Water Culture Wars


The 5th World Water Forum is over and here I sit at the departure gate at Ataturk International airport. It has been a busy week of intense activity, much of it frustrating, and I am still trying to come to terms with all that went on in the main corridors of water power, and in the margins, outside the police lines, where the real world lives.

I am an environmental anthropologist who traveled to Istanbul as part of a group of people invited to speak on water and cultural diversity in sessions that took place late in the week, on Friday and Saturday. These were the only sessions in the entire forum that, in their original inception, allowed an explicit focus on the relationship between the development and management of water and the status and conditions of culturally diverse people. A threatening topic in a country where critics protest, and a former Turkish President proudly acknowledged, water development is used as a means to diffuse potential conflict by displacing cultural minorities and drowning contested territory.

I arrived here on a Monday to the news that two friends from International Rivers were arrested at the opening session of the Forum. They unfurled a protest banner inside the conference that said “No risky dams” and chanted this slogan five times, a protest that involved all of a minute before they were pulled out, and arrested. The next day they were given the option of a minimum one-year sentence in prison or deportation. Their crime? Attempting to influence public option.

A few days later, at a meeting of environmental and human rights activists, I met one of the 25 people arrested in the public protest of the opening ceremonies outside the forum, a Turkish citizen who was hit with tear gas and water cannons and now faces prosecution on two counts. His crime? Unlawful public protest and failure to comply with orders from a police officer.

I must confess I was kind of scared to go to the dam fighters meeting. The police presence in the streets was intense, especially outside the meeting entrance where to enter you must pass a gauntlet of cars with flashing lights and uniformed officers. Men in suits lounged about in strategic places surrounding the meeting entrance. I walked by the entrance a few times before I drummed up the courage to enter the building and go into the meeting area. Entering a small room filled to overflow, I encountered a wide array of people who had run the same gauntlet in the street below. We introduced ourselves and described our common environment, human rights, and social justice struggles.

As it turned out this meeting was the high point of my week. It was an invigorating occasion, this global gathering of people who critically challenge and protest a water development agenda that threatens to wipe out much of the worlds remaining biocultural diversity. And it was obvious from conversations with Turkish activists that our international presence and shared common concerns created a bit of rights-protective space that night, with the police outside the door, and testimony inside about the many ways water development — ongoing and planned — violates fundamental human rights. Such meetings are not easily held in a country where influencing public opinion is a crime.

Talking with a couple of activists from Italy on my way back to my hotel, I shared my plans to speak at the World Water Forum later in the week, and the regret that I cannot attend the alternative forum events. I briefly outlined my talk — a presentation on the legacy of fifty years of large dams and water diversions with global data demonstrating how large infrastructure water development has led to the displacement and widespread impoverishment of the world’s most vulnerable people, especially indigenous groups and ethnic minorities. Drawing upon findings from my research on dam-displaced communities I illustrate how water development has caused ecocide, ethnocide, incidents of ethnic cleansing and, in a few instances, genocide.

I was told to take care. The police were everywhere, with undercover and uniformed security in every corridor and at every session. Using water, dams, and genocide in the same sentence, in public, was not tolerated here in Turkey, where dam development on the Euphrates and Tigris river basin will drown ancient cities, flood the biblical Garden of Eden, and forcibly displace tens of thousands of Kurds without compensation from the heart of a contested Kurdistan. I appreciated the caution, and noted that, truth be told, such intolerance was not unique to Turkey.

I had some sense of the heightened political tensions here in the weeks and months before coming to Turkey. The press regularly reported increased geopolitical tension over water and energy development in the region, including the loss of European Union support for Turkish Ilisu Dam, part of a broader development effort that critics say constitute state-sponsored violence against a cilvian Kurdish population. In the volatile politics of war, water, energy and economic stability, the background currents influencing political tension included an off and on-again bilateral deal to build a water pipeline between Turkey and Israel, and a recently confirmed bilateral energy cooperation deal between Turkey and Russia.

Political tensions were felt even in the seemingly apolitical realm of archaeology, anthropology, cultural education and it’s intersects with the World Water Forum. As made clear from the email I received from forum organizers, the topic of water and cultural diversity sat in an uncomfortable and precarious perch in the Water Forum platform.

As I understand it, for Turkish organizers, the topic evidently needed aggressive restructuring from original session proposals submitted that emphasized water and cultural diversity and thus, allowed consideration of the social, economic, and political dimensions of water development and management, including diverse and inequitable conditions, to an exclusive exploration of water cultures, an apolitical historically-situated view that embraced the intellectual, spiritual, and material ways humans interact with water and rejected broader sociopolitical discussion of past and current water development. Topic sponsors and international conveners objected to a restructuring that excluded broader framing. Thus, it was unclear before coming to Istanbul which papers would finally be included in which sessions, how those sessions would be titled, who would run those sessions, and who controlled how the session outcomes are reported and worked into the parallel process of shaping a political outcome for the 5th World Water Forum.

As it turned out, UNESCO withdrew from their sponsorship of “water and cultural diversity” sessions. Their March 16 press release, posted on UNESCO’s website, noted UNESCO’s continued support for the World Water Forum and its events, but with regard to water and culture, the Organization “would not continue its role as co-coordinator as there was divergence of views on scientific and organizational grounds.”

In its stead, UNESCO’s international hydrological programme hosted side events on water and cultural diversity exploring, among other things, “water cultures” as well as the role of culture in shaping conflict and consensus in understanding, valuing, using, and managing water. The originally scheduled two days of “water and cultural diversity” sessions were reframed as “water and culture” sessions: with two sessions shaped and controlled by Turkish organizers, and two sessions organized by the international community with the participation of a Turkish-appointed co-convener. A final “wrap-up” session was also held, where primary findings from the four sessions were reported, and overall conclusions were published for the broader forum and world community.

