Cornell University

Anthropology Colloquium: Fluid Entitlements: Constructing and Contesting Water Allocations in Burkina Faso, West Africa

Friday, March 8, 2013 at 3:30pm to 6:00pm

McGraw Hall, 215
740-750 University Ave, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

Ben Orlove, Columbia University

Water has emerged as a topic of interest in several areas within anthropology, including environmental anthropology, political anthropology, and science and technology studies; it is also central to sustainable development at large.  The Comoé watershed in Burkina Faso, West Africa is a useful site for exploring the overlap of these different approaches. In this region, a large sugar-cane plantation manages reservoirs for its own use and for other groups downstream, including a regional town, a rice-producing cooperative and small-scale vegetable growers.  There has been a history of political tension over water in recent decades, challenging the great power of the plantation. The patterns of conflict are somewhat altered by the introduction of new systems of integrated water resource management (decentralization of water governance, participatory water planning, incorporation of climate forecasts). In this talk, I examine the procedures of the new systems for developing annual water plans and discuss several events of overt conflict over water. I pay particular attention to the different frameworks at play for valuing water and for assigning rights to water, and to the different cultural and technological logics of water measurement and water management. I suggest the importance of expanding the understanding of water politics beyond issues of allocation for use to broader concerns of control and of recognition of claims of entitlement. This case suggests the value of anthropology for water studies and vice versa.



Ben Orlove studied anthropology as an undergraduate at Harvard and a grad student in Berkeley. His main teaching positions have been in interdisciplinary departments, for many years at the University of California, Davis, in Environmental Science and Policy and since 2010 at Columbia in the School of International and Public Affairs. His work has linked what are broadly recognized as “material” domains (economics, environment, science) with political and cultural aspects of human social life, and has connected local processes with regional, national and global scales (similarly, he has framed events and short-term processes in longer historical contexts). The bulk of his field work has been in the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, first on the position of herders in global markets and national societies, later on the engagement of indigenous fishing communities with regional markets and national institutions, and more recently on climate issues such as El Niño and glacier retreat. The glacier retreat project is comparative, linking an Andean case with others in the Italian Alps and the western US.  His interest in climate has led him to briefer field work projects, on climate variability and agriculture in Uganda, on climate variability and wildfires in northern Australia, and most recently on climate variability and change and water management in Burkina Faso.  


He edited Current Anthropology from 2000 to 2008, and has edited Weather, Climate and Society since 2009. He serves on two committees of the American Anthropological Association, Committee on the Future of Print and Electronic Publications, 2009-present. Task Force on Climate Change, 2011-present. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In addition to academic books and articles, he is the author of a family memoir, In My Father’s Study.


This event is co-sponsored by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Department of Science and Technology Studies, and Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Recent Activity