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From kin to thing: The environmental and human death zones of European waters

20 June 2023

The different meanings of the European water crisis

In the past, humans revered rivers and other water bodies as symbols of abundance, creation, fertility and, ultimately, life. Nowadays, water frequently conjures up images of death and human and environmental devastation. Be it in the context of the global climate crisis, when world regions across the globe are facing an unprecedented collapse of river systems. Or be it in the context of the global refugee crisis, when hundreds of refugees drown every week in the sea in search of hope and a better future – often as a consequence of the global climate crisis.

The planet is facing an unprecedented collapse of river systems and other water bodies.

Thinking of water through the lens of the climate and refugee crises sheds light on water access concerns and scarcity issues, for example in refugee camps. It forces thought about water as an instrument of border control.

ver the past 30 years, water pollution has further worsened in almost all rivers across the world due to wastewater, industrial and agricultural run-off, increased economic activity and population growth. Furthermore, the global river crisis is inextricable from wetland and ocean pollution, with approximately eight million metric tonnes of plastic entering the world’s oceans per year including via rivers, estuaries and wetlands – the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic every single minute. The collapse of freshwater systems is also a compounding factor in global warming, given the impact of water systems on the cooling capacity and climate dynamics of our interconnected planet.

But the global water crisis is more than just an environmental crisis. Like a prism, it refracts human disasters all around us. As highlighted by the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR: ‘The climate crisis is a human crisis. It is driving displacement and makes life harder for those already forced to flee.’ Focusing on Europe, consider recent refugee tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea, where water, as a vital life force and a fluid with the potential to deliver a person from war, famine or climate-related disasters, becomes the source of drowning and death. Thinking of water through the lens of the climate and refugee crises sheds light on water access concerns and scarcity issues, for example in refugee camps. It forces thought about water as an instrument of border control, bringing watery considerations to the lived reality of border crossings, as well as a number of intersectional forms of discrimination implemented in and through water.

These human challenges are magnified by climatic shifts that have brought on more and longer drought periods (drying out some of Europe’s most emblematic rivers, such as the Rhine in Germany, the Po in Italy, the Loire in France, and the Danube in Central and south-eastern Europe), devastating floods (which are only magnified by drought contexts) and persistent (forever) chemicals increasingly prevalent and concentrated in our environments.

This chapter argues that the water crisis is the result of the commercialization of water (water as a thing), an idea that originally emerged in Europe. It is fitting that our study of water governance should focus on Europe, even if Eurocentric governance systems have been spread across the globe by European empires and a state-centric international system. Simultaneously, the ancient understanding of water as kin was gradually marginalized. This process gave rise to a global water-governance architecture that has entrenched the control of water through elaborate water infrastructures, such as canalization, sewage systems and hydropower dams. As a second step, the chapter further argues that this modern water paradigm has major implications for today’s global water and refugee crises, transforming water into treacherous death zones for wildlife and humans alike.

The first section of the chapter traces how, over the past few centuries, different Eurocentric thought processes have transformed water from kin to thing. Then, there is a discussion of the failure of the ambitious European Union (EU) Water Framework Directive (WFD) to improve the water quality of the EU’s water bodies because of powerful national interests and strong industry lobbying.

People are ‘[part] of an extended ecological family that shares ancestry and origins … an awareness that life in any environment is viable only when humans view the life surrounding them as kin’.

In this context, the chapter presents recent examples of courageous civil society action campaigning in support of the WFD and introducing kin-based approaches in water policies. Thereafter, attention shifts to the implications of the commercialization of water (from kin to thing) for refugees arriving in Europe by sea. This section reveals how the instrumentalization of water has exacerbated the European refugee crisis, as water bodies are being used as forms of fortified border control.

People in European refugee camps and minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide are being denied basic water rights as a result of a disciplined access to water infrastructure. The chapter ends with a proposal to resurrect kin-based approaches that could help us navigate more safely through today’s environmental and human death zones, transforming water once again into a source of life and fertility.

