Categories
Commentary

Troubling Waterscapes: Our journey of counter-mapping the multiple waters of Pravah

Arianna Tozzi, Irene Leonardelli, Enid Still, and Sneha Malani describe their work with counter-mapping. Using rivers and the flows of water and pollution as entry points, they capture urban-rural interdependencies in their rich and multi-faceted website Troubling Waterscapes. Here they provide a background to their counter-mapping project.

This project began with a friendship between three PhD researchers, and an artist/practitioner, with a common interest in water and agriculture, and a desire to explore creative methods of engaging with our research topics.

‘Troubling Waterscapes’ was developed as an online exhibition for the bi-annual POLLEN conference in September 2020: Contested Natures: Power, Possibility, Prefiguration. Rather than classic academic presentations and panel discussions, where words and theoretical concepts dominate, we invited participants to think with and through water in creative ways. We used ‘troubling’ as a praxis of questioning dominant narratives of resource commodification ‘from above’ and victimhood ‘from below’, inviting the audience to think through the complexities of the uneven socionatural relations that surround us. 

Our story begins in Pravah, the fictional name for a rural village in Maharashtra, India, where Irene lived during her PhD research, learning from the farming practices of women growing flowers to supply to markets in the nearby city of Pune. The waters of Pravah are troubled in many complex ways. Located in a notoriously drought-prone region, a wastewater transfer scheme transports wastewater from Pune to the village for irrigation purposes. As the wastewater reaches Pravah, it is stored in wells and ponds across the community, percolating into the aquifer and contaminating existing water sources. Though the scheme increased water supply and brought economic opportunities for some, it has also profoundly re-shaped Pravah’s (waste)waterscape. Ironically, a village, once famous for its sweet, pure water, nowadays needs to purchase purified water from a ‘water ATM’ as the drinking well is now contaminated. Together with people, animals, plants, crops, weeds everything and everybody has been drawn into rearranging their everyday dealings with water, navigating across different layers of purity and contamination. As the wastewater makes its way back to the city of Pune in the form of flowers, its circulation creates complex urban-rural socionatural entanglements whose complexities became the initial canvas for our counter-mapping journey. 

Through Irene’s stories and maps of Pravah we started reflecting together on different ways of being with, understanding, knowing, and feeling water. Speaking online from isolation across different parts of the world, we started adding layers to the map in the form of photos, poetry, satirical sketches, reflection, and animations. These expressions were sparked by our collective conversations as we further troubled and questioned our engagement with waters and agriculture from multiple perspectives. Together, we reflected on what water infrastructures are (materially and symbolically) about their histories and meanings. We discussed how the people’s experiences and engagements with different waters (groundwater, wastewater, rainwater) change throughout time and space, and how these differences are reflected across multiple intersecting identities. We questioned how the very materiality of water, its fluidity, transparency, taste, affects, everyday dealings, and experiences changed across different waterscapes.

As part of the exhibition, we extended these questions to the broader audience as we invited people to reflect with us, contributing with their artistic work and counter-maps of the troubled water relations in their research and everyday life from other sites and places.

We hope this process and visualisation won’t end with this website. Rather we hope it will inspire others to use creative methods to think through the complexities of socionatural relations and interdependencies.

By Arianna Tozzi, Irene Leonardelli, Enid Still, Sneha Malani

Our website — www.troublingwaterscapes.org — was collectively designed but created and produced by Karin Hueck.

For more information about the project, see this prezi-presentation.

This project has received support and funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 764908.

Categories
Commentary

Tying a New Rope to an Old One: Developing an Environmental Education Curriculum in Benin

Emmanuel Awohouedji, a Benin environmentalist and educator, shares his experience of building and teaching a curriculum focusing on environmental problems and issues for middle and high schools in the Republic of Benin. This type of teaching is missing in Benin and requires overcoming administrative, structural and material hurdles—but also provides rich experiences for others to learn from.

My pedagogical work in the Republic of Benin refers to the planning and implementing of a comprehensive environmental education curriculum that can help young students understand and have a growing interest in—and impact on—their surrounding environments.

For the last two years I have developed this curriculum and while much is left to do, it is clear that this curriculum is missing in Benin today. Despite efforts in the early 2000s to implement environmental education, today none of the seven subjects taught in secondary classes or the nine taught in high school have a serious focus on environmental issues. Considering however the changes affecting the Beninese environment, the impacts of environmental issues, climate impact on water, food, energy, health, ecosystems, various sources of pollution (Boko, Kosmowski and Vissin n.d.), and the legislation related to environmental protection, this form of environmental education is relevant.

