The “Social Life” of a River: environmental histories, social worlds and conflict resolution along the Naryn-Syr Darya

Funded by Volkswagen Foundation


Project Summary: This three-year long research project involving anthropologists, political scientists an historians from Central Asian states under the lead of Dr. Jeanne Feaux de la Croix will produce a social and environmental history of the Naryn and Syr Darya river - the longest river in Central Asia, and second-largest feeder of the now divided Aral Sea. Its water allocation has been a central source of conflict between upriver and downriver republics in the independence era due to opposing interests in hydropower and irrigation. Part of unlocking the impasse over regional water management in Central Asia must be a re-appreciation of the Syr Darya as an object of enquiry, interaction and management.


Click on the map to get the details for each project.


Cooperation with other projects (overview):

  • Excellence Initiative University of Tübingen: 'Cultural History of Water in Central Asia' [link]
  • Collaborative Research Center 'Threatened Orders (CRC 923): 'Salinization as a threat to agrarian order in Russia, Kazakhstan/Tajikistan and Australia since 1945' [link]
  • Collaborative Research Centre 'ResourceCultures' (CRC1070) [link]


The Team: The team comprises the leader, two postdoctoral fellows and two doctoral students each investigating an aspect of the social worlds around the great river. Our team will work with archival documents, oral histories, ethnographic fieldwork and visual materials to document a multi-faceted history of how humans have viewed, understood and engaged with the Naryn-Syr Darya up to the present.

Dr. Jeanne Féaux de la Croix (project leader) will conduct an ethnographic study of the effect of 21st century hydropower projects on the upper Naryn in Kyrgyzstan.

Dr. Adham Ashirov (postdoctoral fellow) will investigate relations with the Syr Darya in two farming communities in the Ferghana valley, covering both micro-management practices as well as artistic and cultural forms of interaction with the river.  

Dr. Mokhira Suyarkulova (postdoctoral fellow) will research how knowledge about the  Naryn-Syr Darya is produced by global, regional and national water experts, and how these discourses affect relations with the river in the Tajikistani city of Khojand. 


Gulzat Baialieva, M.A. (doctoral student) will use ethnographic and historical methods to uncover the memories of establishing hydropower and attendant industries on the lower Naryn in the Soviet era, and their post-industrial afterlife.

Aibek Samakov, M.A. (doctoral student) is conducting a a twelve month ethnographic study in the Syr Darya delta and Northern Aral Sea, Kazakhstan. He focuses on common-pool resources such as fishing and reed beds on the river.

Building Partnerships and Sharing Knowledge
Rooted in the social sciences, this project seeks a sustained conversation with the water-related applied and natural sciences in Central Asia and beyond. We will collaborate with select partners in the region to boost research and teaching on political ecology, environmental anthropology and history. We will host two international workshops in Central Asia, as well as offering curriculum components and advice to local universities. The research findings will be widely shared through a range of publications targeting various audiences. Part of this effort in widely presenting research results will be a ‘Syr Darya Knowledge Hub’ (multimedia website and database) and associated exhibition that will travel along the river.

Current news

  • Call for Applictions: Knowing the Naryn River: A Transdisciplinary Flash Study in Kyrgyzstan, Shamaldy Sai, 26th-29th April 2018 (more information: Englisch and Russian)
  • Photo reportage: The Social Life of the Syr Darya: Connecting and Disconnecting Enviro-Technical Systems on a Central Asian River (online)
  • Conference CASI Bishkek 16-17 September 2016 (program)
  • Conference CESS Kazan 2-4 June 2016 (program)
  • Tashkent Conference  between 18-19 April 2016: "The social history and anthropogenic landscape of the Syr Darya river basin: Exploring an environmental archive" (program)