Governing water: knowledge, imaginaries, and decolonization in the Pacific (GOWAT)

Forschungsabteilung: Direktorat

Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Hans-Joachim Bürkner

Externe Mitarbeiter: Séverine Bouard Alexandra Budke

Laufzeit: 01/2019 - 12/2021

In Pacific islanders’ worldviews water, land and living beings, including humans, are conceived as being intrinsically linked to each other. This idea of interconnectedness of humans and non-humans is the basis of social cohesion within indigenous societies. Accordingly, while being embedded in historical and mythical narratives, the issues of use, access and control over water are underpinned by imaginaries, knowledges and values reflecting such interconnectedness. In contexts of rising indigenous claims, these values and imaginations take an important place in the constitution of water policies. In New Caledonia, like in other Pacific Islands, growing urbanization, mining activities, complex land status and water rights (including indigenous water rights on customary lands) continually raise new stakes on freshwater management. In particular, the legal linkage between customary land and water is a matter of contestation between indigenous communities and the New Caledonian state while mining projects strive to function as legal enclaves. The situation is complicated by the fact that the territory has been engaged in a process of negotiated decolonization since the political agreements of Matignon-Oudinot (1988) and Nouméa (1998). Despite the political importance of this subject matter, there has been very little research in the area, especially on indigenous approaches towards water management. This project therefore seeks to identify the full variety of problems of water governance in a context of decolonization and rising indigenous claims. It will reveal how relevant indigenous/local imaginaries, knowledge and values associated with freshwater are generated and mobilized in the design, negotiation and implementation of freshwater management policies.


From a comparative perspective, and based on a selection of contrasting case studies, the project will:

1. Identify major water conflicts and matters of contestation between various stakeholders (indigenous/local communities, governmental institutions, technical services, economic actors, civil society organizations, etc.);

2. Identify the shifts in relevant rules and norms which frame water governance, especially with reference to customary lands;

3. Contribute to the understanding of the various processes of imaginary, value and knowledge building which have an impact on water governance and water conflicts.


Finally, it will show how specific repertoires of knowledge and values, as well as imaginaries and narratives that are at work in water-related conflicts, can contribute to improve freshwater governance.