The European roots of the modern water paradigm

How we relate to and value water is tightly woven into our relationships with one another and the Earth. Many hunters and gatherers, subsistence farmers and others who pay close attention to the living world around them make no strict distinction between human society and everything else. Enrique Salmón, Indigenous Tarahumara from Chihuahua, Mexico, for example, writes that such ways of life are grounded in what he terms a kincentric ecology in which people are ‘[part] of an extended ecological family that shares ancestry and origins … an awareness that life in any environment is viable only when humans view the life surrounding them as kin’.

Salmón describes a form of kinship that is more extended and all-encompassing than many people in a typical ‘western’ context might be used to, where kinship tends to be limited to human beings and the family ties between them. Parent to child, cousin to aunt, and so on. It is, rather, a kind of kinship that embraces a wide array of living relationships between people, places, plants, waters, animals and ancestors – with the understanding that it is these relationships that make us all what we are, that literally enliven us.

Archaeological and historical evidence, and recent interpretations of such evidence, suggest that something not entirely dissimilar to such kinds of kinship existed before the advent of colonial modernity across much of the region now called ‘Europe’. For our watery interests here, we can cast our minds over swathes of pre-Roman Celtic Europe: to northern France, where the River Marne was known simply as ‘mother’; to traditions of making offerings of exceptionally valuable items to springs, lakes, rivers and bogs from France to Germany, Denmark and Estonia. Yet more apposite, we might think of the Celtic female divinity Nantosuelta, whose name simply meant ‘winding river’, depicted in a first-century stone relief in Saarburg, within the watershed of the Rhine. Or water spirits who, until recent centuries, were associated with treacherous waters in the Danube. These waters so threatened eighteenth-century imperial Austrian power in the region – read as the ability to control nature – that Empress Maria Theresa took dynamite to the great river’s bed in order to ‘civilize’ its flow. Occasionally, we still come across some of these water spirits today. Opera lovers will certainly recognize the Rhinemaidens, the guardians of the mystical Rhinegold, who are among the many characters of Richard Wagner’s famous opera classic.

Geographer Jamie Linton makes the point that it was within complex socio-technological processes that the notion of ‘modern water’ emerged. He argues that while Eurocentric currents of philosophy have for thousands of years understood water in both local, animistic and generalizable naturalistic terms, it is with the invention of ‘modern water’ that only generalizable naturalistic portrayals – encapsulated in 1811 by the formula H20 – became considered as proper knowledge. Linton observes that imagining water as value-free, unfettered from all human entanglements, had in reality the opposite effect. Modern water – countable, governable, a potential commodity like anything else – did not wash human relations away from water. Instead, it fostered new kinds of relations, modulated through new infrastructures while – not coincidentally – advancing the ‘civilizing’ missions of imperial European states at home and abroad.

When people holding to such ways of relating to the world met people whose primary forms of knowledge and valuation lay in attempting to work with webs of relations that sustain both humans and other-than-humans, the former most often destroyed the latter. Neither their dominant ways of understanding the world nor their endlessly expanding markets could coexist within life-giving webs of kinship. Such webs could only be exploited to control cultures, save souls, and secure labour for mines, plantations and factories. Landscapes’ watery aspects – rivers, ponds, springs – imagined exclusively in terms of their physicality after their human relations had been expunged, could with almost no moral concern be turned into exploitable resources to satisfy exclusively human ends, generally in the service of the market: as genteel leisure-scape, as transport and as depository for all kinds of waste.

So, while a small percentage of the world’s human population used rivers for their own flourishing, this modern relationship to water became increasingly abusive. In many settings, human feelings of kinship with water withered, deprived of the rituals, concerns and care that are the source of any life-giving relationship. Paraphrasing ideas found in the inspiring works of Neil Kessler and Amitav Ghosh, we might well say that our ecological situation springs as much as anything from a derangement of relationships. Perhaps even more damning, in most regions of the world, this has become the majority and hegemonic position, against which kin-like ways of relating have become the minority and potentially counter-hegemonic position.