Through working with  my students I have started to develop an environmental curriculum for middle and high school students in my country. Overall, I have worked with four classes, for two years, each having between 17 to 24 students and about 70 students in total. In this blog post I share from my experience in the hope that it can help others that are thinking of doing something similar and generate interest beyond Benin and Africa. 

Students in class here preparing to do a video as part of their study of pollution from plastics.
Students in class. Here they are preparing to do a video as part of their study of pollution from plastics.

Rise and fall of environmental education in Benin

Benin has had a period of country-wide interest in environmental education, which faded away. In 1999 a series of toxic waste trade and dumping in Benin was publicly revealed, which included African and European and North American countries (Short, 2016; Inyang, 1997; Agbor, 2016). This was soon after followed by an environmental protection law that was voted on and promulgated in parliament. Later in the 2000s, the first formal initiative for environmental education was taken by the Ministry in Charge of the Environment, Habitat and Urbanism (Ministère de l’Environnement de l’Habitat et de l’Urbanisme, MEHU), which linked up with the Beninese Agency for the Environment that proposed an environmental education program for primary schools. This would aim to reinforce students’ knowledge and awareness of environmental issues and ignite a desire in them to find solutions to environmental issues in their own country and the world. 

This program succeeded in creating a curricula geared at implementation throughout the six years of primary school. However, it did not last long in most pilot schools and the initiative soon faded out. The only other classes that take some environmental issues into account, for example biology, physics, and history-geography classes, don’t have any in-depth focus on environmental issues. To complement what is already taught, I set out to develop a new environmental curriculum.

Building a new environmental education curriculum

To build a new environmental curriculum in Benin it is crucial to tie it to a former rope of ancient traditions of environmental knowledge. Most African countries have built their knowledge of the world on observation of nature and nature worshiping (Chukwunonyelum, Chukwuelobe and Ome 2013). People have been inspired by their surrounding world, while finding a place within it, a cultural-biophysical process that has informed their habits, practices, and customs. People have also inscribed religious value into environmental components, which can be viewed as an important base for environmental knowledge and learning. For instance, there is a long history of sacred forests (Zinsou, 2016), which includes the living beings  inhabiting them (Chouinard and Dovonou-Vinagbè 2009). Plants and roots have been acknowledged to have various important medicinal values and these living things thus form a center of knowledge, easily accessible to some, but only taught to a selected few. Overall, this means that environmental education is not a new concept, but part of old even ancient practices and understandings.

For these reasons, I portrayed my initiative as one that is about recognizing the existence of an old rope of knowledge that can be tied to a newer and more formalized one. 

Emmanuel Awohouedji is developing an environmental education curriculum in the Republic of Benin. Together with his students they explore environmental issues that ties traditional knowledge with scientific approaches. For World Environment Day in 2018 they made a video on plastic pollution that was presented by the students and uploaded to the Internet.

Therefore, I decided to launch an environmental education program for middle and high schools. This means first presenting what I refer to as “principal environmental components” to students, which includes water, air, and land, but also waste, health, cities, and the climate. Usually, we would start each environmental component with brainstorming questions which would have the students understand the importance of these elements in relation to their own culture and personal belief.

Over the last two years I have been able to teach students about various things that are fundamental to environmental issues. This has included, for instance: water, water scarcity, water related problems and possible solutions; the climate and the underlying reasons for climate change; energy and possible renewable energy sources; biodiversity and the complexity of the environment; and food chains and how pollution ends up in vital food chains that effect humans and animals. More topics will be introduced, including household waste management, cities, and air pollution. 

