In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rivers and Their Cultural Values: Assessing Cultural Water Requirements

  • Introduction
  • General Overview and Definitions of Culture, Cultural Use, and River Cultures
  • River Flows for Recreational Fishing, Boating, and Aesthetic Appreciation
  • River Flows for Religious Ceremonies and Cultural Practices
  • Indigenous Peoples’ Claims to River Flows

Environmental Science Rivers and Their Cultural Values: Assessing Cultural Water Requirements
Sue Jackson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0134


Water has always been culturally significant. Throughout history, humans have shaped rivers for navigation, irrigation, and flood protection. In turn, the relationships people have maintained with rivers and other waters have shaped societies. How people relate to and through water is a topic of growing interest to researchers, particularly as threats to rivers and pressures on water supplies increase. Freshwater and its essential and multifaceted role in social and cultural life is now a focus of considerable scholarship in the social sciences, yielding rich insights into norms that shape how water is known, used, and valued, the meaning of water to diverse sociocultural groups, and the role of water in societal power structures and material cultures. Ethnographic studies of customary hydraulic systems and their communal water management institutions have, for instance, contributed to an understanding that departs from the bifurcated concept of nature and culture so prevalent in Western thought. Recent scientific efforts to identify water requirements (of human groups and/or features of the environment) have emerged as a response to the regulation and degradation of rivers, and these efforts form an important focus of this entry. Research has advanced our understanding of the diversity of human relationships with rivers and ways in which water management institutions and scientific practices, such as environmental flow assessments, can satisfy the flow needs of human populations dependent on rivers and connected watersheds for their livelihood and well-being. This article serves as an introductory guide for scholars and students with an interest in understanding how researchers from the social sciences and humanities have researched rivers, the role of water in sustaining diverse forms of social and cultural life, and the varied ways of valuing, managing, and using rivers. It focuses on the conservation paradigm of environmental flows that grew out of efforts in the United States to allocate water to instream uses threatened by dams, thereby conserving culturally embedded relations that the settler society had with its western rivers. Until recently, this approach to the allocation of water and protection of unregulated river flows had not explicitly acknowledged its cultural roots, though many of the early studies revealed the importance of recreational activities (fishing, boating, canoeing) and aesthetic values to the conservation agenda. New categories of cultural “use” have since emerged in response to widespread social changes (Indigenous rights and resistance to dams, for example). These challenge the conception of environmental flows as a technical, apolitical process reliant on Western scientific knowledge alone and the authority of the state to allocate water. A deeper appreciation of the cultural significance of rivers and cultural interpretations of water governance arrangements will enable appreciation of the diversity of ways of knowing, relating, and utilizing rivers and local solutions to water problems.

General Overview and Definitions of Culture, Cultural Use, and River Cultures

Wantzen, et al. 2016 exemplifies the growing interest in “river culture,” but what is meant by culture in this environmental science context? “Culture” is a widely used term that has many meanings. Drawing on literature relating to water, this introductory section defines what the term means within the social sciences and humanities, noting Jackson’s observation that environmental scientists often misunderstand the meaning of “culture” (Jackson 2017). Different understandings of this core concept present several ways of conceptualizing or framing water-society relations, and these have a bearing on how one interprets the topic of this entry. As Anderson, et al. 2019 argues, cultural use may be construed as a collective or group requirement for a specified amount of water, or an orderly flow or allocation of a certain quality. There is also a tendency in water management discourse to associate “culture” with the practices and beliefs of Indigenous peoples, rather than all social groups, according to Jackson 2017. Whereas cultural ways of life are universal, according to Johnston and colleagues, “we all have ways of understanding, engaging, communicating, sharing, and reproducing our knowledge, values, beliefs, and expressions” (Johnston, et al. 2012, p. ivx), and water is essential to human systems of meaning and being. From within the field of environmental management, water tends to be treated as a natural resource on which claims are made, or to which meanings are attached, as the works Strang 2006 and Krause and Strang 2016 attest, whereas anthropology, geography, and cognate disciplines subscribe to a more dynamic and fluid understanding of culture as a learned behavior expressed in patterns that are transferred over generations. This broader interpretation, advanced by Klaver 2009 and Strang 2006, for example, encompasses a wider diversity of human interactions, engagements, or relations with water, rather than focusing only on the ways in which it is used directly for human benefit. The field of political ecology, for example, sees the need to go beyond a utilitarian framing to consider water’s part in human systems of meaning and practice, which require more than access to a material flow of water to sustain. Klaver 2009 shows that struggles over water then involve more than competition for the material resource; they are simultaneously struggles for power over symbolic representations. Political ecologists such as Rutgerd Boelens are concerned with the flows of power and flows of water, stressing that symbols of water are frequently enrolled in nation building projects like dams, which represent and reinforce power and the reproduction of social identities (see Boelens 2014).

