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The materiality of ethics: Perspectives on water and reciprocity in a Himalayan Anthropocene

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Abstract In the Himalayas, water is seen by some as intricately linked to humans and produced through ethical actions. Its materiality, as a lack or excess of rain or snow, as healthy or receding ice, as destructive hail or flash flood, is a reflection of humans' moral attitude and an outcome of a process of reciprocity that links humans to nonhumans, the land, and divine beings. This perspective departs from the conception of water seen through development projects and from studies about climate change, which tend to objectify water through an epistemology that isolates nature from culture. Water as the materiality of ethics is examined by drawing on cases from Ladakh and Zanskar in the Himalayas and by reviewing studies from other parts of the Himalayas. In particular, water as the materiality of ethics is analyzed through three perspectives: how water is produced as people interact with a sacred geography, how snowy peaks are produced as objects of morality through affective attachment and encounters, and how water is produced as part of multispecies assemblages. A review of an ontology of water defined by reciprocity is important considering the significant changes currently taking place in the Himalayas and which are brought about by climate change and state production through large‐scale development projects. It can enrich our understanding of their implications for the cultural life of the often marginalized peoples of the Himalayas and contribute to narratives about the Anthropocene. This article is categorized under: Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented Human Water > Rights to Water
Fields in the village of Stongdey, many of which are left uncultivated. Photo by author
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A man and his horse, standing in front of the Lalung Glacier, which has receded dramatically. Photo by Josianne Robichaud
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The Drang Drung Glacier, which overlooks the pastures of Pentse La, on a cloudy day. Photo by author
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A lha tho in Zanskar. Photo by author
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Sani Kangyur at Sani Monastery in Zanskar. The ritual is performed every summer for the prosperity of the community, including the farming season. Photo by author
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A monk in Ladakh is performing a ritual because a klu khang—a small stone altar, which is a temple for the klu—is being moved for the construction of a building. Photo by author
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The Yarab Tso in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh, which is considered sacred. Photo by Jigmat Lundup
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Human Water > Rights to Water
Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented

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