The function of narrative water ethics can be illustrated by the sentence: ‘I want to tell you a story!’ A speaker-subject (individual, collective) wishes to communicate and asks or demands the attention of a listener-subject. The latter is confronted with the narrator’s (counter-)story, i.e., he or she needs to deal with the narratively composed world of experience of this other subject and behave critically towards it. It is the active confrontation with this Other, whose right to speak is respected, and the search for a joint inter-esse
, which according to Hannah Arendt emerges between them and is shared by them [103
]. In this sense, narratives draw attention to ethically exposed contexts, encourage discussion with them, and challenge listeners to develop their own attitudes. In particular with regard to socio-natures, narratives are able to express the manifold aspects of emotionally charged human-environment relationships. Beyond that, they have the potential to give a voice to non-human nature and to make its material effectiveness visible and comprehensible [56
]. Consequently, speaker- and listener-subjects establish among themselves what is actually the case.
Narrative water ethics thus understood refers to concrete persons, actions, geographies, institutions, as well as value and norm systems and explores how these are all entangled in water stories [15
]. In doing so, we would not do justice to the depth of water as a reservoir of cultural meanings if the analysis of these stories were to refer solely to literature, and in particular high literature [13
], as Böhme cautions: “The symbolic use of water has a formative effect in superstition as well as in creation theology, in fountain culture as well as in baptism, in myth and poetry, in adventure novels as well as in the sailor’s yarn, in folk-literary traditions as well as meta-poetological narratives, in spontaneous dream images as in artificial water landscapes, in water music as in fairy tales, in temple rituals and horticulture, in magic as in psychoanalysis, in sagas about water monsters as in sacred texts about the dwelling of God in water” (own translation) [16
]. Innumerable narrative formats thus deal with water; and often, water and its metaphors structure our ways of thinking in the first place [42
]. If we engage with narrative entanglements of people with their waters, we need to become aware of this ontological plurality—in particular, if we aim to make it productive for better water governance [28
4.1. Connecting to People’s Experiences with Waters
Narrative water ethics recognizes people’s experiences with their waters and their desire to share these experiences. Two examples working with narrative formats and narratives will be highlighted hereafter. One is the project “The Reasons”, a format for public storytelling, which was developed by a British research project aimed at bringing citizens of the Fenlands district in Cambridgeshire (England) into conversation about possible shared water landscapes [108
]. The Fenlands are partly below sea level and require complex water management (even without the challenge of climate change). The Reasons format is based on a traditional Italian dispute resolution mechanism that resembles a court scene and has formalized roles. This format was adapted to the British context and modified to the extent that the focus was no longer on resolving a conflict but on starting a joint thinking process, the result of which was the development of polyphonic narratives and the creation of water as a shared inter-esse
. Another example is quantitative story-telling [109
]. This is a systematic approach in the tradition of post-normal science that investigates the role of socially constructed ignorance in evidence-based policymaking [110
]. It focuses on other legitimate narratives besides the traditional scientific perspective and integrating different representations of knowledge for decision-making. For instance, the EU project MAGIC applies this perspective to narratives on future water security [113
]. The project succeeds in anticipating possible water futures and in identifying and excluding unrealistic narratives as technoscientific fantasies [109
Both projects work in different ways with narratives and the idea that narratives are key to understanding multiple water worlds. Beyond what they have achieved so far, engaging with narrative ethics allows them to systematize emergent moral issues and grasp the normative implications of narratives more consistently. Both projects thus open up public discourse on possible and desirable water futures. On a more fundamental level, narrative water ethics can supplement social analyses by making visible the point of view from which criticism is expressed—be it in the case of unjust narratives of water security in the Water Energy Food Security Nexus [18
] or racist symbolizations and institutional configurations of water infrastructures [10
4.2. Experiencing Otherness and Complexity
Narrative ethics takes on an additional critical function by providing spaces for experiences of otherness and complexity. Literature is particularly capable of achieving this. In the following, some literary texts will be highlighted as examples. Their selection is contingent and other examples could also be chosen to make the point. Different authors invite us to take alternative views of water and in this vein turn familiar images of political geography on their heads. A well-known example is Roger Deakin’s Waterlog
(2000), in which he reports on his experiences of swimming through all the British waters and thereby encourages a new perspective on the role of water and water bodies in public life [116
]. In The Old Ways
(2012), Robert Macfarlane invites us to think about the seas of Northern Europe (the Atlantic Ocean, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea) as land and the land as water. In this way, he is able to reveal centuries-old connections between people, regions, and cultural spaces, which through a land-based political geography were previously marginalized and thus literally vanished from view: “The sea has become the land, in that it is now the usual medium of transit: not a barrier but corridor.” [117
]. For these people and regions, water is their inter-esse
in many ways. Both texts encourage recipients to think in alternatives about and through water and to engage with water’s agency.
