Bodies of Water, Human Rights and the Hydrocommons

Astrida Neimanis, 2009. Bodies of Water, Human Rights and the Hydrocommons. TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 21, 161–182.


Our bodies thus reveal to us the problem with any  reductive dichotomization of water as natural or cultural. While the 60-90 per cent of ourselves that is comprised of water is undoubtedly biological, we nonetheless live our bodies of water as brimming with economic, cultural and otherwise semiotic potentiality.

The “nature” of our bodily water is meaningful and meaning-making, just as the porosity, fluidity and leakiness of our selves are no mere metaphors.


[…] the amnion facilitates the watery world necessary for the gestation of all life for those creatures that have left water in favour of a terrestrial habitat (even if some, like whales, have since returned to the sea). The amnion literally establishes the watery gestational habitat necessary for the proliferation of life.

This understanding of the amnion and its purpose, location and relations suggests to me a certain logic—or a specific modality of being—in which bodies of water partake. As bodies of water, our being is facilitated by a watery environment, but as bodies of water we necessarily incorporate that gestational element within us.

In an amniotic relation, the membrane that separates the gestational body from the proliferating body of repetition and difference is not a divisive barrier, but rather an interval of passage: the amnion is solid enough to differentiate, but permeable enough to facilitate exchange. Furthermore, this interpermeation is never symmetrically reciprocal. Te amniotic interval rather establishes a relation of gift, debt, relinquishment and mutual response.


As opposed to the way in which ontology is traditionally understood, an ontologic does not propose to solve the question of Being, nor does it purport to reveal or describe all of being’s facets or potential expressions. Like a template, an onto-logic can highlight something that helps us understand a common how, where, when and thanks to whom that seemingly disparate beings share.

Tough the amnion technically belongs to a specific group of animals, the onto-logic suggested by this amniotic relationship reveals the commonality of watery bodies, amniote or otherwise. These bodies include human and other-than-human animals, plant life, fungi, bacteria and protists, as well as elemental and geophysical bodies of water. As we shall see, this onto-logic even holds for some technological bodies of water.

As an onto-logic, amniotics is not a theory I try to apply to bodies, but rather a radically material, immanent expression of life for which I am seeking an adequate philosophical formulation.


Our planet produces no water in addition to that which was always already here, yet it is not in spite of, but rather because of water’s “closed” system that the difference of water continues to generate itself. Because this water is always becoming, it is always seeking out differentiation, even as its brute materiality, one might say, seemingly repeats.

Te embryo expresses the virtual, or that cloud of indetermination that is attached to every actual, yet which nonetheless is part of its material “reality”; this virtual potential is as “real” (and as ontologically substantial) as the actual body (Deleuze 1994; Deleuze and Parnet 2002).


If we acknowledge that we all, as bodies of water, repeatedly gestate, interpermeate with and differentiate from our watery others through this radically embodied hydrological cycle—that is, if we acknowledge that we are neither materially nor semiotically discrete from one another, even as we maintain our difference—what sort of social and political responses to other watery bodies are demanded of us?


While a fraught and tenuous relation to our planet’s geophysical bodies of water is certainly nothing new in terms of the evolutionary history of species on this planet, the magnitude, global scale and acceleration of our current crises are unprecedented in human history (de Villiers 2003: 6-18; Postel 1997: xi-xii). Moreover, although contemporary water thinkers and writers express varying views on the potential of technology to remedy our woes, virtually all nonetheless agree that our current crises have been significantly exacerbated by some of our human technological projects, and specifically new hydrological technologies.

At least as old as the beaver, hydrological technologies have existed until recently with little adverse impact on our planetary ecosystems. In fact, technological bodies of water may also partake in the ontologic of amniotics I describe above. For example, the traditional acequia systems, or irrigation ditches, of the upper Rio Grande Valley in Colorado embody the proliferative life force of water. These acequia express the relation of gestation (as soils, plants and animals flourish), differentiation (through strengthening biodiversity), repetition (the sustainability of the long-standing system perseveres although the water flowing through the ditches continually moves on to other, new expressions) and interpermeation (as the meaningful connections between the human, non-human, vegetable and geological participants in San Luis and the surrounding community are sustained).


Rather than supporting our onto-logic of interpermeation, gestation, repetition and differentiation, many [new hydrotechnologies] are stretching this balanced logic to untenable limits and critically rechoreographing our planet’s many geophysical bodies of water. For example, under the influence of NHTs, if geophysical bodies of water can collect enough means to sustain themselves, they have nothing left to give to gestation.