This derangement may have gathered its first real momentum during industrialization in Europe and its colonies starting in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but such ways of relating to water are still powerful today, tied closely to the dire state of the region’s waters. They find expression in the fourth principle of the 1992 Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development, which states that ‘[m]anaging water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use’ (emphasis added). This principle is a central element of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), the dominant concept within global water governance, steering all major undertakings across national, European and global scales. IWRM is codified as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, namely target 6.5. Current global water-governance models, as expressed by these examples, are inadvertently reproducing the commercialization of rivers, aggravating the global water crisis.

A migrant takes a shower on his sixth day waiting for a safe port to disembark on board the NGO rescue boat Proactiva Open Arms Uno in the central Mediterranean Sea. Credit: Reuters/Juan Medina.

Water and the national interest

International legislation and legal frameworks on water cooperation first emerged in Europe, dating back to the early nineteenth century. In the wake of the 1814–15 Congress of Vienna, European powers set up the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine, the first transboundary river governance framework worldwide to govern this crucial river in Central Europe, traditionally used as a vital trading and navigational route. Over the following decades, similar river commissions came into existence across the continent. One of them was the European Commission of the Danube, established in 1856 to increase control of the second-largest river in the region and a fundamental trading link between Central and Eastern Europe. The commission was created to mediate conflicts among the many riparian powers, transforming the river into an international space to facilitate trading and navigation along its waters. Both commissions are still in place today.

The Rhine Commission and the Danube Commission are prime examples of joint diplomatic efforts among European powers to tame and control large transboundary rivers and transform them into safe navigational spaces to benefit national and imperialist interests in trading, economic growth and development. It can even be argued that these river commissions institutionally entrenched the dominant logic that still shapes global water governance today: the creation of complex legal and political governance frameworks to exploit water for economic interests, which ultimately set in motion socio-economic and political processes that facilitated the destruction of fragile water and river ecosystems.

Given this long history of international cooperation that emerged to control transboundary water bodies in Europe, it is not surprising that water policies are among the EU’s oldest environmental frameworks, taking shape in 1972 after the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the first UN conference on the environment. The EU’s water policies that emerged in the 1970’s and 1980’s resembled a fragmented patchwork of water-use directives that aimed to monitor drinking water, bathing waters, fishing waters, shellfish water, habitats, urban wastewater and nitrates. Apart from setting standards targeted at specific aspects of water pollution, a holistic approach that would also consider the problems and origins of water pollution was entirely missing. In other words, the EU approached water policies in an isolated way, ignoring that water bodies are embedded in larger environmental ecosystems. The 1990’s witnessed a gradual shift towards a more holistic and integrated understanding of water governance, prioritizing the interconnected nature of land, water and environmental pollution, while simultaneously foregrounding ecosystems approaches that integrate environmental, economic and social aspects of water governance.

In the EU, this global trend resulted in the adoption of the WFD in 2000, aimed at establishing a framework capable of protecting European water bodies from pollution and reaching ‘good ecological status’. In many ways, this directive represented a shift away from the traditional paradigm of water governance to a more holistic understanding of water bodies. While the 1992 Dublin Principles still regarded water as an economic good, the WFD goes further, emphasizing that ‘[w]ater is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such’.

In principle, the WFD set a new paradigm for water governance in the EU. Moving away from a command and control paradigm, the WFD established the systemic understanding of rivers as catchments rather than administrative and political boundaries that often fragment governance efforts of river bodies. A catchment approach underlines complex human–nature relationships as well as the interconnections between water bodies, land, agriculture and other environmental stress factors. This understanding also entails an interdisciplinary approach to appreciate the complexity and interdependencies within the ecosystem, and calls for a participatory approach that promotes decentralized policy-making with the inclusion of water users on the ground.

Despite its innovative wording, the implementation of the WFD has proved disappointing. More than 20 years after the adoption of this EU directive, water bodies across EU member states remain in a critical status. Particularly in highly populated areas with significant industry, such as in Belgium, many parts of Germany and the Netherlands, more than 90 per cent of surface waters were found to be less than good. In the same vein, many parts of Eastern and Southern Europe have a low percentage of water bodies in good ecological condition.

