The Central Eurasianist Current of the 2018 Modern Rivers of Eurasia Symposium by Patryk Reid, University of Pittsburgh

A growing current within Central Eurasian Studies covers water—and for good reason. Scholarly analysis of human-water relationships in such areas as history, culture, and political economy can produce new understandings of the past and the present.  Since ancient times, communities of this region have survived by successfully locating and distributing aquatic resources. Today, this task involves higher stakes than ever: local governments’ continuous mismanagement of rivers over the last century caused the Aral Sea to shrink by 90 percent, along with other untold lesser-known harms; now, climate change and mining are doing away with the very glaciers sustaining Central Eurasia’s precious waterways.

A spillway tunnel of the Nurek Dam over the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan, June 2018. Photo by Patryk Reid.

Rivers are the centerpiece of this fragile context. It is why rivers feature so prominently in studies of Central Eurasia. Experts on the region are well positioned to lead a growing, international body of scholarship on water-society relationships that has urgent global relevance.[1]

Central Eurasia specialists formed the largest subregional cluster at the Modern Rivers of Eurasia symposium held at the University of Pittsburgh in February 2018. The event brought together an international group of sixteen scholars to consider human-river relationships in sessions ranging from keynote lectures, conversations about pedagogy, and discussions of works in-progress. (Notably, the University of Pittsburgh is also now home to the Water in Central Asia curriculum project, funded by a Humanities Connections Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.)

Logo of the Modern Rivers of Eurasia Symposium. Image used with permission of

As symposium organizer, I selected rivers as a specific object of water studies to encourage a more focused and productive interdisciplinary conversation. Over the last couple of decades, scholarship about the aquatic world has flooded the Environmental Humanities. Rivers, however, are a particular type of waterbody, recognizable across cultures and disciplines, and distinguished by common relationships with societies around the globe. This makes the comparison of river-human relationships in different places a productive form of engagement. From the perspective of a region – in this case, Eurasia broadly defined – analyzing rivers also offers ways of re-imagining the places with which they intersect, the diverse communities they sustain, and the social identities they inform.

The basic question, “What can we learn about humans by studying their relationships with rivers?”, guided productive discussions of the Modern Rivers of Eurasia symposium. Terje Tvedt (University of Bergen) opened wide-ranging discussions on analysis and methodology in his keynote lecture. He provocatively observed that the dominant social theorists of the twentieth century, focused as they were on social factors, may not have equipped us with adequate conceptual tools for addressing “hydrosocial” dynamics—to say nothing of the hydrological cycle that sustains rivers. As Roderick Wilson (University of Illinois) later quipped, “does [Bruno] Latour understand water?”

In the brief survey that follows, I highlight just a few of the subsequent symposium conversations, with emphasis on the works-in-progress presented by Central Eurasianist participants Sarah Hummel (Harvard University), Maya Peterson (University of California, Santa Cruz), Jeff Sahadeo (Carleton University), Amanda Wooden (Bucknell University), and myself (University of Pittsburgh).


The elephants in the rivers

Some Central Eurasian water problems are so big that anyone with an interest in the region will know something about them. Three of the papers presented at Modern Rivers of Eurasia promise to improve understandings of such issues upon publication.

The most notorious example of degraded aquatic conditions in Central Asia is the shrinking of the Aral Sea. It is sometimes referred to as the “Quiet Chernobyl” of the USSR because of its scale. Maya Peterson’s paper examines the most infamous solution ever considered for offsetting the Aral Sea’s demise: redirecting waters of northward flowing Siberian rivers to Central Asia. This idea originated among Russian economic thinkers of the nineteenth century who imagined ways of exploiting their empire’s new colonial territories. Peterson traces the staying power of this idea in Eurasian relations to the recent past. She argues that various iterations and conversations about such a scheme serve as a “mirror” for continuing power imbalances between Russia and Central Asia. The legacy of Russian and Soviet empire in Central Asia was manifested in a new level of resource fragility after World War II, brought on by growing water shortages, which still threaten the agricultural and hydroelectric sectors that undergird regional economies.

The Aral Sea disaster is the most visible result of historical and contemporary mismanagement of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya river basins that together transect all five Central Asian republics. Sarah Hummel’s paper addresses the hydropolitics of shared responsibility in this transnational dynamic. Central Asian governments constantly negotiate exchanges of water for energy between upstream and downstream republics. Hummel outlines critical conceptual tools for assessing the implementation of international water law in the region, and its susceptibility to extra-governmental influence, using different terms than “corruption.” She finds that continuous change in river management agreements—120 signed or reinstated in 2000-2010—are not simply a sign of “weak” or “corrupt” states. She argues that regional governments jointly prefer “flexible” participation in transnational water-sharing for pragmatic reasons. It allows them to “efficiently” modify their cooperation, including by making or breaking agreements, in a way that accommodates shifting realities in related domestic and international politics. Hummel concludes that the water sector is characterized by reasoned statecraft, and that related corruption is a lesser factor today than in the Soviet period.

