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Waterworlds: Natural environmental disasters and social resilience in anthropological perspective

Final Report Summary - WATERWORLDS (Waterworlds: Natural environmental disasters and social resilience in anthropological perspective)

The notion of Waterworlds points to worlds that are made or unmade by changing water resources and water regimes. They are made by people responding to the changes in multiple, and often ingenious ways. The project aimed at documenting this, and at suggesting new ways of addressing the current challenges.
At present, people all over the world notice changes in their environment, ranging from peculiarities in the daily experience of weather and wind to major calamities, such as hurricanes, flooding, depletion of freshwater resources, coastal erosion or drought, hitting them from unknown sources. Even with gradual changes, suddenly the well-known rhythms of days and seasons seem out of order, and people begin responding to the irregularities by devising new strategies on the level of everyday activities. At this level, the changes may still be perceived to lie within the horizon of the manageable, but with time even small and almost imperceptible moves will have remade society and opened up a new history. The irregularities themselves produce a new kind of uncertainty and affect people’s perceptions deeply. When wells dry up, glaciers melt down, or coastlines erode in unexpected ways people being to wonder about the future – even in regions that have always been characterized by variability. This wondering may take social life in a new direction.
At a time when climate change in general has become a prominent object of interest in the international community and among scientists responding to the call for more knowledge, it is worth remembering that for most people, climate change is specific. It is a concrete experience of changes in the environment, of opening or closing opportunities for making a living, creating or destroying conventional forms of subsistence and production, inducing migration or technological innovation, and stretching or bending the imagined futures.
To establish some order in the endless variety of environmental changes, the Waterworlds project was established around three major water-related challenges: The melting ice, the rising seas, and the drying lands. Focussing on the social responses to these changes made it possible to study and compare widely different societies and climates without loosing sight of more general patterns.
A total of 15 researchers were engaged in the project. They worked on a very wide range of implications of local environmental change, including the melt-down of the ice in the Arctic and in the glaciers in highland Peru, the rising sea-levels in the Pacific that were aggravated by changing cyclone patterns, the increasingly destabilized patterns of rainfall in the West African drylands, and issues of coastal erosion in South India. It was soon realized that there was no way to uphold an idea of a unidirectional causal relation between nature and society, as social responses would affect nature as much as the other way round.
Responding is radically different from simple adaptation, and the project showed how ultimately the question of resilience is located in the agentive powers of humans, and in the degree of social flexibility.

Project information

Grant agreement ID: 229459


Closed project

  • Start date

    1 January 2009

  • End date

    30 June 2014

Funded under:


  • Overall budget:

    € 2 979 882

  • EU contribution

    € 2 979 882

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