Percentage of water bodies not in good ecological status or potential per river basin district (European Environment Agency 2021)

Why is the condition of Europe’s surface waters still so dismal when considering the innovative and often paradigm-changing language of the WFD? The often ineffective implementation of the directive’s principles is largely due to two interrelated factors: first, the complexity of EU governance. And, second, the continuing dominance of the traditional water paradigm that remains deeply entrenched in pre-existing water-governance mechanisms of EU member states.

The directive needs to be implemented by EU member states and their administrative bodies at national and local levels. Member states enjoy a high degree of flexibility in their implementation efforts, which ultimately rely on pre-existing administrative bodies and socio-political mindsets at the national level. That is, EU water law principles are not imposed on member states. Rather, member states need to integrate these principles through their own legal and political order, which ultimately leads to varying degrees of implementation. The directive required member states to set up integrated environmental management systems that used an ecosystems approach, considering the water body (and pollution factors) within its larger ecosystem. This goal was to be achieved with integrated river basin management plans.

Given the often vague and ambiguous wording of the text, the WFD’s integrated river basin management plans have been interpreted by member states in different ways. This was the consequence of the original negotiation process among the EU’s two supranational bodies, the European Parliament and the European Commission on the one hand, which advocated for an ambitious and legally binding document, and the Council of the European Union on the other hand, the EU’s intergovernmental body and representative of EU member states, which pushed back and supported a stronger role of member states in implementing the WFD.

Also, traditional decision-making structures at the national level steeped in the old water paradigm led to narrow interpretations and reductionist implementation of the directive’s goals. Hence, many countries without already established river basin management practices did not transform their administrative structures to make ecosystems thinking a priority. Instead, the WFD principles were merely added as another legal layer to pre-existing water and environmental policies. These often heavily centralized and hierarchically structured decision-making processes thwarted any meaningful transformation of water policies and river management as envisioned by the WFD. As a further complicating factor, many member states have used poorly justified exemptions to delay the implementation process or water down the directive’s ambitious goals.

The pre-existing governance structures of the Rhine and the Danube are a case in point. Even in these cases of well-established collaborative governance, dating back to the nineteenth century, member states can only realize the potential of the WFD on the basis of these pre-existing international treaties, thus thwarting any serious efforts of incorporating an ecosystems approach and establishing shared responsibilities for the rivers’ ecological health. After all, both the Rhine and Danube commissions were established to guarantee the rivers’ use as a vital space for trading and navigation rather than the protection of their ecological health.

In other words, an EU-led approach to transforming water policy paradigms is doomed to fail if it is not accompanied by bottom-up processes within EU member states, with civil society movements challenging these traditional political and legal structures from below.

The importance of these bottom-up processes became glaringly clear in 2018 when the European Commission embarked on a two-year evaluation to assess if the WFD is still ‘fit for purpose’, a standard process that all EU legislation is subject to. Many member states and industry groups from the agriculture, mining and energy sectors hostile to the WFD saw this moment as an opportunity to lobby the European Commission and weaken the directive’s objectives, introduce new exemptions and postpone implementation targets. After significant pressure from European civil society, represented by the NGO-led Living Rivers Europe coalition (formed by the World Wide Fund for Nature, the European Environmental Bureau, the European Anglers Alliance, the European Rivers Network and Wetlands International), and one of the largest public consultation processes in the history of the EU, involving more than 375,000 European citizens, the European Commission decided in 2020 not to give in to political and economic pressure from member states and industry and instead to uphold the WFD.

Recently, civil society mobilization in Spain has shown that it can have an impact beyond merely protecting the existing wording of the directive against industry and member states and, instead, stimulate transformative change in our understanding of our relationship with water, which is akin to the idea of kin. The Mar Menor is Europe’s largest, and one of its most endangered, saltwater lagoons, located in the region of Murcia in southern Spain. The region is also one of the most intensely farmed in Europe, producing fruits and vegetables for the European market, and relies on a strong tourism sector. For decades, the Mar Menor lagoon has been under immense pressure from sewage discharge, metal mining, urban development, tourist infrastructure and excessive nitrate and phosphate contamination from fertilizers in agriculture.

