Suffering for Water, Suffering from Water: Emotional Geographies of Resource Access, Control and Conflict


Sultana, Farhana. 2011. “Suffering for Water, Suffering from Water: Emotional Geographies of Resource Access, Control and Conflict.” Geoforum 42 (2): 163–72. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2010.12.002.

Author: Farhana Sultana


This article argues that resource access, use, control, ownership and conflict are not only mediated through social relations of power, but also through emotional geographies where gendered subjectivities and embodied emotions constitute how nature–society relations are lived and experienced on a daily basis. By engaging the insights from feminist political ecology literatures and emotional geographies literatures, the article demonstrates that resource struggles and conflicts are not just material challenges but emotional ones, which are mediated through bodies, spaces and emotions. Such a focus fleshes out the complexities, entanglements and messy relations that constitute political ecologies of resources management, where practices and processes are negotiated through constructions of gender, embodiments, and emotions. Abstractions of ‘resource struggles’ and ‘resource conflicts’ are thereby grounded in embodied emotional geographies of places, peoples, and resources, enabling us to better understand the ways resources and emotions come to matter in everyday survival struggles. This framing can enrich feminist political ecology theorizations and texture our understandings of commonly-used terms such as access, use, control, conflict and struggles vis-à-vis natural resources in any context. In other words, we are better able to conceptualize and explain how and why people access, use, and struggle over resources the ways they do. A case study of drinking water contamination from Bangladesh is used to develop the theoretical arguments in contributing to existing debates in (feminist) political ecologies.


In this article, Sultana contributes to the growing body of literature on feminist political ecology by analyzing the significance of the emotional geographies of resource management, which she argues are crucial to cutting through the complex, interconnected concepts of resource access, use, and management. Using ethnographic field research performed in communities in rural Bangladesh and specifically the fallout from widespread arsenic contamination in these communities, Sultana finds that common experiences and emotions determine how women negotiate their relationships to one another and control of / access to resources. In particular, the concept of suffering was invoked often as a reflection of women’s relationship with water, as a tool whereby women might gain access to water by maneuvering societal priorities (for example, by emphasizing the suffering of their children), and finally as a intersubjective bond between women united in their struggle to obtain clean water for their families. Sultana concludes that the struggle over access and control of water provokes a near-continuous re-negotiation of the gendered power structures and subjectivities fundamental to social relations.


“In understanding how people access water, it is important to note that decisions are not just based on some rational mechanism that exists a priori, but rather in a negotiated reality that involves multiple claims, identities, relations, and emotions… Processes and practices in nature–society relations are found to be not only regulated by rules, norms and customs, but also negotiated through constructions of gender, embodiments, and emotions, producing variegated emotional geographies of nature / water.” (166)

“‘Suffering for water’ as well as ‘suffering from water’ are simultaneous claims made on water – that lack of safe water causes hardship, as well as use of unsafe water causes hardship, both individually as well as collectively. In both ways, water affects lives through its quantity and quality, access and use, and the sufferings that are produced. Therefore, public and private expressions of the sufferings reflect the wide range of emotional and physical experiences in relation to water and the claims that people often make to access safe water.” (167)

“Public displays of conflict over water may be small skirmishes at the water well between women, and not gain much wider sympathy or attention. While women may be willing to share their troubles with close confidantes, many often keep it to themselves. This feminization of the experience of conflict may explain the lack of attention given to water access issues in many households and by policymakers, as it is expected that the womenfolk of the household will stoically fetch water every day in order to fulfill their gendered duties.” (170)

Topics: Economies, Economic Inequality, Environment, Feminisms, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation Regions: Asia, South Asia Countries: Bangladesh

Year: 2011

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