Tvedt suggests a set of conceptual tools and analytical approaches that is meant to be helpful in comparative analyses of how societies have changed both the waterscape and themselves over time. In his book from 2016, e.g., he discussed what us called a “Water-Society System perspective”.
Some film clips from Tvedt’s documentaries that illustrates telling similarities and variations in water-society relations:
The key to forecasting the future of the human race – the glaciers on Greenland
‘Man always aspires higher, but water flows to the lowest point.’ The Three Gorges Dam, the world largest dam, China.
‘China’s sorrow’ – the unpredictable and uncontrollable Yellow River containing carrying seven parts mud and three parts water
The two thousand year old and 1,800 km long Emperor’s Canal built by 5 million workers, China
The Toshka project – creating a new Nile civilization in the largest and hottest desert in the world?
The Nile Delta’s challenge – the more water they take from the Nile, the greater is the threat from the ocean
One of the world’s largest underground river systems, Yucatan, Mexico
Fighting water – water pumps as the nerve center of national life, Netherlands
Quotes from his “Water and Society” from 2016 on his water-society system approach:
The term ‘open, complex and multifunctional water-society system’ is intended to encourage and open up this kind of broad, inclusive yet still rigorous analysis. This system consists of three different but interconnected analytical “layers” based on the above ontology of water.
The first layer is water’s physical form and behavior. This covers precipitation and evaporation patterns, river discharges and velocity measurements, and aquifers and their behavioral characteristics. This layer should be seen as an exogenous, physical factor, with certain particular characteristics, although these are always in a state of flux. This physical aspect of the water system should not be regarded as a separate “watery” ecosystem in nature, but as constituting a central, distinguishable aspect of all ecosystems reflecting and bringing with it traces or the meaning of the enveloping landscape. To understand how H2O runs through nature and societies, we need natural science data such as rainfall variations, rivers’ sediment loads, evaporation patterns, hydrological data series, aquifer developments, etc.
The second layer of the analytical approach here called the water-system approach captures and highlights the anthropogenic changes in the way water flows through the landscape. Water control and water utilisation are a major aspect of most societies. They form a very wide area of activity, ranging from the human impact on the hydrological cycle, evaporation patterns and forms of precipitation, river modification schemes and the digging of canals and the construction of dams across valleys, to the millions upon millions of pipes beneath cities for drinking and sanitation, and the carrying of water in jars that so evocatively represents one of the first signs of settled agriculture. It covers everything that humans have done, and do, to bring natural water to and from their settlements – in all sectors and for all purposes, including protective measures to prevent water from destroying or undermining communities, technology, transport routes, and so on.
The third layer of the water-system approach recognises and focuses on how water as an element of nature and society – as a natural resource and a social good – will always be culturally constructed and filtered. It is concerned with how water is ascribed different meanings and has symbolised different things, from time to time and place to place for different actors. Peoples’ ideas about water and how water is crucial for identities and values in a broader cultural context should be analysed in relation to which types of waters are present, or in which combinations they occur at a given time, because the different waters and their constellations are actively incorporated into the collective body of knowledge, in turn because water matters for humans at many levels (personal, societal and religious). A study of the history of conceptualisations of water must also be a study of water in religious thinking and rituals as well as national and international water laws.
From Tvedt (2016) Water & Society.