The session I participated in, session 6.5.3, was featured in Friday’s World Water Forum Bulletin, a newsletter distributed to the press and all attendees. Coverage included mention of my main point: Research on the human and environmental impact of large dams has caused the displacement of some 250 million people in the past fifty years, many of whom are indigenous peoples or ethnic minorities, and this development-induced displacement is a major cause of global poverty.  The article also mentioned my recommendations that water infrastructure projects should comply with national and international law; recognize “off-the-map” protected areas; respect the human right to water; implement indigenous peoples’ rights to free, prior, informed consent; and ensure the right for all affected people to access information about projects to allow meaningful participation in decision making, and to share the benefits of development. And, the article reported on the concluding policy recommendations prepared by session conveners to be forwarded to the Secretariat of the 5th World Water Forum calling for water to be viewed as a human as well as a cultural right.

What the news report omitted was the problematic nature of the session discussion. The first comment on the presentation and our collective recommendations came from a Turkish sociologist, who announced that he was one of the architects involved in efforts to reshape the forum to focus on “water cultures” and he expressed his strong opposition to the views raised in this session. Immediately after voicing his objections, he left the hall. Every other subsequent commentator from the audience endorsed the session recommendations, and several spoke in response to the angry comments offered at the start of discussion, noting that culture is, indeed, learned and lived. It is expressed in religious texts, behavior, and material culture. But, it is also expressed in broader social relationships: in power and politics, and vulnerability and equity.

After the session concluded, I learned that following the first and only critical comment someone ordered the translators to cease their English-Turkish translations, effectively censoring (for Turkish speakers) the remaining 20 minutes of discussion, and distorting the official record of the event.

In the wrap-up session to the water and culture theme (session 6.5.5), our angry colleague played a further role, this time co-chairing the discussion with a representative of UNESCO-IHP. While this final discussion included audience comment on the problems associated with past and current water infrastructure development, no such mention is found in the published proceedings where the primary findings on water and culture emerging from two days of presentations are summarized as: “Participants noted that educators must also be educated and that preconceptions must be deconstructed. Some stressed the need to learn lessons from elders and emphasized that there are as many similarities as there are differences in culture.”

What was censored here? The primary message from the water and cultural diversity sessions organized by the international community was: Water is a fundamental human right and a core element that sustains cultural ways of life and the environments on which we all depend. This message, while dominant in presentations and discussion was not included in the thematic report. Thus, the impression is given that the scientific contributions to the World Water Forum support the final political statement emerging from the 5th World Water Forum with its’ calls for action that recognize water as an essential human need, rather than water as a fundamental human right.

Ok. Well, water is an essential human need, so, as my kids say, what’s the big deal?

Acknowledging that “water is a fundamental human right” means that there are limitations to sovereign rights: That water is not only an essential human need, it is an essential element that sustains life and cultural ways of life.

“Water as an essential human need” means that states, in their obligation to provide for the basic needs of their citizens (including the economic needs of the varied industries that support the nation), have the sovereign power and authority to take action that overrides the individual rights of their citizens. Including actions that violate international human rights law.

Such definitions are tools that echo or amplify agendas.

As I contemplate the outcomes of this 5th World Water Forum, it is clear to me that the overriding agenda involves an overt effort to manufacture fear of looming water scarcity and, thus, generate support for a massive expansion of large-scale water development by private industry and government. Unlike efforts in decades past, this development push encourages both the commodification and privatisation of water: Meaning, that water is defined as an economic good, not a universal life-supporting element; and, that the solutions to global environmental needs are best secured by transforming public utilities (hydroelectric dams and water supply systems) to private ownership. The end result is a transfer of the rights of access to and use of water from a commons right, monitored or regulated by the state, to a privately-owned exclusionary right that is managed with economic profit, rather than human and environmental sustainability, being the bottom line.

Large-scale intensive development of the worlds’ rivers and watersheds is most certainly the agenda here at the World Water Forum. And when the human and environmental costs are fully calculated, this agenda will most assuredly threaten or destroy much of the worlds remaining biocultural diversity.

This is not simply a matter of lifestyle and cultural entitlement. This is a matter of war and peace, of food security, economic health, and the viability of families, communities, society, and governments. In the event that proposals to dam and divert most of the world’s rivers are actually funded and built, what will happen to the hundreds of millions displaced or impoverished by such development? Where will these people go? How will they survive? What consequences will we see in global loss of food security and health, and the escalation in poverty, misery, and violence?

A recent study published in Conservation Biology (Hanson et al, February 2009) noted that biodiversity hotspots support the majority of the world’s poorest people, indigenous peoples and other traditional groups, who rely on natural resources for daily survival. This study found that over 90% of the major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred within countries containing biodiversity hotspots, and more than 80% took place directly within hotspot areas.

The power struggles over words in last week’s World Water Forum are definitive, and left unchallenged, suggest a world of trouble, in the years to come.

BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology. She is the co-author of The Consequential Dangers of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. Look for her latest book from Left Coast Press, Life and Death Matters: Human Rights, Environment, and Social Justice, to be released in July 2009.  She can be reached at: bjohnston@igc.org.


Hanson et al. Warfare in Biodiversity Hotspots. Conservation Biology, 2009.

IISD Reporting Services, World Water Forum Bulletin, Volume 82, Number 20, Fifth World Water Forum Highlights, Friday 20 March 2009.

UNESCO Press Release. Paris, 16 March 2009. “UNESCO Confirms its unwavering commitment to 5th World Water Forum in Istanbul”



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Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and Senior Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology, an independent environment, health and human rights research institute based in Santa Cruz, California.  

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