With the impending ecological disaster, resistance has formed among the local population. In 2018, local activists decided to set up a legal campaign for a citizen-driven bill to transform the lagoon into a legal person with legal rights. This new legal status would allow citizens to hold to account the industry sectors responsible for the environmental degradation of the lagoon before the law and demand reparations for the damages caused. Within a few months, the campaign for this citizen bill gained so much public and political support that it easily reached the threshold of 500,000 signatures necessary to be discussed by parliament. And on 21 September 2022, Spain’s Senate approved the bill, creating a new law that transforms the lagoon into the very first ecosystem in Europe to become a legal person. Of course, it remains to be seen how this new law is being implemented and whether agricultural businesses are held to account. But this legal victory in Spain is inspiring similar legal initiatives in other European countries, mobilizing to grant legal personhood to the River Loire in France and the North Sea in the Netherlands.

Migrants take water from a hose outside a transport and logistics centre near the Belarusian-Polish border in the Grodno region, Belarus. 21 November 2021. Credit: Reuters/Kacper Pempel.

Denying water rights in European refugee camps

The environmental crisis facing most water bodies is compounded by a human and refugee crisis that is often linked to water. As water remains dominated by scientific management and the hierarchical control of nation-states, it also plays an important role in bordering the countries of Europe from their former colonies. Hydrology was a colonizing science that defined the public spaces and differentiated metropolitan from subaltern ones. As a physical barrier, maritime waters present dangers to vulnerable refugees that Europe’s citizens would rarely tolerate.

Access to clean water was a mobilizing call for modern nationalism in tumultuous nineteenth-century Europe. As the industrial age drew farmers out of the fields to become workers in the cities, water quality collapsed, with water-borne diseases like cholera taking tens of thousands to their graves. Science, technology, public health and moral certainty established municipal water management systems that distanced modern European metropolises from colonies. National engineering, state investment and construction to control nature were the defining hallmarks of Europe’s metropolitan cities. The huge embankments in Europe’s great river cities – along the Danube, the Seine and the Thames – all evidenced the modern conquest of nature by humans but would also extend a ‘colonial hydrology’.

Such public goods were the things that rationalized the growth of the public sphere. They were created through order, discipline and hygiene that presented an enlightened national community that was not subaltern. Water sanitation extended beyond the public sphere into the body to establish individual subjects that were hygienic and modern. For this personal transformation to be possible, water had to be clean, contained, situated and owned by private or public utilities to demonstrate value for public money or investor returns. Public virtue, personal cleanliness and private profit were closely linked around the construction of national utilities and their accessibility.

According to UNHCR, by the end of 2021 there were 89.3 million people in the world forced to flee their homes, more than double the number of displaced people after the Second World War. This displacement has been driven by forces familiar though different to the colonial era, namely, persecution, war, trade, cultural transfer, and ecological and environmental destruction. Hostility has come to characterize the contemporary responses of most European governments to migrants, including refugees fleeing oppressive regimes. National politicians have separated an increasingly unstable idea of citizenship from the excessive presence of ‘others’ in a discourse that has much in common with that of colonialism 200 years ago.

The waters of the seas have hidden many crimes against humanity. As these bodies disappear under the waves, they enter new realities, where friends and families become corpses, and where the laws and conventions of life and civilization have no meaning at all.

Europe’s borders have been defended by stripping water of its social and human meaning and relying on its status as a thing to do unspeakable things to refugees in ways that bypass accountability under human norms and laws. The agency of water as a dehumanized thing has been essential to the maintenance of Europe’s sovereign borders. Water has been securitized to allow drowning to be a tool of management in the Mediterranean Sea and controlled as a commodity to restrict access to water in refugee camps. The convergence of state, technology, commerce and subjugation continue to confirm the dependence of European countries on their demarcation from their former colonies through boundaries mediated by water.

Refugees and the use of water bodies as border control

Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have been allowed to drown in the past decade to protect European borders. And while the real numbers can never be known, the practice of European and national policy is to use water, and the risk of drowning, as an instrument of border control.