As feminist philosopher Nancy Tuana so aptly notes, “[i]t is easier to posit an ontology than to practice it” (2008: 209). In other words, even if we acknowledge that our own watery selves are neither ontologically discrete nor self-sufficient, we still might not know how to respond adequately to other watery bodies with whom we are gestationally and differentially intertwined.


Attempts have been made, nonetheless, to offer paradigms of response that could embrace the multifaceted ways in which we relate to, rely on and reciprocally affect bodies of water. In the remainder of this paper, I want to briefly examine two such responses: the growing international call to recognize water as a human right; and the call to support a water commons.


While UN General Comment 15 recognizes the importance of water for our cultural, social and spiritual well-being, the seemingly inevitable slip of such declarations into “minimum lifeline amounts” appears unable to legislate for these same non-quantifiable dimensions of our reliance on // and relation to water. We are thus left with an understanding of water that looks merely and primarily to our physiological basic needs. How could a guaranteed amount of water address the central importance of certain bodies of water to First Nations people?


We survive in more ways than one, and our basic water needs are not only physiological, but indeed, naturalcultural. Our implication within the hydrological cycle is not only biological, but social, ethical, political and cultural.

Bodies of water—of all kinds—are not stable or discrete bodies, but bodies that move, flow, become, evaporate, while also interpermeating all other bodies of water. Guaranteeing water for bodies within an arbitrarily bounded territory defies the onto-logic according to which bodies of water express themselves. As long as geopolitical nation states remain the primary guarantor of human rights, this paradigm will be unable to respond to a relational ontology of leaks and flows.


The co-implication and interpermeation of amniotic relations are silenced under the individualistic humanism of human rights jurisprudence.

In many ways the notion of rights and the claim to private property by the individual human have always gone hand-in-hand. Yet the onto-logic of our bodies of water defies the very notion of private property. Our bodies of water are inherently public, common and shared. Perhaps we should ask whether the human rights tradition could ever be adequate to this onto-logic?


Human bodies of water exist only because animal bodies of water have gestated us. This symbiotic-evolutionary gestation points to an imbrication of bodies that goes beyond a consideration of different but equally worthy interests. The current paradigm of human rights, on its own, is poorly equipped to attend to the importance of such interpermeations.


Despite Garrett Hardin’s now infamous invocation of the inevitable “tragedy of the commons” (1968), past and ongoing management experience of water and other commons shows that indeed such tragedy is not a foregone conclusion. Even if Hardin’s descriptions of the pollution and over-extraction of what were once common resources ring true in many respects, his diagnosis of the failure of the commons misses its mark. While the non-ownership of resources has sometimes resulted in their exploitation, of greater concern should be our failure to prevent the commodification of the commons and its appropriation for the benefit of a minority of privileged bodies.


Moreover, although it could be argued that commons are established primarily to further human interest in sustainable maintenance of a resource upon which we depend, a notion of the commons nonetheless decentres the individual human subject, and explicitly recognizes the interests of the differentiated human, animal or vegetable other who may also rely on this water.


In a commons, attention extends beyond the human, and beyond the present.

Despite the radical democracy that the notion of the commons seems to offer, there remains, however, the sense that current invocations thereof do not quite account for the reality of our bodies of water, and the vast and complex web of interbeing through which they flow, and which they themselves gestate and proliferate.

While these calls for a return to the notion of commons are inspiring and encouraging, what one finds striking in the academic and activist literature on the new commons, particularly surrounding information and knowledge commons, is a stunning somatophobia—a fear of our fleshy material bodies which hold great untapped political and ethical potential.

What we need to do, according to Hardt and Negri, is “create a new social body” to mobilize the common (Hardt and Negri 2000: 204; 2004: 190, 192). Yet. at best, this seems to be a metaphoric body and certainly a flesh-less body that already transcends our material bodies.

Where, I wonder, are our fleshy, material and watery bodies in these political strategies? What might shift if we more overtly acknowledged our bodies, not only as objects of enclosure, but as agents and tools of resistance, as gestational matter for the commons to come?


Our bodies are the global commons that we seek to build—woven into it, dependent on it, and very much contributing to the gestation of its difference and repetition. Te strategies of the commons that Shiva outlines implicitly recognize this connection.

The onto-logic of our bodies of water suggests movements of nurture, care and sustenance. Yet amniotics also reminds us that regardless of our human foibles or efforts, bodies will continue to differentiate, to proliferate.

All watery bodies are moving (flowing, melting, evaporating) at one speed or another.

I conclude now by suggesting that to operationalize the potential of the commons, we need also to understand and acknowledge the ways in which the commons does not stop at our skin. Our ecopolitical strategies must incorporate the ontologics of our material bodies, rather than deny them.