Water, war, women... and empty space

"Conditions of possibility for radical alternatives are embedded within the complex political ecologies of water struggle."

Alex Loftus


At the time of writing this blog, Russia has declared war on Ukraine. My contribution would not be of substance without acknowledging the current state of affairs. We continue to experience the remnants of a legacy of misdirected masculinity, where our leaders still compare their power to the size of their ego, the strength of their weapons, and the impact of damage they cause.

To say the least, I am filled with sentiments of disappointment: that we still live under such leadership, and that we tolerate it.


I wanted to dedicate my blog to document a significant learning from the past one-year process on a two-year Aura Fellowship journey. Perhaps it comes full circle in the end: global state of affairs (war); and my insights from this fellowship (water and women).


Mural in the city of Terrassa, in Metropolitan Area of Barcelona - Spain, taken during my fieldwork research in October, 2021.


Rewind to summer of 2020…


I was living through a critical shift in my life, and in utter desperation (read burnout) from life altering changes (think: participating in a revolution, surviving the Beirut explosion of August 4th, getting COVID in a state of pandemic, getting married to a person I love, leaving behind work I loved and was very competent at for over a decade, and starting a PhD- as a student again, all in the span of few months). I sat in deep prayer for support.


In an answer to my prayers, I was granted a gift… a gentle invitation from a dear friend to apply to a first cohort of the Aura Fellowship, not knowing what exactly it was nor what to expect from it. In just the same gentle and caring way it quickly proved to be the indispensable circle of strong and inspiring women and support I needed to carry me through this chaordic (when chaos and order merge) period.


Let’s start with war…

I am a young woman of colour, coming from Lebanese ancestors who hid in the green canopied caves of Mount Lebanon during persecution, only to survive long enough to live through the Ottoman Empire rule which caused the great famine (1915–1918) (Arabic: مجاعة لبنان) during World War I resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths through mass starvation. Then came the French colonization in World War II, from 1920 – 1943, which was ended through a bottom-up revolt. This history of ancestors of fighters and survivors, but also an identity of victims of abuse of power (and it continues to this day, see crisis in Lebanon), is not only imprinted as a national identity but also as my very own identity.



Photo taken on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon


The current state of affairs is all too relevant and triggers past trauma. I was also born at the tailend of the Lebanese civil war - in the late 80’s and lived through its aftermath. The story took a turn when I was able to immigrate to Canada as a refugee at age 14, fleeing ongoing political insecurity and threats – a fate I did not expect, nor call for. It was only then, however, that I could begin to see the world with what I call my ‘hybrid lens’. I could see that I am “seen” as a woman of colour, when prior to this it never occurred to me that I was racially different. I could also see that now I have a privilege, by virtue of living outside Lebanon, that I need to use to ‘do’ something. This doing for me has been dedicated to water and environmental struggles, alongside women empowerment (both of which are complementary in my opinion).



Photo taken in Beirut, co-moderating the Climate Transparency Retreat, of the Transparency Group under the Paris Agreement, 2019.


Let’s talk about water…

The world celebrates, every year on the 22nd of March, World Water Day. I have spent more than a decade asking myself and others in working as a facilitator and stakeholder engagement practitioner: what can water teach us from its inherent wisdom? What would water say, if it could have a voice? How can we be more like water in our way of being?

So, what can water teach us, and what does it have to do with a group of women held in circle?

Deep insights seamlessly unfolded through a process as intense and transformative as the one with the Aura Fellowship (only to be expected from a program where your guides are called midwives). The most stark, significant, and utterly unexpected lesson was one that came in just two words: “empty space”.


Empty space is that quiet space within you (and at times around you), from which to observe transitions unfolding - it is a threshold.



Thresholds symbolically are seen as liminal spaces, in-between or transitional that sit at a boundary, belonging to neither one side nor the other, and permitting the flow between one and the next. We are leaving something but have not yet fully inhabited what is coming next. Similar concepts have been adopted in spiritual practices, such as the Buddhist "bardo" - the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth, or life and death, and navigating through confusion to then be reborn (Cuevas, 1996).