One important vehicle to introduce and develop the program has been to organize field trips and practical activities with the students. We have been able, despite scarce resources, to organize one field trip as well as taking advantage of two other trips. The first trip was to Ouidah, a historical city about an hour and a half form the school by bus. I took advantage of that opportunity to discuss mangroves, wetlands, ocean, and sea water. Djègbadji and the area surroundings Ouidah are places that many people would know as salt making areas, but not places with big environmental benefits. The second trip was to the botanical garden of the University of Abomey-Calavi (UAC), also known as CenPreBAf (Centre Pilote Régional de la Biodiversité Africaine: Regional Pilot Center for African Biodiversity), founded by the first rector and dean of the university, Pr. Édouard Adjanohoun in 1970. The garden is comprised of 15 hectares of three categories of plants and of animals. Thanks to this visit, 44 students were able to ask questions, discover new forms of biodiversity and observe a rather well-maintained environment, which nurtured dicussions how formal and traditional knowledges relate to each other. The third and last field trip allowed us to visit the Jardin des plantes et de la nature (JNP), the National Botanical Garden in Porto-Novo the lies in the capital of Benin. This is a larger garden that offered a wider variety of species to learn about. During this visit, we had about 55 students who could learn about the importance of trees and their conservation. As a last trip for the year, we made plans to visit Sô-Ava, a wetland area with a lake village.

Challenges and a potential road ahead

The first year of developing this environmental education project was quite rough. It was necessary to gather information from various sources of knowledge, and to transform them into understandable content for the students depending on their class level. However, my expectations for teaching these classes have progressively been met. Nonetheless, some challenges remained during the second year. 

Even though I am working for a private school, students face difficulties in having adequate materials for other mandatory classes, so the environmental education class is no exception. There is a lack of materials to run some of the experiments. The field trips have demanded resources such as bus rentals, catering, entrance fees (occasionally), and other miscellaneous items. Access to books is a problem. The school’s small library lacks resources and only some students are able to ask their parents for internet access and online materials. Some students have phones, but most of them are not able to pay for data and there is generally a lack of skills in using computers and electronic equipment. This means paper resources and physical materials are a must, but unfortunately difficult to provide at all time. 

Central to the teaching experience have been to incorporate the varied cultural backgrounds that the students represent, which sits at the heart of tying two ropes together. This is an ongoing challenging process also for me as the teacher. There are up to 40 languages in Benin and even though I can speak two languages and understand a third, I am unable to know the full range of possible cultural meanings of the topics we study. Sometimes I feel out of my depth but this is also an interesting phase of learning for me.

Another challenge, which I am sure many teachers would recognize, is to provide a curriculum while at the same time having other teaching responsibilities. This can be daunting. Teaching requires various administrative responsibilities. Initiating a new curriculum also demands constant research and personal commitment. Combining both has sometimes been exhausting. Initially, the idea was to work with some peers, but they quickly got absorbed with their own subjects and preoccupations. Ultimately, however, the next step for me is to show to others what I have accomplished so far and try to build a team of four or five people. I have been involved with an environmental education project that was partially funded by the Ambassador’s Self Help Fund 2018-2019. The team which I worked with was quite effective and if I manage to have them work in environmental education programme with me, then the results will certainly be more impactful. On my wish list is also to write or co-write a book that captures my experiences with developing this program and its philosophy of tying the old and new rope together, linking traditional and scientific understandings. The book would serves as a resource for others to launch similar environmental education activities in their schools and maybe progressively create an environmental education network serving schools and communities across the country.

Field trips in Benin
Group picture during the field trip to Porto-Novo (JNP). Photo Credits: Emmanuel Awohouedji.

Acknowledgements

I want to thank many people in developing this environmental curriculum but especially the professor of History and Geography of the Bishop Melchior of Marion Bresillac Billingual (Ecoles Bilingues Monseigneur Melchior de Marion Bresillac) Schools of Gninin, Akassato, Republic of Benin, Mr. Zouma Donatien. I also thank Dr. Henrik Ernstson at The University of Manchester for feedback on this blog post and for publishing it at the Situated UPE Commentaries section.

Works cited and more reading

Agbor, Avitus A. “The Ineffectiveness and Inadequacies of International Instruments in Combatting and Ending the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and Environmental Degradation in Africa.” African Journal of Legal Studies 9, no. 4 (August 2016).

Boko, Michel, Frederic Kosmowski, and Expedit Vissin. Les enjeux du changement climatique au Benin. Research Paper, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Cotonou: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, n.d.

Chouinard, Omer, and Pricette Dovonou-Vinagbè. “Gestion communautaire des ressources naturelles au Bénin (Afrique de l’Ouest) : le cas de la vallée du Sitatunga.” Études caribéennes, April 2009: http://journals.openedition.org/etudescaribeennes/3630.

Chukwunonyelum, A., M. Chukwuelobe, and E. Ome. “Philosophy, Religion and the Environment in Africa: The Challenge of Human Value Education and Sustainability.” Open Journal of Social Sciences 1, no. 6 (November 2013): 62-72.

