Re-envisioning "sustainable" deltas through critical physical geography 2

Type: Panel
Sponsor Groups: Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group, Water Resources Specialty Group, Hazards, Risks, and Disasters Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM (MDT)
Room: Studio 5, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Organizers: Kimberley Thomas, Kimberly Rogers
Chairs: Kimberly Rogers


The uneven social and spatial impacts of catastrophic floods in New Orleans, Mumbai, Houston and New York serve as evidence of the continued salience of O'Keefe et al.'s 1976 assertion that disasters emerge from the interaction of extreme physical events and human vulnerability, necessitating due attention to both physical and social dynamics. In the wake of such tragedies, costly reconstruction and the likelihood of future hazards also force many communities to grapple with uncomfortable questions about the long-term viability of human settlement in these low-lying, coastal regions. In this session, we seek to interrogate opportunities, obstacles, and approaches to sustainability within one such environment, river deltas, through the integration of critical human geography and Earth system science.

Deltas occur where rivers meet the sea. Formed through the combination of sediment deposition and coastal processes, the fertile soils, abundant waterways, and diverse ecosystems of river deltas have attracted people for millennia. As sites of significant human habitation, deltas are also socially-produced landscapes, where engineering interventions and land-use practices have long aimed to stabilize land, redirect water, manage inundation, and generate agricultural, fishery, and other yields. These complex socio-ecological systems also face numerous risks from climate change, unplanned urbanization, groundwater and hydrocarbon extraction, regional hydropower development, and other processes (Syvitski 2008).

Interdisciplinary studies of the sustainability challenges facing deltas are on the rise (e.g., Tessler et al. 2015; Renaud et al. 2016 and papers therein). These empirical studies have brought much-needed attention to the unique biophysical risks facing deltas globally; however, they typically figure humans as exogenous to the system dynamics shaping deltas and frame social vulnerability principally in socioeconomic terms. Such framings leave unattended several crucial questions about socio-ecological risk in delta environments. For instance, how do differential power dynamics shape the capacity of certain groups to direct or respond to change within deltaic spaces? How have various social, political, and economic processes (e.g. environmental governance, colonialism, resource extraction), both upstream and within deltas, contributed to ongoing conflict, marginalization, and human and environmental insecurity? How are these processes and outcomes shaped by the hydro-climatological and geological forces at play in delta systems?

We mobilize critical physical geography by recognizing that "socio-biophysical landscapes [such as deltas] are as much the product of unequal power relations, histories of colonialism, and racial and gender disparities as they are of hydrology, ecology, and climate change" (Lave et al. 2014). A central goal of this approach to interdisciplinary geography is to develop a more critical physical geography and a more physical critical geography.

Taking up this task and applying it to the question of risk in deltas, this panel seeks to bring together papers that transform the current dialogue of delta sustainability by exploring dynamic alluvial landscapes through the lenses of critical geopolitics, political ecology, feminist/queer geography, critical race theory, environmental justice, and more. We hope to engage questions pertaining, but not limited, to:

- State-building: how have state actors harnessed, manipulated, or altered the biophysical characteristics of deltas and to what sociopolitical ends?
- Gender: in what ways do water management infrastructures serve to [re]produce deltas as gendered landscapes?
- Justice: how are advantages (e.g. fertile soils) and disadvantages (e.g. hydrological hazards) in deltas distributed within a population? With what consequences?
- Political economy: how do the biophysical features of deltas facilitate or disrupt processes of capital accumulation?

This session is sponsored by the Cultural and Political Ecology (CAPE) Specialty Group, Human Dimensions of Global Change (HDGC) Specialty Group, Water Resources Specialty Group, Cultural Geography Specialty Group, and the Hazards, Risks, and Disasters Specialty Group.


Type Details Minutes
Panelist Farhana Sultana Syracuse University 20
Panelist Rebecca Lave Indiana University 20
Panelist Kimberly Rogers University of Colorado, Boulder 20
Panelist Kimberley Thomas Pennsylvania State University 20
Panelist Jonathan Gilligan Vanderbilt University 20

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