Christine Bichsel

 +41 26 300 9246

Géographie politique

Histoire de l'environnement

Professeur·e ordinaire
Département de Géosciences

PER 14 bu. 3.327.2
Ch. du Musée 4
1700 Fribourg
PER 14, 3.327.2


Christine Bichsel is a scholar of political geography and environmental history. She holds a PhD in Geography from the University of Berne. Her research explores how relations of power and violence shape knowledge, infrastructure and the environment. Her geographic areas of focus include Central Asia, Russia and China. Her scientific articles have appeared in Environment and Planning D, Water History and Slavic Review among other journals. A Professor in Human Geography at the Department of Geosciences at the University of Fribourg, she teaches courses on political geography and environmental history. Christine Bichsel has also taught and researched at the University of Zürich, and held visiting researcher positions at the National University of Singapore and the University of Melbourne.

Her research has dealt extensively with contemporary and past water issues in Central Asia. Her ethnography of irrigation showed how international peacebuilding initiatives attempted to resolve water conflicts in the Ferghana Valley. Her environmental history of irrigation on the Hungry Steppe revealed the relationships between water, infrastructure and political rule in Soviet Central Asia. Funding for her research was provided by several Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) grants. Christine Bichsel is the author of the book Conflict Transformation in Central Asia: Irrigation Disputes in the Ferghana Valley published with Routledge in 2009. Her next book Heavy Water: The Hungry Steppe Campaign in Soviet Tajikistan, 1958-1979 is under contract with Ohio University Press.

Christine Bichsel’s current research explores the history of Russian and Soviet glaciology in Central Asia. She examines the historical practices, geopolitics and epistemologies of glaciology in Central Asia. Her focus is on how Imperial Russian and Soviet science identified glaciers as scientific objects and established a relationship between glacier changes and time.  Christine Bichsel’s research contributes to unravelling the ideas of time and history that currently inform scientific concepts of climate change and the Anthropocene. Her research is funded by the SNSF project Timescapes of ice: Soviet glacier science in Central Asia, 1950s to 1980s (2021-2025) and the Swiss Polar Institute (SPI) Flagship Initiative From ice to microorganisms and humans: Toward an interdisciplinary understanding of climate change impacts on the Third Pole (PAMIR) (2022-2026).

Her current research also explores the geographies of science fiction. She focuses on the rising popularity of Chinese science fiction works. She examines how Chinese science fiction takes shape within the fields of power and politics in China, and through the geopolitics of its genre by contesting the current hegemony of European and North American works. She is interested in science fiction’s recent emergence as a crucial mode of thinking at the planetary scale. Christine Bichsel’s research reveals the relationships between fictional speculation, shared imaginary practices and networks of discursive and material circulation through which Chinese science fiction becomes a transcultural phenomenon. Her research is funded by the SNSF project The cultural logistics of Chinese science fiction (2021-2025).

Recherche et publications

  • Publications


    Bichsel, C. 2009. Conflict transformation in Central Asia. Irrigation disputes in the Ferghana Valley. London: Routledge.

    Peer-reviewed publications in international scientific journals

    Bichsel, C., E. Filep and J. Obertreis. 2022. The Soviet Steppe: Transformations and Imaginaries - Introduction. Slavic Review 81(1): 1-7.

    Bichsel, C. 2021. When Things Fall from the Sky: Understanding Rocket Stages on the Kazakh Steppe as Imperial Debris. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space Magazine.

    Bichsel, C. 2020. Introduction: Infrastructure on/off Earth. Roadsides 3:1-6.

    Bichsel, C. 2020. Out of the Past: The Space-Time of Infrastructure. Roadsides 3:48-56.

    Filep, E. and C. Bichsel. 2018. Towards a research agenda on steppe imaginaries in Russia and the Soviet Union. Geography, Environment, Sustainability 11 (3):39-48.

    Zinzani, A. and Bichsel, C. 2018. IWRM and the politics of scale: rescaling water governance in Uzbekistan. Water 10(3): 281.