A more profound reflection on our water worlds today might also begin by dealing with texts from historical eras, which are very alien to us [118
]. Stefan Hofer-Krucker Valderrama, for example, deals with a text by the Swiss author Jeremias Gotthelf [119
]. As pastor of the village of Lützelflüh, Gotthelf was an eyewitness to the historic flood disaster of 1837 in the Swiss Emmental valley. He deals with his traumatic experiences in “Die Wassernot im Emmental” (“Water Disaster in the Emmental Valley”, own translation), which Hofer-Krucker Valderrama describes as a hybrid narrative. This text is particularly interesting because it appears on the surface to be a typical penal theological text in which a Protestant pastor views the floods as punishment for people’s sins. Hofer-Krucker Valderrama, however, shows how Gotthelf ingeniously unites and correlates different forms of knowledge that are crucial for the perception, the descriptive, narrative and documenting representation, as well as the interpretation and classification of such an event. In addition to eyewitness accounts, Gotthelf’s own observations and biblical references, the text also incorporates geographical knowledge, knowledge of road and bridge construction, and regional myths relating to the natural world, such as the Legend of the Emmen Serpent. The text thus achieves a high degree of complexity and polyphony in that different forms of knowledge interact, overlap, complement and contradict each other. Gotthelf’s seemingly simple religious narrative reveals moral fault lines around the appropriate forms of possible, better water worlds and their institutional configurations. Traditional views interfere with emerging notions of social and political responsibility for preventing such disasters and mitigating their consequences.
Ancient myths and their persistence into the present day can challenge dominant narratives about water worlds and invite us to engage with experiences of otherness and social distortions in human-water relationships. A particularly appealing example of this is the Dutch water-wolf
. This is an animalization, i.e., the description of non-living phenomena such as geographical characteristics using traits assigned to certain animals, in this case the wolf. The geological phenomenon is from the Netherlands and refers “to the tendency of lakes in low lying peaty land, sometimes previously worn-down by men digging peat for fuel, to enlarge or expand by flooding, thus eroding the lake shores, and potentially causing harm to infrastructure or death” [120
]. A particular case is the Haarlemmermeer, which today is a polder in the southwest of Amsterdam. Around 1500, poorly constructed dikes and the extraction of peat led to four lakes at this location being combined into one—the Haarlemmermeer. At the time, it was the largest lake in the Netherlands. Its subsequent expansion resulted in the destruction of several villages and threatened to flood the cities of Leiden and Amsterdam, prompting the Dutch government to undertake to drain the lake in the mid-nineteenth century.
shows the battle of the Dutch lion against the frightening water-wolf. Draining the lake finally eliminated the hazards of flooding and created new land in the densely populated Netherlands. However, comparable to the extinction of the wolf in order to ‘free’ Europe’s landscapes for large-scale sheep farming, the extinction of the water-wolf is a narrative of the victory of industrial man over water, as is reported, for instance, on the website of Cruquius Museum dedicated to the draining of the Haarlemmermeer: It “tells about the age-old Dutch battle against the water. The reclamation of Haarlemmermeer by means of steam power marked the breakthrough of the Industrial Revolution in the Netherlands” [121
]. Meanwhile, this narrative conceals the considerable human suffering and strife caused by the fact that the people who lived off and with water (fishermen, traders, ferrymen) lost their livelihoods. The story of the water-wolf is thus a story told by victors. Against this backdrop, the narrative confronts us with a problematic narrative agency, while familiarizing us with moral complexities, as changes in hydrosocial cycles are politically and morally never neutral [23
]. In this respect, the water-wolf invites us on the content level, to confront complex socio-ethical conflicts and on the formal level, to engage with the narratives of industrial modernity. The fact that Schiphol Airport, Europe’s third busiest airport, is located in Haarlemmermeer adds a special note to this example. In the face of rising sea levels due to climate change, the Netherlands are once again facing an upheaval of its hydrosocial cycles. Just as the real wolf is returning to Central Europe, the water-wolf might also be making a comeback. Thus, an old myth might be resurrected—and thereby trigger an old political debate about desirable water worlds.
The narratives that are constitutive for water research and determine how water is appropriately studied constitute another interesting and significant object for narrative water ethics. The emergence of ‘modern water’ [21
] can be regarded as such an example in case. Jeremy Schmidt contradicts Linton’s narrative tracing the emergence of modern water from a specific historical U.S. context, which thus establishes a specific problem description and research agenda [122
]. Schmidt, in contrast, puts forward the notion of ‘normal water’, i.e., “a program for bringing water’s social and evolutionary possibilities into the service of liberal forms of life” [123
]. Against the background of this controversy, narrative water ethics can take on different perspectives. It could examine how both authors first construct the moral situation of their respective narratives, each of which deals with how people organize relationships with their water. Second, the question arises as to how these narratives developed into reference points for researchers that contain statements about good and correct water research and thus define inclusion and exclusion relationships. Third, these stories produce moral claims for alternative water policies. Finally, water ethics may have a mediating role, as it seems that both authors share the view of water’s social embedding, despite differences in the interpretation of the historical situation. This case reveals that and how narrative ethics is also an ethics of science (cf. also the examples in Section 4.1
The previous reflections explored from a critical perspective the contributions of narrative ethics to substantiating the political in water. It has been illustrated that narratives (a) draw attention to conflicts of values and norms and invite recipients to take a stand; (b) create space for experiences of otherness and contrast that create an awareness that reality could always be different and that a multitude of legitimate other (non-human) perspectives exists; and (c) can be open to conflicting perspectives and forms of knowledge. Narrative ethics can thus sensitize us to water contexts and the ways in which people are entangled in and motivated by their water histories [56
]. However, the considerations so far are not intended to convey the impression that the ‘moral of history’ could be directly translated into political practice [16
]. This would probably be just as naïve and unrealistic as the idea that narratives could be used to steer politics to a precise point [94
]. Rather, it is about developing competences, attitudes and critical perspectives.