Environment, UN. Global environment outlook. Summary for policy makers, Nairobi: Cambridge press, 2019.

Inyang, Ini George. “The political economy of international trade in hazardous and toxic wastes in West Africa:theoretical and case study.” ETD Collection for AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library, 12-1-1997: 225.

Short, Rebecca. There Is No Land For Toxic Dumping In Africa. Spring 2016. http://afjn.org/there-is-no-land-for-toxic-dumping-in-africa/ (accessed April 29, 2019).

Zinsou, Marie-Valerie. “Au Benin les religions mobilisées pour la protection de la nature.” La Croix Africa, 23 December 2016: https://africa.la-croix.com/benin-religions-mobilisees-protection-de-nature/.

Categories
Announcements Commentary Conferences

Repairing, Repurposing, Retreating: The Materialities of Climate Response

CFP: RGS-IBG Annual Conference. London 1-4 September 2020
Repairing, Repurposing, Retreating: The Materialities of Climate Response

Organizers:

Nate Millington (University of Manchester)
Sarah Knuth (Durham University)
John Stehlin (University of North Carolina at Greensboro)

A crucial question in confronting climate change and creating just climate futures is the need to better understand the complex and geographically differentiated material footprint(s) of existing economies, infrastructures, and socio-technical arrangements. New frameworks for both mitigating and adapting to climate change require complex negotiations between that which already exists and that which is yet to come, and these articulations of past, present, and future carry divergent political orientations and possibilities. For example, programs for modifying the existing infrastructures of daily life through renewable energy substitution, more efficient transport, and a denser built environment now coexist with calls for radical overhaul of the existing built environment through deep decarbonization. The variegated potential pathways for a just transition call attention to differing political orientations, possibilities, and relations to existing material life within current climate responses. We call these orientations repairing, repurposing, and retreating. While these categories overlap in various ways, we suggest them as a means of cohering differing approaches to transforming the contemporary built environment that are being articulated by scholars, engineers, activists, and elected officials. We suggest that propositions for the future oriented through these categories are worth exploring further, both in and of themselves and in their complex entanglements in political visions on the ground – people’s everyday sense of their needs, possibilities for the future, foreclosed options, and grievances, whether present or imagined. 

In this session, we invite papers interested in the relationship between the existing and the anticipatory in responding to climate change and climate crisis. We ask: How do we face the challenge of existing, obdurate built environments and infrastructures (and imaginaries and imperatives built upon and around them) in responding to the threat/s of climate change? Are such materialities as obdurate as is often imagined, and if so, to what degree? With what stakes, and with and for whom, do we engage this obduracy?

Paper titles and abstracts of 250 words should be sent to Nate Millington (nate.millington@manchester.ac.uk), Sarah Knuth (sarah.e.knuth@durham.ac.uk), and John Stehlin (jgstehli@uncg.edu) by 7th February 2020.

Categories
Commentary

The tensions of spatial justice in the progressive realisation of housing rights in South Africa.

A recent Tweet [1] about the injustice of the rental housing stock in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, had me revisit my understanding of South Africa’s housing conundrum. My early career passion on urban slums and city spatial planning threw me into the abyss of just how difficult it is to provide dignified housing for all. Without major overhaul of the world economy, alongside systematic global redistribution of wealth, achieving spatial justice has proven a mammoth task. To be sure, the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution (1996) states: ‘everyone has the right to have access to adequate housing’. While this leaves enough room for interpreting what ‘adequate’ is, there is a general public consensus in South Africa that living in a shack is not it.

As I will show in this piece, creating an informal settlement or putting up one’s shack is part of the on-going struggle for adequate housing and property rights in South Africa. Many have heeded the call by Lefebvre (1996[1968]) and argued that the ‘right to the city’ is the access to social freedoms required to achieve spatial justice (Dikeç, 2002; Mitchell, 2003; Harvey, 2008; Huchzermeyer, 2014). Few have discussed the particular and paradoxical conditions of spatial justice that query the universal understanding of what justice is for whom. Furthermore, few have questioned whether housing and property rights prescribed in the South African Constitution (1996) can achieve spatial justice in a relational and multiscalar way, from city to household level. My assertion here is that we have to be more careful not to synonymize the codification of legal rights with justice in order to see actually existing tensions of spatial justice.

