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Incarnating water in Central Asia: Hydro-relations along a transnational river

Jeanne Féaux de la Croix
Eberhard-Karls University Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany; jeanne.feaux@uni-tuebingen.de

ABSTRACT: Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork as well as collaborative events with artists and policy makers in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, I demonstrate how water concepts and forms of interaction are anchored in the particular water incarnations of springs, lakes, glaciers and big rivers. As main water arteries for the Aral Sea, the Naryn and Syr Darya Rivers are managed between shifting alliances of the farming interests, International Non-governmental Organisation (INGO) bodies and national agencies of four riparian states. These Central Asian rivers have been subject to big dam-building programmes since the mid-Soviet period, while international companies now mine on the glaciers of the Naryn headwaters. I analyse socionatural water relations on a spectrum of three 'incarnations': first, river water as an exploitable resource; second, enspirited springs and lakes; and third, glaciers as indexes of human wrongdoing. While the multiplicity of water relations has been documented in many parts of the world, the concept of water incarnations highlights their topographical anchoring. This Central Asian case further shows how this anchoring can support claims of national entitlement. Finally, this paper argues that the situated heterogeneity of water relations can make it difficult to connect them to more sustainable water relationships in the region.

KEYWORDS: Transboundary agreements, modern water, commons, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, springs, sacred sites, glaciers, Aral Sea