    Bichsel, C. 2017. From dry hell to blossoming garden. Metaphors and poetry in Soviet irrigation literature on the Hungry Steppe. Water History 9(3): 337-359.

    Obertreis, J., T. Moss and M. Mollinga and C. Bichsel, 2016. Water, infrastructure and political rule. Introduction to the special issue. Water Alternatives 9(2):168-181.

    Bichsel, C. 2016. Water and the (infra-)structure of political rule: A synthesis. Water Alternatives 9(2):356-372.

    Bichsel, C. 2012. “The drought does not cause fear”. Irrigation history in Central Asia through James C. Scott's lenses. Revue d'études comparatives Est-Ouest (RECEO) 44(1-2): 73-108.

    Bichsel, C. 2011. Liquid challenges. Contested water in Central Asia”. Sustainable Development Law and Policy XII (1): 24-30.

    Bichsel, C. 2005. In search of harmony: repairing infrastructure and social relations in the Ferghana Valley. Central Asian Survey 24 (1): 53-66.

    Peer reviewed edited volumes / special issues

    Bichsel, C., E. Filep and J. Obertreis (guest editors). 2022. The Soviet Steppe: Transformations and Imaginaries. Slavic Review 81(1).

    Bichsel, C. (guest editor). 2020. Infrastructure on/off Earth. Roadsides 3.

    Bichsel, C., P. Mollinga, T. Moss and J. Obertreis (guest editors). 2016. Special issue: Water, infrastructure and political rule. Water Alternatives 9(2).

    Contributions to books

    Bichsel, C. 2022. White spots on rivers of gold: imperial glaciers in Russian Central Asia. In: Dodds, K. and S. Sörlin (eds) Ice Humanities: Living, working and thinking in a melting world. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 133-153.

    Bichsel, C. 2021. The history of water politics in Central Asia. In: Isaacs, R. and E. Marat (eds). Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Central Asia. Chapter 10. London: Routledge, pp. 154-167.

    Bichsel, C. 2018. In search of harmony: repairing infrastructure and social relations in the Ferghana Valley. In: Lemon, E. (ed) Critical Approaches to Security in Central Asia. London: Routledge, pp. 135-148.

    Bichsel, C. 2013. Dangerous Divisions: Peace-Building in the Borderlands of Post-Soviet Central Asia. In: Korf, B. and T. Raeymaekers (eds) Violence on the Margins. States, Conflict, and Borderlands. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 145-165.

    Bichsel, C. 2011. (with K. Mukhabbatov and L. Sherfidinov). Land, Water, and Ecology. In: Starr, F. S. (ed.). Ferghana Valley: The Heart of Central Asia. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe Inc., pp. 253-277.

    Bichsel, C. 2010. (with G. Fokou, A. Ibraimova, U. Kasymov, B. Steimann, and S. Thieme). Natural resource institutions in transformation: tragedy and glory of the private. In: Hurni H., Wiesmann U (eds) Global Change and Sustainable Development: A Synthesis of Regional Experiences from Research Partnerships. Perspectives of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South. Vol. 5. Bern: Geographica Bernensia, pp 255–269.

    Bichsel, C. 2009. (with S. Mason, T. Hagmann, E. Ludi and Y. Arsano). Linkages between sub-national and international water conflicts: the Eastern Nile Basin. In: Brauch, HG. et al. (eds). Facing Global Environmental Change. Environmental, Human, Energy, Food, Health and Water Security Concepts. Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace. Vol. 4. Berlin: Springer.

    Review essays

    Bichsel, C. 2020. Geographies of violence: beyond killing. Cultural Geographies, online first version.

    Bichsel, C. 2017. Violence as a human condition. Recent reflections from the German social sciences. Environment and Planning D 35(3):550-560.

    Conference proceedings

    Filep, E. and C. Bichsel. 2018. Steppe imaginaries in 20th century artistic literature. In: Chibilyov, A.A. (ed) Steppes of Northern Eurasia: Proceedings of the 8th International Symposium. Orenburg: Institute of the Steppe.