Using the sea to dispose of inconvenient lives is well documented as a historical practice. Slavers threw captured Africans from the British slave ship Zong in 1783 to save money; the MV Struma sank in 1942 after the British refused entry for its Jewish passengers to Palestine; and in 1973, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s thugs hurled political prisoners into the ocean from helicopters. The waters of the seas have hidden many crimes against humanity. As these bodies disappear under the waves, they enter new realities, where friends and families become corpses, and where the laws and conventions of life and civilization have no meaning at all. Once there, crimes are hidden beyond the law – the motive is dispersed, the weapon is water, and the culprit is nowhere to be seen. Unsurprisingly when bodies disappear into the sea, they also disappear from the legal structures that regulate the world, making it extremely difficult to hold perpetrators to account.

Conventions of maritime law, social practices among mariners and voluntary rescue agencies offer kinship to those on the sea. But European states even prosecute those who seek to help refugees as they cross open water in flimsy craft. This is in contrast with the founding principles of the EU, with Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty stating that ‘[t]he Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.’ Principle 18 of the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement stresses the importance of ensuring without discrimination safe access to ‘[e]ssential food and potable water’. Several UN Special Rapporteurs have made declarations on delivering water rights to internally displaced persons, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants while en route.

But even if these rights were accessible to migrants, and even if they were enforced through legal channels, they would not guarantee access to water nor protect refugees from drowning. In many countries, the very processes used to regulate migration are drawn from penal codes. So, it is unlikely that criminalized migrants would ever experience justice. Furthermore, the delegation of authority to EU border agencies like FRONTEX has altered sovereignty over Europe’s borders, creating a lack of accountability. The governance of water safety for refugees is, at best, arbitrary and far from respectful of human dignity.

Meanwhile, the growth in bordering industries has created lucrative opportunities for corporate investors to profit from these gaps. The global border industry is growing at a projected rate of 7–8 per cent a year to a total of US$65–68 billion by 2025, especially in new drone and AI (artificial intelligence) technologies. FRONTEX awarded €50 million in contracts to service companies in 2020. In practice, the securitization of migration, on top of the long-standing use of criminal justice to manage refugees, has allowed thousands to drown in the Mediterranean Sea.

Statistic: Number of recorded deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea from 2014 to 2022 | Statista
Statistic: Number of recorded deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea from 2014 to 2022. Credit: Statista.

The politics of migration and the small boats ‘problem’ continue to reverberate in many European societies. British politics is only one illustrative example. Politicizing refugees serves the pro-Brexit Conservative government to polarize society on human rights, just as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) successfully dragged migration into the debate over EU membership in 2009. Sustaining the idea that a ‘swarm’ of small boats threatens public services has extended the salience of immigration to undermine respected institutions like the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). The RNLI declared its intention to continue to save lives at sea as they have for 200 years, despite abuse directed at its volunteers from anti-refugee groups even in their local communities.

Water can be turned from being an objective thing to a human space in which rules and frameworks apply. But these norms can also be exclusionary, and the microphysics of racist and sexist exclusion is present in the regulation of public access to clean water and sanitation to refugees and other marginalized groups. Patriarchal gender categories that designed municipal water infrastructures to be different for women and men, have seen public toilets become sites of political conflict. In the United Kingdom, for example, transgender women accessing female toilets regularly report that they face abuse. This and related debates have led to a sharp rise of transphobic hate crimes; the number recorded by the UK police rose by 26 per cent during the year to March 2022.

These quotidian forms of discipline and judgement show just how contingent the right to water is when administered through Europe’s national water infrastructures, especially when viewed from the margins of society. As access to high-quality drinking water became monetized through structured water systems, capital became a core currency, replacing water as the currency for life. Certainly, there have been examples of municipal pushback against the privatization of water companies in the last fifty years.

The World Health Organization reports regularly on the exposure of refugees to water-borne diseases because their access to quality water is compromised by poor sanitation. Refugee camps are frequently sites of exposure to water-borne diseases, as they are often located close to arrival sites rather than urban areas, and so lack the emergency infrastructure to accommodate growing wastewater disposal. Meanwhile, WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) indices capture the extent to which minority groups, such as Roma in Europe, are excluded from clean water in high-income countries. The same is true in some of Europe’s humanitarian camps. Water may be conditional on the camps’ access to water mains infrastructures, or water provided by private suppliers.