  • Anderson, E., S. Jackson, R. Tharme, et al. 2019. Understanding rivers and their social relations: A critical step to advance environmental water management. WIREs Water 6.6: e1381.

    DOI: 10.1002/wat2.1381

    Paper arising from a multidisciplinary, international workshop on sociocultural relationships between people and rivers. Argues that rivers need to be understood as socially constituted, and provides examples of the diversity and interdependencies of human-flow relationships— e.g., relating to human well-being, spiritual needs, cultural identity, and sense of place—that are typically overlooked when environmental flows are assessed and negotiated. Presents cases from Honduras, India, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.

  • Boelens, R. 2014. Cultural politics and the hydrosocial cycle: Water, power and identity in the Andean highlands. Geoforum 57:234–247.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.02.008

    The author has written extensively on interactions among water, power, and cultural politics in the Andes, where strong ties of identification among local collectives and their water sources and territories are common. This paper extends the relational concept of the hydrosocial cycle to encompass the cosmological, bringing metaphysical concepts and powers to the analysis of ancient Indigenous water cultural systems and the efforts of dominant groups to appropriate and manipulate these systems.

  • Jackson, S. 2017. How much water does a culture need? Environmental water management’s cultural challenge and Indigenous responses. In Water for the Environment. Edited by A. Horne, A. Webb, M. Stewardson, B. Richter and M. Acreman, 173–188. London: Elsevier.

    DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-803907-6.00009-7

    This chapter recasts the question asked by aquatic ecologists and hydrologists—How much water does a river need?—to assist the environmental water management sector to better appreciate the social and cultural complexity of human relationships with water. The chapter draws on Australian experience to discuss the ways in which Indigenous water values, rights, and interests are framed by environmental water management and its scientific practices.

  • Johnston, B., L. Hiwasaki, I. Klaver, A. R. Castillo, and V. Strang, eds. 2012. Water, cultural diversity, and global environmental change: Emerging trends, sustainable futures? Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-1774-9

    Large edited and online UNESCO collection. Presents water development as a major factor in the global decline of both ecological diversity and cultural diversity. Organized into five sections (culture of water; traditional ecological knowledge; current patterns of water management; lessons learned from hydro-development; and alternative future scenarios). It offers an array of ideas, concepts, and tools to understand and manage the sociocultural implications of the water crisis and suggests alternative pathways to sustainability.

  • Klaver, I. J. 2009. Rivers. In Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy. Vol. 2. Edited by J. Baird Callicott and Robert Frodeman, 206–210. New York: Macmillan Reference.

    The leading introduction to the anchoring role of water in human civilizations, including religious and philosophical meanings. Author highlights metaphorical uses of water, and broader symbolic associations (e.g., with time and transformation), as a means of revealing how people have always thought through and with water, while developing sophisticated systems for shaping and controlling its movement. Processes of environmental degradation and restoration in the modern era are also covered.

  • Krause, F., and V. Strang. 2016. Thinking relationships through water. Society & Natural Resources 29:633–638.

    DOI: 10.1080/08941920.2016.1151714

    Introduction to a special issue on water in society that attempts to break with Western scientific way of treating water and society separately. Provides a clear overview of relational approaches that stresses the mutual constitution of water and society. Outlines practical benefits of this reconceptualization. Accentuates water’s deep permeation of social and cultural life (giving rise to the concept of water cultures) and foregrounds water as an integral part of social and political relationships.

  • Strang, V. 2006. Substantial connections: Water and identity in an English cultural landscape. Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology 10.2: 155–177.

    DOI: 10.1163/156853506777965820

    This paper exemplifies the relational approach to water. It explores the role of water in the formation and maintenance of individual and cultural identities, arguing that water is both an essential element that literally constitutes human “being” and a “natural symbol” of sociality and of human-environmental interdependence. The River Stour in Dorset in the United Kingdom provides the empirical basis for an exploration of the connections between sensory perceptions of water and its wider cultural meanings.

  • Wantzen, K. M., A. Ballouche, I. Longuet, et al. 2016. River culture: An eco-social approach to mitigate the biological and cultural diversity crisis in riverscapes. Ecohydology and Hydrobiology 16:7–8.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.ecohyd.2015.12.003

    Delineates an approach to “river culture” to mitigate the twin crises in riverscapes that are construed as tightly linked socio-ecological systems. Establishes two dimensions to river culture: the influence of biophysical setting on societies, and opportunities to “learn from the river” to address problems of riverscapes. The analytical framework stresses the driving force of flood pulses, with less attention on the critical role of political-economic processes in shaping rivers, riverine societies, and water use.

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