    Book reviews

    Bichsel, C. 2015. Review of: „Border work. Spatial Lives of the State in Rural Central Asia” (Madeleine Reeves, 2014). Environment and Planning D (online publication).

    Bichsel, C. 2014. Review of: “The Transformation of Tajikistan. The Sources of Statehood.” (Heathershaw, John and Herzig, Edmund (eds), 2012). Europe-Asia Studies 66(6):1017-1018.

    Bichsel, C. 2013. Review of: “Government of Paper. The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan” (Matthew S. Hull, 2012). Regional Studies 47 (4): 645-646.

    Bichsel, C. 2012. Review of: “Making great power identities in Russia. An ethnographic discourse analysis of education at a Russian elite university” (Martin Müller, 2008). Geographica Helvetica (1-2/2012).

    Bichsel, C. 2012. Review of: “Along the Archival Grain. Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense” (Ann Laura Stoler, 2009). Journal of Historical Geography 38 (2): 198-199.

    Bichsel, C. 2011. Review of: “Space, Place, and Power in Modern Russia. Essays in the New Spatial History” (Mark Bassin, Christopher Ely and Melissa K. Stockdale, 2010). Ab Imperio 2:372-377.

    Bichsel, C. 2010. Review of: “Argorods of Western Uzbekistan. Knowledge Control and Agriculture in Khorezm” (Caleeb Wall, 2008). Central Asian Survey 29 (4): 566-569. 


    Contributions to conferences and workshops


    Infrastructure and decolonisation: the case of Central Asia. Conference paper. Swiss Geosciences Meeting, panel "Infrastructures and Transformation", 18-19 November 2022, University of Lausanne, Lausanne.

    (with K. Doose) Growing deserts and melting glaciers. The desiccation debates and climate change in the late 19th and early 20th century. Presented at the 54th Annual Convention of the Association of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), panel “Tracing the Anthropocene. Environmental Change in Russian, Soviet, and Post-Soviet Earth Sciences I”, 13-14 October 2022, Virtual Convention.

    PAMIR and the History of Glacier Science. Invited conference talk and roundtable participation. Swiss Polar Institute event "Swiss Soicial and Human Sciences in the Circumpolar Regions", 16 May 2022, Geneva.

    Ice, men and muscles: gender and environment in Russian glacier science. Conference paper. Online worskhop "Relating to Environments in Central Asia", 20/22 January 2022, University of Tübingen / University of Liverpool.


    Split Spaces and Warped Borders: The Geometry of Power in China Miéville's The City & The City. Conference paper. Swiss Geosciences Meeting, panel "In/between Spaces of Power - SF Geographies of Bodies in Troubled Times", 19-20 November 2021, University of Geneva, Geneva.

    International conference "Eurasia in Transition: Geopolitics, Connections, and Challenges." Invited chair and discussant of panel "Regional Security Issues", 11-12 November 2021, University of Zürich, Zürich.

    White spots on rivers of gold. Imperial glaciers in Russian Central Asia. Geocolloquium, University of Fribourg, 19 October 2021, Fribourg, Switzerland.


    Wenn Dinge vom Himmel fallen: Raketentrümmer in Kasachstan als imperialer Schutt. Invited talk. Seminar series "Ökologische Transformationen: Osteuropa im globalen Umweltwandel" / "Ecological Transformations: Eastern Europe and Global Environmental Change", 22 October 2020, University of Berne, Berne, Switzerland.


    Fixity and flow: Rethinking narratives about Central Asia. Invited talk. Interdisciplinary workshop “New Developments in the Politics and International Relations of Post-Soviet Central Asia”, 20 September 2019, Center for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University, Stockholm, Sweden.

    When things fall from the sky. The cultural political economy of space debris in Kazakhstan. RGS-IBG 2019 Annual Conference, panel “The Final Frontier? The Enclosure of a Commons of Outer Space”, 28-30 August 2019, London, UK.

    Straight lines and vortical flows. Thinking infrastructure with the hydraulic. RGS-IBG 2019 Annual Conference, panel “Infrastructure as Theory and Method: Thinking Infrastructure”, 28-30 August 2019, London, UK.


