Waterworlds - Project Pillars

The Melting Ice

The projects of this pillar aimed at exploring how populations in areas of ice (the Arctic and in mountainous glacier areas in Peru) perceived the threats to their environment, and how they responded to and incorporated prospective climatic changes into everyday economic and social practices. This part of the project answered the call for knowledge of how climate change will affect the vulnerable social communities in the Arctic and in Peru, where focus so far has mainly been on the natural consequences. 

The wider aim was to assess and compare the different scales and rationalities employed by the three most important actors in the management of the precarious Arctic environment: Firstly, hunters and fishermen seeking practical solutions to new challenges to their livelihood; secondly, scientists foreseeing dramatic changes in climate and natural resources; thirdly, national and international bodies, managing quota systems for the protection of species that have been at the core of local livelihood since times immemorial. The question was how people, whether fishermen, scientists or policy-makers, create and combine knowledge in new and creative ways to best prepares themselves for the future.

Additionally, the current climate change, in particular, has severe consequences for populations inhabiting mountain regions that rely on meltwater from glaciers and permanent ice layers, not only for drinking and washing in the household, but also for agricultural irrigation and other purposes. Thus, in an era of global climate change, the issue of water scarcity emerges as an essential security issue among the marginalized and poor of the Global South. The aim of this study was to examine how rural social and political institutions in the Andes responded to the increasing water scarcity and conflicts caused by climate change.


  • The nomadic landscape in northern Greenland: Intertwined natural and social histories
  • Ice, climate and development in Greenland
  • Eemian Enigma. A Topography of Ice Core Research in the Imaginary of Temperature
  • Water in Movement: High Andean Resilience in an Era of Global Climate Change

The Drying Lands

In many parts of the world, from Australia over the Middle East to southern Europe and Sahelian Africa, water has become a very scarce resource. Deforestation and changing climatic conditions have contributed to an accelerating drought, which again has lead to a loss of human lives on unprecedented scales. The concern about drought and hunger in Sahel is not new; but it has intensified as the drought has continued and local thresholds reached.

This part of the project focused on the drying of lands and their consequences for human life, including a close analysis of the strategies of coping adopted and the inevitable social disruptions in the wake of hunger. The main focus was on Sahelian Africa, where climate, agriculture, and ways of life are relatively uniform across national boundaries. Within this socio-economic system, the water resource plays a crucial role socially as well as ecologically; the salient distinction in this area is the annual rainfall. As is well known from televised humanitarian catastrophes, the region has been subject to a large pressure on natural resources during the last decades, not least to a decreasing rainfall and consecutive years of harvest failure - all the more disastrous because of an undiminished population pressure.

There is a huge problem of missing expertise in the face of drought (and other disasters), implying an absence of proper administrative procedures for dealing with pending danger as well as conceptual difficulties in containing sudden catastrophic events in categories that will allow for redress before the catastrophe becomes chronic. Finally, there is an all too meagre knowledge on how people act upon experience, also in face of the unprecedented.

This project wanted to take all of these domains into account in a fresh approach to resilience in drought-ridden areas, often hit by political unrest as well, due to the shrinking of the liveable space.


  • Timelines of coupled human-environmental systems
  • Because of the Rain
  • Nomad Scapes

The Rising Seas

The threats from rising seas are spurred by several different environmental changes, spanning from sudden and unpredictable tsunamis to gradual disasters such as coastal erosion, global warming and recurring seasons of cyclones and hurricanes.

One issue in pertinent need of investigation concerns the temporality of the perceptions of the flooding disasters, i.e. the question of whether the disasters be seen as acute events or as gradual or even cyclical hazards. It had been suggested that from an anthropological perspective disasters should be seen as processes rather than clearly identifiable events, because they are always embedded in social systems unfolding over time. However, by definition, floods provoke immediate reaction, often in the form of hurried displacement, as ‘adaptation' to a life-world under water is not an option. This inherent acuteness of flooding may mislead us to view the rising of the seas as always unforeseen, even though in some parts of the world flooding is a recurring and thus chronic environmental risk, the effects of which people have somehow internalised. Conversely, to some affected communities, it may work as a means of creating certainty to restrict a given hazard of flooding to pertain to specific definite moments in time. On a local level, sudden disasters can turn into chronic conditions, and hazards building up gradually can present themselves as unpredicted events occurring out of the blue.

The social resilience displayed by communities faced with flooding thus implies not only a practical flexibility in getting out of reach of the water, but also a conceptual flexibility in perceiving the temporality or degree of ‘eventness' of the disaster as variable and contingent.

This pillar had the following sub-projects

  • A study of social and metaphysical resilience in costal communities
  • Mobility and Environmental Concerns in Coastal South India
  • Global Movements and Local Social Resilience in the Face of Novel Flooding in Northern Ghana