Photo taken on a nature walk, where through a glitch in the camera, the flowers of the plant look suspended in between a past and a future, representing for me being in a liminal state.


A whisper from one of our midwives Eve Annecke reverberates in my ear: from this liminal space notice the glitches in the system. If we are curious about those glitches, they can help us to understand a situation from a deeper level of awareness. We tend to always search outside of ourselves for the answers rather than turning inwards. From this ‘empty’ space deep within us come the insights that are the most radically subversive.


I decided to link this insight to my research on water. It has been argued that “liminal entities are transit subjects with transitional identities; shaken subjects that are capable of thinking and acting in unauthorized, unexpected and potentially innovative ways” (Varvarousis, 2019, p. 501-502). In the context of my research, I am exploring how fighting for water (particularly to deprivatize and to remunicipalize it) can be interpreted as a threshold or liminal space for recommoning water. That means to bring water back to the commons; to a sense of collective ownership or stewardship. This concept can provide an interesting lens to the study of actor subjectivities in the scope of how water movements are shaped by water and can consequently shape changes that relate to water; how it is governed, managed and stewarded. Water has always invited us to work together to steward it in common, even when it ‘seemingly’ divided us - it is us who stopped listening.


Photo taken on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona


Now women…


In encountering my ‘empty space’, beyond linking this concept to my research, I reflected on the connection between water, war and women.



I came to realise (what many before me have argued and fought for) that we need to nurture more feminine power in the world, and most importantly a feminist political ecology – driving cultures of care for our commons. Feminine energy does not have to be associated with women only, as this is a creative force that transcends sexual orientation. But women have historically been the water bearers and stewards in most indigenous cultures.



Photo taken during a Freeing Dreams Retreat, Alonissos Island, Greece, 2018; a retreat I co-hosted with incredible women, to carry us women into a liminal space, to discover our deepest dreams, and to reclaim pieces of ourselves.



It is not a coincidence that there’s a direct link between women in power and environmental stewardship, like this 2019 study that found that female representation in national parliaments across 91 countries correlates with more stringent climate change policies and lower carbon emissions.


Fraser, T; Sinha, R. (2021). Feminist Systems Change. The Systems Sanctuary. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a0b2bbb80bd5e8ae706c73c/t/618e886933453b6c82622b74/1636730992795/Feminist+Systems+Change_+Nov+2021.pdf



Like water, we all have the power to flood, destroy, drown, or kill. But also like water, we all have the power to flow, nourish, quench, refresh, inspire, and give life.


If we can take advantage of this particular glitch in human history, the moment we are living right now, a moment of violence and war, and consider it as a liminal space to ask ourselves: where to? What kind of leadership do we want to nurture for future generations? What structures need to die for new ones to be born? What creative, radically subversive alternatives can we reimagine? Perhaps more radical answers could come to us. What is most important is to come out of the liminal space with something profound and deeply transformative.


Photo of a traditional water fountain taken in Beit Eddine, Lebanon


A pandemic slowed down humanity, temporarily, but failed to change systemic war-oriented structures and power hungry leadership. How can we emerge together from this leadership crisis to disrupt capitalist systems that exploit, and enable cultures of care and stewardship instead? An ecology of care towards the environment comes full circle to care for humanity, our water, and our future on this planet.


Women, it is (y)our turn. What subversively radical alternatives can you imagine from your ‘empty space’?




 


Dona Geagea is a community-builder, facilitator, and water recommoning advocate, working at the intersection of water, environment and social transformation projects. Transitioned back to academia to work in a Marie Curie Innovation Training Network as Early Stage Researcher in the NEWAVE - Next Water Governance program, combined with a PhD at the Vrije University of Amsterdam for the next couple of years. She is an Aura Fellow and a Rotary Foundation Global Scholar.