Theme summary

About 1,460 teratonnes of water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, mostly in oceans and other large water bodies, with 1.6% of water below ground in aquifers and 0.001% in the air as vapor, clouds and precipitation. Water pervades the arts and the sciences, both thematically and in the flesh: after all it comprises over half the human body. Water is a key to life, a means of mobility, a tourist attraction, a power source. From the sea water that tortured Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner we can extract deuterium to power future nuclear fusion reactors.

The IAS annual theme on ‘Water’ was designed to attract researchers from across the disciplinary base to address a wide variety of topics spanning the sciences and the arts. A number of sub-themes were identified and developed by inter-disciplinary teams of staff at Durham to ensure a wide ranging programme of activities in 2009/10.

Water publications



Water in Earth and Space

This sub-theme explored cosmic water and environments for life in the Universe, in particular examining the origins of water in the Universe, its distribution and its role in instigating life on Earth, and the search for water and extraterrestrial habitats on Mars, other planetary bodies within the Solar System and extra-solar planets. Other areas of interest include deep water and the inner workings of the Earth.

Water as metaphor and symbol

This sub-theme explored the symbolic value and appeal of water – from classical mythology to modern fiction, water has had a powerful and lasting appeal. In its metaphorical and symbolic guises, water takes on magical and sacramental properties, often associated with rites of passage. Areas of particular interest include exploration of the relations between mind and world in a range of literary works that employ the symbolic uses of water; and the ways in which Venice has been represented in literature, the visual arts and Music. Other areas of interest include eco-politics in literary theory, elegy and the use of mythological rivers, water and consciousness.

Water and power

Large expanses of water provide not only potential sources of power production but have played a key role in the emergence and consolidation of political and cultural identities – water can unite and water can divide. Areas of particular interest within this sub-theme include examining the technical feasibility, environmental sustainability, social acceptability, cost effectiveness, and political consequences of using water for power production; studying the geopolitics of the ancient Mediterranean and north Western Europe (both in their uniting and their dividing facets), examining instances where water functions as a defining element of communal identity, including exploring issues of marginality; and investigating how, in different societies with various organisations (empires, city-states, independent communities, modern states), water was used as a means of control and power.

Water and risk

There are many risks associated with water: those arising from there being too much water and too little, risks from water being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and those associated with contamination. These risks result in physical, social, economic and political impacts and require a truly interdisciplinary approach to understanding, mitigation and adaptation. Within this sub-theme there will be particular focus on cultures of flood risk, water-driven risks in a changing climate, and living with water. It will bring together scholars in the human and physical sciences and will attempt to integrate the environmental and cultural aspects of water and risk.

Water as sacred power

Water has held a central role within the beliefs and religions of societies world-wide, from prehistory to the present. Since the earliest documented accounts of human society, water has served as a component of rituals; a medium for the disposal of the dead; a place for offerings; a source of oracles and a home to deities and supernatural powers. In addition, water serves as a connector, a means of travel and communication, and a path for religion and belief to spread, and yet the sea – a conduit for trade, migration and exploration – is also imbued with supernatural forces – feared, revered and even worshipped. This sub-theme is particularly interested in exploring water as a sacred environment, water as an agent of the sacred, water in rituals and memory, and water and the mythic imagination. Planned work will also focus on water in the Old Testament: its meanings, representations and subsequent interpretations, especially in eastern and western Christian traditions from the early church to the sixteenth century. The Institute welcomes a focus on this overall sub-theme from a variety of different disciplines, religions, faiths and cultures.


Theme fellows

To learn more about the Fellows from this theme, see the 2009/10 Water Fellows page.

Professor Richard Arculus (Australian National University)

Professor Veronica Strang (Durham University)

Professor Christer Bruun (University of Toronto)

Professor Iain Chambers (Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale)

Mr Ranjitsinh Gaekwad (Maharaja of Baroda) Sudheer Gupta (Filmmaker)

Professor Ezio Todini (Universitá di Bologna)

Dr Robin Hendry (Durham University)

Professor Andrew Baker (University of New South Wales)

Dr Paola Ceccarelli (UCL)

Dr Shlomi Dinar (Florida International University)

Professor Monica Grady (The Open University)

Professor Stefan Helmreich (MIT)

Dr Paul Langley (Durham University)

Dr Muhammad Saidam (Royal Scientific Society)

Surajit Sarkar (Filmmaker)

Professor Marilyn Strathern (University of Cambridge)

Dr Jenny Terry (Durham University)

Professor Ian Wright (The Open University)