Photo: Johnny McClung via Unsplash

The SEA is thrilled to celebrate MacArthur Fellow, Amber Wutich! Co-Organizer of our 2018 annual conference and co-editor of our special journal issue on water, Dr. Wutich has long been a leader in organizing and promoting impactful research on water security. Read on for a taste of Dr. Wutich’s work with Melissa Beresford, as excerpted from their article, “The Economic Anthropology Water,” originally published in 2019 in Economic Anthropology:

Anthropologists have made nearly a century of important contributions in research on water and economy. Recently, there has been a resurgence of scholarship around five key areas: (1) commodification, exchange, and diverse economies; (2) political ecology of water; (3) resilience and sustainability; (4) water institutions; and (5) water and health. Across these areas of research are common threads of enduring concern: economic inequalities, structural injustices, sociopolitical marginality, and gender disparities.

“As a resource that both resists and succumbs to commodity status, water has been a powerful lens to explore the entanglements of different forms of human value.”

Given water’s vital role to human life, scholarship on the economic anthropology of water makes contributions that are both applied and theoretical. Such work suggests that exchange systems can play an important role in mediating and mitigating the human impacts of water scarcity. Economic anthropologists are also exploring and imagining alternative economic approaches for managing water, including water reciprocity, moral economies of water, pro-poor water markets, and equitable and socially just infrastructural development…Economic anthropological approaches bring unique insights into our understanding of the ways that inequitable socioeconomic structures and dynamics (such as water privatization, racial capitalism, and globalization) produce disparities in health and well-being.

“Trading, sharing, gifting, and other forms of nonmarket exchange are well established in the anthropological literature as mechanisms for coping with resource insecurity.”

While the “dark anthropology” of water (Ortner 2016)—focusing on dispossession and exploitation in water economies—is a large and important field, a number of water scholars examine new possibilities for building more just and equitable water economies. Both approaches are crucial to (1) mobilizing economic anthropology to inform applied work on water and (2) leveraging water—as a universal basic resource—to continue building the vital mid-range theories that are foundational to economic anthropology. By uncovering our water histories, demonstrating the human costs of present systems, and suggesting possible alternative water futures, the economic anthropology of water can contribute to efforts to improve global water security and sustainability.

About the Author: Ryan Anderson