There is no such break with the past in another stream of contemporary river management, according to Amanda Wooden. A “continuum” of historical attitudes and practices figures prominently in her paper on the Kumtor Gold Company’s impact on rivers of Kyrgyzstan. Here, as in other global contexts, “water is at the core of mining controversies and opposition.” Soviet-era ways of rationalizing industrialization for modernization justify the Kyrgyz government’s support for the Canadian-run mining operation in the Ak-Shirak mountain range. Kumtor is distinguished as the only company in the world that works on an open pit by removing glaciers. The company is responsible for as much as a 4 percent decline of glaciers in the range since the late 1990s, which is interacting with a longer process of climate change-driven glacier reductions. Kumtor is also vilified for spilling cyanide—used in its operations—in the Barskoon River in 1998. Such disastrous activities inspire a steadily growing national opposition to foreign mining in Kyrgyzstan. The movements deploy popular narratives of traditional, pre-Soviet, and pre-Islamic identification with the glaciers and rivers as leverage to affect policy.

Evolving hydrological and glaciological features in the vicinity of the Kumtor Mine, Kyrgyzstan, between 1977 and 2014.  Image used with permission from William Colgan, Glacier Bytes Blog 


Labor and experience

People understand their challenges and identities in relation to their place in the world around them. What can we learn from engaging humans who live on riverbanks, and labor on the waters? Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted (Eastern Washington University) explored such dimensions of her research on the iconic burlaki (boat haulers) of imperial Russia in her keynote lecture about their lives at work on the Volga River. She demonstrated that attention to labor and experience on rivers—and the often-marginalized individuals and professions associated with them—can reveal new understandings of regional culture, economy, and politics, and facilitate new narratives.

Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73).

I find strong evidence for these claims in my own paper on the Amu Darya in the 1920s and 1930s. I examine how the Soviet government managed the intersection of domestic and international economic security by facilitating navigation on this waterway. The Amu Darya’s dual role—as a key route to new agricultural regions of southern Tajikistan, and embodying much of the USSR’s border with Afghanistan—was the source of anxiety for the new socialist government.[2] The river’s changing seasonal character, its shifting embankments and currents, hazards like rocks and guerilla attacks, and smuggling, posed significant challenges to the maintenance of internal markets and supply chains, and stable foreign relations. These factors had the greatest impact on those who depended on riverway imports, and on those who labored on the water—by navigating it on boats that were sometimes pulled by modern-day burlaki, and by improving the route’s passableness through construction work like blasting and damming. I argue that Soviet border policy in this unique aquatic boundary fixated on facilitating mobility on the border as a means to protect the growing domestic economy.

The study of labor on rivers gives access to less explored factors of economy and politics, but also of geography. Jeff Sahadeo’s paper explores a new narration of regional history from the perspective of human-river relations in another part of Central Eurasia. He examines how, over a century-and-a-half, people traveled on the Kura River, used it, and represented it. Sahadeo’s examination of this waterway flowing through modern Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey traces how it embodied both threat and opportunity in its changing relationship with the societies it encountered since the 1850s. This story looks at the changing role of a “roaring” river within Russian and Soviet empires, as it transformed over time from “white water to white coal.” Focused especially on the region of Tblisi, the paper is a story of increasing social control over the Kura, where Russian modernization began with the establishment of a water supply system to replace the city’s traditional water carriers, and evolved ultimately into a source of power during the Stalin era with the construction of a hydroelectric dam that fueled the growing Georgian economy.

A tulukhchi (water carrier) on the Kura River of Tblisi in the 19th century.


Potential and change

The diversity of subjects addressed by just the Central Eurasianist pool of the Modern Rivers of Eurasia symposium reflects a world of analytical possibility across disciplines and regions that promises to enliven area studies in the foreseeable future. It may also, however, reflect an opportunity for some scholars to stake out a higher purpose for their research, as Nicholas Breyfogle (Ohio State University) observed in the discussion that concluded our gathering. The papers I summarized above imply, and contribute to, moral conversations about what societies should do with water. The selection of the topics they cover—including natural resource law, social justice, the security of energy, economy, and borders—involved decisions about programs of investigation that have clear relevance to building environmentally responsible academies, societies, and states around the globe. For such knowledge production to have practical meaning on a regional scale, scholars of the Humanities and Social Sciences will not only need to continue interdisciplinary collaboration[3], but also extend it to fields of the natural sciences. Specialists on ecological zones, geological formation, and technical realities of river management structures like dams, contribute to stronger understandings of local cause and effect in water-society relationships and problems, past and present, as well as the scope of future possibilities.


[1] Examples of important contributions by Central Eurasia experts to the field of water studies include the following: Christine Bichsel, “Water and the (Infra-)structure of Political rule: A Synthesis. Water Alternatives vol. 9, no. 2 (2016): 356-372; Jeanne Feaux de la Croix, “Moving Metaphors We Live By: Water and Flow in the Social Sciences and Around Hydroelectric Dams in Kyrgyzstan,” Central Asian Survey vol. 30, no. 3-4 (Sept.-Dec. 2011): 487-502; Filipo Menga, Power and Water in Central Asia (New York: Routledge, 2017); and Philip Micklin, et al., eds., The Aral Sea: The Devastation and Partial Rehabilitation of a Great Lake (Berlin: Springer, 2014).

[2] In fact, this river border is composed of the Amu Darya and its tributary, the Panj River.

[3] A superb example of interdisciplinary teamwork in the study of Central Asian rivers is the Cultural History of Water Research Group led by Jeanne Féaux de la Croix at the University of Tuebingen.