    Geographies of (extra-)planetarity. Geocolloquium, University of Fribourg, 16 October 2018, Fribourg, Switzerland.

    Water and the (infra-)structure of political rule: irrigation in Central Asia. Seminar Series, School of Geography, University of Melbourne, 24 April 2018, Melbourne, Australia.


    From the steppe point of view. Environmental history of the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s. Presented at the 49th Annual Convention of the Association of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), panel “The Green and the Red. Environmental History and Soviet History”, 9-12 November 2017, Chicago, USA.

    (with Ekaterina Filep) Dekonstruktsiia predstavlenii o stepnom landshafte v khudozhestvennoi i nauchnoi literature s 1890 po 1960 gg. Invited presentation at Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences, 5 October 2017, Moscow, Russian Federation.

    Irruption. Rethinking subjectivity through the timespace effects of traumatic flashbacks. Presented at 7th Nordic Geographers Meeting (NGM), panel: “Geography of Trauma: Spatialities, Effects, Inequalities”, 18-21 June 2017, Stockholm, Sweden.


    Records of the future. Historical Geographies of a Soviet archive. Presented at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2016, panel “Where Next? Historical Geographies of the Future”, 30 August – 2 September 2016, London, UK.

    From dry sea to blossoming garden. An environmental history of the steppe in Soviet Central Asia. Presented at Geocolloquium of the Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, 29 November 2016, Fribourg.

    Records of the future. Historical Geographies of a Soviet archive. Presented at the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2016, panel “Where Next? Historical Geographies of the Future”, 30 August – 2 September 2016, London, UK.

    Wittfogel and beyond: water, infrastructure and political rule on the Hungry Steppe (1950-1980). Presented at 14th European Association for Social Anthropologists (EASA) Biennial Conference, panel “Water and social relations: Wittfogel’s legacy and hydrosocial futures”, 20-23 July 2016, Milano, Italy.

    Territory as a brotherly gift. Irrigation development and border changes on the Hungry Steppe, 1950-1970. Presented at conference “Empires of Water: Water Management and Politics in the Arid Regions of China, Central Eurasia and the Middle East (16th-20th centuries)”, panel “Canals and Colonization: Irrigation and Infrastructure in Authoritarian State-Making, 19th-21st Centuries”, 26-28 May 2016, Hongkong, China.


    Wasser, Infrastruktur und Macht. Presented at Deutscher Kongress für Geographie, panel „Geographien der Infrastruktur“, 1-6 October 2015, Berlin, Germany.

    Emoting water technology and infrastructure in Soviet Central Asia. Presented at Water History Conference 2015, panel “Colonial Waters”, 24-26 June 2015, Delft, Netherlands.

    From Generous to Hungry Steppe. Geographical Explorations of Central Asia. Presented at International Geographical Union Regional Conference 2015, panel “Exploring and mapping lands, air and waters. Research on the History of Geographical Explorations”, 17-21 August 2015, Moscow, Russian Federation.

    Input for roundtable „Suffizienz in der Schweiz – Impulse durch Sozial- und Geisteswissenschaften“, 10. eco.naturkongress „Gut leben: Mit Suffizienz gegen Verschwendung“, 27 March 2015, Basel, Switzerland.


    The material politics of infrastructure history. Presented at the 46th Annual Convention of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies “25 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Historical Legacies and New Beginnings”, roundtable “Material Politics: Infrastructure and Energy as New Perspectives on Central Asia”, 20-23 November 2014, San Antonio (TX), USA.

    New canals, shifting frontiers. Changes in Central Asia’s internal borders after the Second World War. Presented at the 46th Annual Convention of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies “25 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Historical Legacies and New Beginnings”, panel “Internal Borders in the USSR: When and How Did They Matter”, 20-23 November 2014, San Antonio (TX), USA.

    Reshaping motherhood through spatial formations of health care. Presented at RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2014, session "Spatial formations of expertise: knowing/shaping/reinventing the self", 27-30 August 2014, London, UK.

