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In New Caledonia, a legacy of water management for thousands of years

Reading time : 5 minutes

Delphine Coulange, New Caledonian Agronomic Institute; Caroline Lejars, CIRAD et Severine Bouard, New Caledonian Agronomic Institute

Since 1790, water distribution has been one of the municipal competences in the French water resource management system. Based on an approach favoring the technical aspects of the resource, water management in New Caledonia nevertheless has some specific features.

According to the land status on which the resource flows, the water depends on different legal frameworks, including that of the Custom.

The legal status of the water resource in New Caledonia.
//www.legifrance.gouv.fr

Water management in an intercultural situation

In New Caledonia, recherches are currently being carried out to identify the continuities and ruptures of water management methods on customary lands, whether formal or informal.

From ancient history to the present day, Melanesian representations To the technical understanding of water, this article highlights some elements of custom that influence water management, and the way in which the relationships between people, techniques and resources have shaped and still shape this management .

Map of New Caledonia with the two target municipalities of the study, D. Coulange, IAC. Click to zoom.
Author provided

Based on an ethnographic study of two Caledonian municipalities, he shows the importance of positions (different social roles of an individual) stakeholders in water management, as well as the link between this management and the space in which it operates.

A thousand-year-old practice

According to the archaeological work conducted on the island, water would have been mastered millennia ago for the irrigation of tarodières in terraces. These large, sophisticated agricultural works call on local knowledge and representations that continue to this day.

Tarodières from Honrôés to Bourail (1974).
A. Saussol, Heritage

Deviated upstream from a stream by a stone dam system, the water then circulated in canals dug in the earth. The goal was to irrigate the taro crops organized in steps on the slopes.

Site of irrigated terraced tarodières in Hienghène (2016).
Georep base map and Delphine Coulange adaptation, Author provided

Only certain Kanaks (first people of New Caledonia) were legitimate to assume the customary roles to take care of this irrigation system, and / or to find the sources.

The concept of "positionality" to talk about the actors of water management on customary lands

There are many technical parallels between the current methods of distributing drinking water in the tribes studied and that of irrigation water from the tarodières.

Comparative diagram of surface fresh water distribution systems, traditional (irrigation and drinking water) and contemporary (drinking water).
Delphine Coulange, Author provided

The water flow is gravity-driven, and surface water intakes are preferred. With reservoirs today, or basins at the time, water is stored before being sent to the plots and / or homes.

Officially and traditionally, specific individuals are responsible for maintaining these water systems. Here, the concept of “positionality” makes it possible to define the social, customary and professional dimensions of the individual responsible for water management. Traditionally and informally, these actors are chosen from among the land clans, therefore according to their name and where they come from.

Formally, they are professionals affiliated either to town hall water services or to private companies depending on the management mode chosen by the town hall. When the individual is as legitimate in his profession as in his customary role, this reinforces the legitimacy of exercising his function, his role. Professional and customary statutes are then articulated and facilitate local water management.

Diagram of a typical typology of positions for an individual on customary land.
Delphine Coulange, Author provided

Conversely, “conflicting” positions can generate management difficulties.

The influence of the territory on the definition of "positionalities"

In the same way that the customary role involves the legitimacy of an individual in managing the resource, the territory spatially circumscribes this legitimacy. Customary roles are associated with the names of clans that depend on specific localities. The individual, having left his territory, cannot exercise all the dimensions of his role.

Very micro-localized, these places determine the Kanak identity, since the clans consider themselves as belonging to these places. The earth does not own itself, it is it and the ancestors who are there who own the individuals. Water thus clears its way through the lands that belong to the ancestors, it is considered as “tenant of the earth” from which it springs and on which it circulates.

Photo of an irrigated terraced tarodière site in Hienghène.
Marine Pizette / IAC, Author provided

A Shared Water Policy (PEP)

Since 2018 and the start of construction of the PEP of New Caledonia, the main idea has been to meet both environmental and health imperatives but also to respect the various cultural representations and uses of water. The the link between the Kanak man and the resource is at the heart of the ongoing questions.

In anticipation of climatic hazards, and in view of the unequal distribution of the resource over the territory, the priority issues are protection and equitable distribution of water resources, while respecting management methods and local specificities.

Delphine Coulange, Anthropologist, Territories, Actors and Uses Team (TERAU), New Caledonian Agronomic Institute; Caroline Lejars, Agro-economist, UMR Water management, Actors, Uses (UMR G-EAU), CIRAD et Severine Bouard, Geographer, Territories, Actors and Uses Team (TERAU), New Caledonian Agronomic Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

© Roberto H - Unsplash

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