Yet kinship may empower people around water in remarkable ways. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have sought to swim in open water as a distraction and form of exercise. For many women’s groups, entering the cold sea has allowed them to reconnect with their bodies in new and empowering ways. Open-water swimming has generated communities out of locations and generated new insights into how we relate to nature. Swimming has helped people to connect with refugees in ways that engage with vulnerability, caring and creating kinship with host communities. All around the world, refugees are sharing swimming experiences with local communities, training to become lifeguards and learning to swim again. The Swimmers, a feature film about a pair of refugee sister swimmers, was even nominated for a British BAFTA film award in 2022.

While making water a thing was the product of imperial nation-building, denaturing water has made it the medium for unspeakable crimes. As we rethink how we connect with water to make it clean, we also need to face up to the ways that water has been both the site of crimes against humans and the weapon for executing those crimes. Recognizing this power is another step closer to healthier forms of kinship between people and water.

Water as kin: challenging the modern water paradigm

How to navigate through today’s water crisis? The thingification of water over the past few centuries has created myriad environmental and human death zones on land and in the sea. These death zones not only include dried-out rivers, extreme flood events and heavily polluted lagoons. They also extend to refugee camps as zones of the denial of water rights and water bodies as fortified symbols of border control.

In the midst of these urgent environmental and humanitarian crises, some of the most inspiring movements that have questioned and contested the modern water paradigm draw on kincentric ideas. Be it the legal rights movements that advocate for granting legal personhood to specific water bodies. Be it in the form of swimming initiatives that have helped people to reconnect with water bodies and rediscover kincentric relationships with water.

The various examples discussed in this chapter show how kincentric ideas are being rediscovered and experimented with in different ways. Kincentric ideas are ways of relating to local rivers and other water bodies as familiar and cognate living beings, intimately entangled with human life through personal, social and cultural practices defined by reciprocity. These kincentric ideas are not romantic fabulations. They are taken up by grassroots movements around the world to contest the modern water paradigm that over the past few centuries has deranged our relationship with water bodies. This return to kinship thinking in the last five to ten years, principally symbolized by indigenous-led struggles for the recognition of the personhood of rivers outside of Europe, is also increasingly inspiring grassroots movements in Europe, as the legal campaign to grant legal personhood to the Mar Menor lagoon in Spain has demonstrated.

The modern water paradigm is deeply entrenched in our political and legal systems, fundamentally influencing our own relationships with water. The commercial usage of water emerged over several centuries, shaped by developments in Europe and related imperialistic efforts, transforming the ancient understanding of water as kin and channelling the subsequent economic interest on water into imperial and state-centric governance structures that ultimately gave rise to a European and global water-governance architecture. This architecture has shaped our understanding of water as a thing to be sold, tamed, controlled and exploited for trade, energy security, agriculture, disease control and border control. At the same time, ancient understandings of and relations with water have faded away into the murky depths of instrumental reason.

The civil society initiatives discussed in this article, taking inspiration from kincentric ideas, will not undo this process. But they can question the status quo and inspire new thinking about how to navigate through the death zones of today’s water bodies. The disappointing results of the WFD, the EU’s most ambitious water policy to tackle the environmental degradation of the EU’s water bodies, have demonstrated that bold, new thinking is urgently needed. The humanitarian disaster on Europe’s shores underscores that the legal and political status quo of water bodies as fortified border control will only exacerbate Europe’s refugee crisis further.

The question is: how can the relationship between humans and water bodies be recast and regenerated? Water bodies are the living veins of the Earth’s interconnected ecosystems, giving life to forests, plants, non-human animal species – and to us. Hence, no matter where we live, we cannot escape the manifold catastrophic consequences of today’s water crisis. Once, water was a symbol of creation, fertility and life because of our kincentric relationships with water. Indigenous peoples and many minorities have never lost this worldview. To tackle this crisis, we need to seek inspiration from this ancient wisdom, healing our deranged relationship with water.

We are grateful to members of the Water Value Research Group at the University of Leeds for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: Migrants wait at the Italian French border of Ventimiglia, Italy. Credit: Marco Alpozzi/LaPresse via Associated Press/Alamy Stock Photo.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


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