In the South African National Housing Code (2009) the government explains what it means by ‘adequate housing’ and ‘sustainable residential environments’. Legally, it addresses these rights in a scalar and relational way. Originally provided in section 1 (vi) of the Housing Act, 1997 (Act No. 107 of 1997), it states:

the establishment and maintenance of habitable, stable and sustainable public and private residential environments to ensure viable households and communities in areas allowing convenient access to economic opportunities, and to health, educational and social amenities in which all citizens and permanent residents of the Republic will, on a progressive basis, have access to:

(a) permanent residential structures with secure tenure, ensuring internal an

external privacy and providing adequate protection against the elements; and

(b) potable water, adequate sanitary facilities and domestic energy supply.

An uninsulated living unit located in townships and neighbouring informal settlements in South Africa are generally made of corrugated iron, wood or plastic boards, or any other scrap materials. Colloquially they are called stand-alone shacks if they are part of a group of single shacks in an informal settlement (i.e. slum or ‘squatter camp’); or backyard shacks if they are set up behind a state-subsidised house built from bricks and mortar. Shacks have no direct access to water, power or sanitation. Shacks or ‘informal units’ have long been part of the South African urban landscape as a means for the poor to live closer to work and have easier access to the city. During Apartheid, creating informal settlements was a way for black women to live closer to their black male partners entering the city as migrant labourers, or to find their own informal jobs such as domestic work (Makhulu, 2015). The migrant labour system separated black families. In some ways, informal settlements were a political act to defy influx laws against black, rural migrants moving to ‘whites-only’ cities (ibid.). In the post-Apartheid era it has become a way to be counted, as I explain next

[

If you are a South African permanent resident, married or with dependents, and earning below R3500 (which increases slowly with inflation) you are eligible for a fully-subsidised house on a titled piece of land from the government. The National Housing Code (2009) provides a range of housing subsidy programs that municipalities can apply to on behalf of individuals and whole communities in need of housing. The Individual Subsidy Programme has been most prominent in the proliferation of what are commonly known as ‘RDP houses’ (Reconstruction and Development Programme) in old, new and expanding township areas. However, in the past decade, a shift has been made to include incremental upgrading in the housing process, toward eventual permanent structures on titled land. Like many rapidly urbanising countries experiencing high population growth and an inability to meet state-regulated housing demand, the shift away from slum eradication to slum upgrading was led globally by UN-Habitat. This was paramount in blurring the lines between ‘unlawful occupation’ or ‘illegal squatting’ and ‘informal housing’. In South Africa, informal housing is usually a shack – considered undignified and unjust by the general public.    

To echo the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution (1996) ‘the state must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within its available resources, to achieve the progressive realisation of this right’ – to housing. After independence many countries of the global South used loans and financial aid to provide necessary urban infrastructure and flesh out the newly formed government bodies. Socio-economic development programs were initiated, with the assistance of ‘more developed’ countries in the global North, to meet universal human rights standards provided by the United Nations (UN). However, it became evident that, as the deadlines set by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) came and went without achieving these universal rights, the UN needed a more incremental approach. 

Incremental upgrading of informal housing works in favour of the progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing. It supports a rental market as a livelihood strategy for the poor and it does not condemn living informally as a way to achieve Lefebvre’s much revered ‘right to the city’ movement. The National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP) and other financial mechanisms or agencies are in place to boost the rental property market in townships through incremental improvements on properties (South African Department of Human Settlements, accessed 22 October 2019). Organisations such as the Development Action Group and SDI (Slumdwellers International) South African Alliance, or companies like Melana Developments are working closely with RDP-house property owners, the state and financial support entities to incorporate informality into legal rights. After all, universal adequate housing as explained in government documents is a long-term goal of the state. If the progressive realisation of the right to adequate housing is within constitutional bounds, then so must be kind of uninsulated unit / shack / informal unit the Tweet shows is being advertised. However, is it just to be living in such conditions?

Poor households renting out their shack for supplemental income is a contentious issue from a justice perspective if we consider the multiscalar and relational aspects of spatial justice. The housing conundrum exists within the constraints of slow urban land reform and unaffordable housing construction costs along market rates and regulatory standards. The rental markets also exist within the constraints of unemployment rates at 29% for the last quarter of 2019 – and higher if the ‘expanded definition’ and underemployment are considered (Webster, 2019 and Beukes et al., 2017). In response to the comment on the Tweet above, while it is unjust to live in undignified housing it would also be unjust to make it unconstitutional to live in or rent out a shack. The state has not and/or cannot provide enough adequate housing for everyone (at least not immediately), nor are there enough wage-earning jobs for sufficient household income.

