes central to policy and practice. They should be set up at a local level, and at larger political scales, to inform local management and wider policy developments. It would be possible, perhaps, to create a national network of local groups, from which higher level advisory groups might be drawn. 

Critically, such groups and their expertise should be empowered by appropriate legislation, so that non-human rights are legally protected and non-human needs and interests are necessarily taking into account in decisions about rivers and wider ecosystems. 

There is no doubt that this way of approaching water management would be challenging to the ingrained assumptions that currently prevail. It swims directly against the idea of water as a commercial asset, and of rivers as mere providers of ecosystem services. It revolts against assumptions of power and dominion over the non-human world. It requires creative solutions that work with ecosystems and their inhabitants instead of acting upon them. 

(Fig, 31. United Nations Headquarters. Wikimedia Commons.)

But there are some signs of hope. In some recent work with the UN’s High Level Panel for Water, I made strenuous efforts to smuggle these ideas into the conversation. As I have noted elsewhere, in such situations, one can only have a homeopathic level of influence. The UN must, with diplomatic realism, balance competing needs and ideas, and frame ideas in the techno-managerial language familiar to most of their stakeholders. But it made a step in the right direction in its water report of 2018, which promoted the idea of ‘nature based solutions’ ie suggesting a need to ‘work with’ the non-human aspects of ecosystems rather than merely impose infrastructural authority upon them. 

More recently I have been approached by people from the International Water Association who are recognising the need to make real shifts in how water companies manage things. It is early days, but what is encouraging about these developments is that they are indicative of wider recognition that business as usual is no longer an option; that current practices are leading towards massively disruptive and painful outcomes; and there is no alternative. Changes have to provide win-win outcomes in which both human and non-human rights are protected. 

Fig. 32. Sacred Cenote, Yucatan, Mexico. Photo Veronica Strang.

I would suggest that the combination of having non-human needs and interests clearly articulated; legislation providing legal protection for non-human rights; and, above all, a clear vision of ‘reimagined communities’ that relocates humankind within a world of living kinds, offers a new way of thinking and doing that maybe, just maybe, will produce more sustainable outcomes and ensure that this cup of water does not become a poisoned chalice for future generations.