    Water and the (infra-)structure of rule. Presented at Second World Congress of Environmental History 2014 “Environmental History in the Making”, panel “Water, Infrastructure, and Rule; Regional and Historical Perspectives”, 8-12 July 2014, Guimarães, Portugal.


    "Those who control the hydraulic network are uniquely prepared to wield supreme power." Wittfogel's hydraulic hypothesis and its reception. Presented at European Society of Environmental History conference "Circulating natures: Water-Food-Energy", panel "Hydraulic societies: Karl Wittfogel's hypothesis on the environment, irrigation and statecraft", 20-24 August 2013, Munich, Germany.


    „Migrants“. Settlers from mountain areas to the steppe in a documentary film made in Soviet Tajikistan (1968). Invited presentation at workshop “Mobility and Identity in Central Asia”, 25 – 27 May 2012, Zürich, Switzerland.

    Water, Politics and Conflict in Central Asia. Invited talk at roundtable “Water, Politics, and Conflict”, breakout session on International Relations & Politics, Annual Munk School of Global Affairs Graduate Student Conference “Not a Drop To Drink: Water Scarcity and Politics in the 21st Century”, 31 March 2012, Toronto, Canada.

    Problemy razvitia Srednei Azii v postsovetskii period. Vsgliady iz Shveitsarii (na primere Ferganskoi doliny i Golodnoi stepi). Invited talk at Mountain Seminar, Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences, 16 February 2012, Moscow, Russian Federation.


    Lost objects. In the realm of the Soviet archive. Presented at RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2011, panel “Me, myself and the archive. Reflecting on encounters and enchantments”, 31 August - 2 September 2011, London, Great Britain.

    Von der Hungersteppe zum Neuland. Überlegungen zum Begriff “tselina” in der Tadschikischen SSR (1959-1979). Presented at workshop “Zentralasien: Auf dem Weg in die Moderne? Internationaler Workshop zur Untersuchung einer Konflikt- und Zukunftsregion”, Universität Basel, 26-27 May 2011, Basel.

    In the Name of Victory. Turning the Hungry Steppe into “New Land” in Zafarabad, Tajikistan (1959-1979). Public Lecture at University of Central Asia, 17 May 2011, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

    In (not so) cold blood. Reflections on ethnography as a methodology for researching conflict. Keynote speech at conference “Studying Conflict and Violence in Central Asia: Academic Traditions and Interdisciplinary Challenges”, American University of Central Asia, 14 May 2011, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

    On the territory of the Hungry Steppe. Presented at Geocolloquium, Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, 19 April 2011, Fribourg.


    Spatial trialectics. Taking Henri Lefebvre to Soviet Central Asia. Presented at 42th Annual Convention for the Association of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), panel “Contact Zones and Border Zones: Central Asia in the Post-Stalin Soviet Union”, 18-21 November 2010, Los Angeles, USA.

    Wasserkonflikte in Zentralasien. Knappe Ressourcen oder umstrittene Grenzen? Invited talk at Tagung „Klimawandel und Konflikte“ of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung (AFK), panel „Wasserverknappung als Medium von Konflikt und Kooperation“, 26-28 February 2010, Hamburg, Germany.

    Trouble on the Margins. Peace-building in the Borderlands of Post-Soviet Central Asia. Presented at International Workshop ‘Bringing the Margins Back In: War Making and State Making in the Borderlands, 12-14 February 2010, Ghent, Belgium.


    Dangerous Divisions: Revisiting Peace-building in the Ferghana Valley. Invited talk at the Seminar of the Centre for Contemporary Central Asia and the Caucasus, School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), 22 October 2009, London, Great Britain.


    Geographies of aid. Peace-building in Central Asia. Presented at Geography Seminar Series of the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, 3 October 2008, Singapore.

    Catching the sunlight. Aid workers and moral reasoning in southern Kyrgyzstan. Presented at First Regional Conference of the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS), panel “Ethnographies of Moral Reasoning in Kyrgyzstan”, 4 – 7 August 2008, Choq Tal, Kyrgyzstan.