In the context of achieving ‘the right to the city’ where informal housing units and informal settlements are no longer condemned or eradicated, different forms of justice are at odds with each other. Clear tensions exist between the right to access sustainable urban environments and the right to access adequate housing for all when the provision of both are futuristic (i.e. progressive). In effect they create inequality. What does spatial justice mean in cities where the codification of legal rights carries with it extreme differences in the ability to materialise these rights? At present millions can access urban environments and housing but dignified and sustainable living is dependent on state progress – which has delays in the decades. The current tensions of spatial justice should shift our gaze beyond legal rights to a complex of rights – political, economic and social.

[1] I received a copy of this tweet without identifiers on 17 October 2019 via WhatsApp

References

Beukes, R., Fransman, T., Murozvi, S. and Yu, D., 2017. Underemployment in South Africa. Development Southern Africa, Vol. 34: 1, 33-55. DOI: 10.1080/0376835X.2016.1269634

Dikeç, M., 2002. Police, politics, and the right to the city. GeoJournal 58, 91–98.

Harvey, D., 2008. The right to the city. New Left Rev. 53, 23–40.

Huchzermeyer, M., 2014. Invoking Lefebvre’s ‘right to the city’ in South Africa today: A response to Walsh, City, 18:1, 41-49, DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2014.868166

Makhulu, A., 2015. Making Freedom: Apartheid, Squatter Politics, and the Struggle for Home. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mitchell, D., 2003. The Right to the City. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Ranchhod, V., 14 February 2019. Why is South Africa’s unemployment rate so high? GroundUp, accessed 22 October 2019. Weblink: https://www.groundup.org.za/article/why-south-africas-unemployment-rate-so-high/

Republic of South Africa. Housing Act, 1997 (Act No. 107 of 1997). Accessed 23 October 2019. Weblink: http://www.saflii.org/za/legis/num_act/ha1997107.pdf

Republic of South Africa, 2019. South African Government: Housing. Accessed 21 October 2019. Weblink: https://www.gov.za/about-sa/housing#NUSP

Republic of South Africa, 2009. The National Housing Code: Part 3 Technical and General Guidelines.

Republic of South Africa, 1996. The South African Constitution, Chapter 2: The Bill of Rights. Accessed 24 October 2019. Weblink:   https://www.gov.za/documents/constitution/chapter-2-bill-rights#26

Webster, D., 2 August 2019. Unemployment is South Africa is worse than you think. New Frame, accessed 25 October 2019. Weblink: https://www.newframe.com/unemployment-in-south-africa-is-worse-than-you-think/


[1] I received a copy of this tweet without identifiers on 17 October 2019 via WhatsApp

Categories
Commentary

Exploring infrastructures of (water) storage in Accra

Accra is a city of storage. While walking across its busy roads, one can spot a myriad of objects used to transport, store and sell water: Water is sold at the traffic light in tiny plastic ‘sachet’ bags, plastic or metal containers mounted on trucks are used to transport and sell bulk water, and residents carry and store water in plastic buckets or in large plastic containers known locally as ‘polytanks.’

Despite the widespread presence of storage facilities, these find only limited space in analysis of the politics of urban water in Accra and elsewhere. Indeed, the attention is often concentrated on the circulation of water through large-scale networks of pipes, and on the history, uneven geography and intermittent working of networked infrastructure. Yet, as Millington (2018) recently showed for São Paulo, attending to the role of technologies of storage is important to understand the functioning of urban water systems and the relations between water use at the household level and water provisioning at the urban and regional scale. In contexts of drought and rainfall uncertainty, as in São Paulo, focusing on storage facilities plays a crucial role in understanding residents’ everyday experiences of scarcity, revealing their differentiated capacities to adapt/cope/deal with shortages. Additionally, it calls attention to state responses to (produced) water crisis. The role of common objects such as barrels and cisterns to store water is also underscored by Meehan’s (2014) study of water infrastructure and state power in Tijuana. These ordinary tools, she argues, work as stopgap measures for households but also “help create the conditions for material, self-organizing sites: in which rules, practices, and norms emerge in spatially embedded but autonomous ways” (p.8).