    Water rights in southern Kyrgyzstan. Legal provision and social practices for access to water. Presented at workshop on “Water rights in Central Asia and South Asia”, 24 January 2008, Centre for Development and Environment (ZEF), Bonn, Germany.


    Bright future blues: development aid workers and technologies of the self in southern Kyrgyzstan. Presented at 106. Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association “Difference, (In)equality and Justice”, panel “Development of the Developed Second World, 27 November – 5 December 2007, Washington DC, USA.

    Wasser ausser Kontrolle? Reflexionen über Bewässerung und postsowjetische Transformation in Kirgistan. [Water beyond control? Reflections on irrigation and post-Soviet transformation in Kyrgyzstan]. Presented at Deutscher Geographentag, panel „Transformationsprozesse in Zentralasien“, 29 September – 5 October 2007, Bayreuth, Germany.

    It’s about more water. Natural resource conflicts in Central Asia. Presented at swisspeace Annual Conference “Environmental Peacebuilding: Managing Natural Resource Conflicts in a Changing World”, 13 November 2007, Berne, Switzerland.

    Water linking people: examples from the Ferghana Valley. Presented at Centre for Peacebuilding (KOFF) event “Water linking People: The Potential of Water for Cooperation”, swisspeace, 13 June 2007, Berne, Switzerland.

    Water and conflict: conceptual and empirical links from the Ferghana Valley. Presented at workshop “Environmental Conflicts: Experiences from Africa and Central Asia”, Europainstitut of the University of Basel, 8 June 2007, Basel, Switzerland.

    Poverty, conflict, and water. Guest lecture at OSCE Academy, module “Development Economics, Policy and Practice in Central Asia”, 20 March 2007, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.


    Managing competing demands for water: case study from Central Asia. Presented at International Symposium “Desertification and Global Change”, 31 May 2006, Berne, Switzerland.

    “The secret service is looking for you” – Researching conflict in Central Asia. Presented at workshop “Personal Security as a Challenge for Field Research: Experiences and Strategies”, swisspeace, 12 April 2006, Berne, Switzerland.


    Transboundary water conflicts and their management at community level. Experiences from the Ferghana Valley. Presented at workshop “Transboundary Management of Natural Resources in Transition Countries. Challenges, Potential and Constraints for Swiss Agency of Development Cooperation (SDC) and Partner Organisations”, 17 November 2005, Berne, Switzerland.

    White Beards or active citizens? Institutional approaches of the state and international organizations to mitigate conflicts in local southern Kyrgyzstan. Presented at workshop “Civil Society in the South Caucasus and Central Asia: Bridging Research and Practice”, 20 October 2005, London School of Economics (LSE), London, Great Britain.

    Conflict transformation and civil society in southern Kyrgyzstan. Presented at 9th European Society for Central Asian Studies (ESCAS) Conference “Central Asia: The Local, the Regional and the Global”, 12 – 14 September 2005, Krakow, Poland.

    Weisse Bärte und aktive Frauen: Institutionelle Ansätze von Staat und internationalen Organisationen zur Konfliktlösung in Südkirgistan [White beards and active women: institutional approaches of the state and international organisations for conflict mitigation in southern Kyrgyzstan]. Presented at Forum Entwicklung und Umwelt, University of Berne, 13 March 2005, Berne, Switzerland.


    “Repairing canals” – water conflicts & the politics of infrastructure in Batken province, Kyrgyzstan. Presented at Annual Conference of the Swiss Political Science Association, Working Group “Security Policy”, 18 – 19 November 2004, Balsthal, Switzerland.

    Ressourcenkonflikte um Wasser auf dem blauen Planeten – ein Paradoxon? [Resource conflicts over water on the blue planet – a paradox?]. Guest lecture at Spring Academy “Wasser – Konfliktstoff des 21. Jahrhunderts” of Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, 21 March 2004, Lambrecht, Germany.


    Wasserkonflikte im Ferghana-Tal: Der Fall des Kanals Nourgaziev [Water conflicts in the Ferghana Valley: the case of the canal Nourgaziev]. Presented at Forum Entwicklung und Umwelt, University of Berne, 26 November 2003, Berne, Switzerland.