Buckets at the standpipe and polytank

What role does storage play in Accra? What story do buckets, storage tanks, jerrycans, and water sachets tell about the city and its water supply? All these water containers, and their presence in the streets, on rooftops, and on trucks, represent a tangible sign of the intermittent and uneven nature of pipe water supply across the city and the multiple ways through which urban dwellers have managed to establish access to water in the face of continued shortages. The use of storage facilities is not new; storage has been used since pre-colonial and colonial time when vessels and traditional clay pots were used to store water collected from wells and ponds. While the majority of people used buckets before the construction of networked infrastructure, the colonial administration financed the installation of large metal tanks in the bungalows occupied by European officials to store harvested rainwater (Bohman, 2010). When piped water supply reached the city in 1914, the use of storage facilities remained necessary for the majority of people who still got their water from public standpipes. Only wealthy individuals got an in-house connection (ibid.). Despite continued investments in the expansion of pipe-borne water supply by post-colonial governments, storing water has remained an important strategy to cope with intermittent water supply. The ubiquitous presence of storage containers is the material manifestation of the persistence of shortages. Recycled into water containers referred to as ‘Kufour Gallons,’ yellow jerrycans previously used for storing cooking oil are a symbol of the challenges of accessing water across the city. The jerrycans became popular improvised storage containers used by lower income households to fetch and store water in the face of water shortages that hit the country in the years preceding the privatisation of the utility. The water containers were named after the president of Ghana at the time, John Kufour (2001-2008). Together with ‘Kufour Gallons’, plastic buckets and storage tanks are also part of Accra’s storage infrastructure, all used by residents as measures to deal with intermittent (or absent) pipe water supply.

Kufuor gallons’ ready for home-delivery

But not all storage containers are the same and not all residents can afford to buy a storage facility or to purchase water to fill it. Indeed, how, where, and in which type of container water is carried and stored has important consequences for how residents access water in terms of quantity, quality and means of access. Buckets are used by low-income residents who are not formally allowed or cannot afford a domestic pipe connection. Excluded from direct access to tap water, these residents have no other choice than to fetch water from neighbours or standpipes installed by the utility (the Ghana Water Company Lmt., GWCL) and carry it to their dwellings with buckets.The size of the bucket indicates the price of water: sizes range from 25 to 45 litres and prices between 0,15 to 0,80 GHS (approximately 3-15¢). Prices vary according to the area, however, and pipe-born water tends to be more expensive than groundwater. While low income households often rely on buckets, large storage containers to store water are installed by those who can afford to purchase or construct them, and have the space to accommodate these facilities within their dwelling.

Besides being a material manifestation of the persisting inequalities in water access, storage infrastructure is also an important infrastructure for Accra’s water economy. It is precisely while researching the everyday practices of water vending that I realized the role that storage infrastructure plays in the daily work of vendors, tanker operators, and their customers: storage facilities allows for water to be purchased and resold in small and smaller units at varying prices (Bartels et al. 2018). This becomes clear when considering sachet water and ‘polytanks’. The former refers to 500 ml water packaged in polyethylene plastic bags; the latter refers to large plastic rotational moulded storage tanks of various shapes, colours and sizes. These take their name from Polytank Ghana Limited, a company that specialises in the production of plastic products that first introduced the storage tanks in Ghana in the early 1990s.[1] In the last twenty years, sachet water has become an important source of drinking water for residents, daily commuters, and visitors of the Ghanaian capital (Morinville, 2017), and polytanks one of the most popular bulk water storage facilities. Both sachet bags and polytanks are used by resident to access water, but they are also a key infrastructure used for informal water provisioning. Mounted on trucks, polytanks are used by tankers to deliver water and by vendors to re-sell water to neighbours. They are also part of ´compound systems:’ micro-systems of pipes connected to a series of taps integrated in the outer wall of a house allowing them to sell water without customers entering their property (Alba and Bartels, 2016). While polytanks allow for selling water in bulk, sachet bags allow water to be sold in small units at the traffic lights, in specialized ‘water depots’ and in small stores. The sachet water industry is described as a vibrant industry employing a growing number of people both in large corporations and small family businesses, with its own National Association of Sachet and Packaged Water Producers (NASPAWAP).[2]

Household water storage

‘Polytank’ tanker truck

Following sachet bags and polytanks through their journey through the city makes visible the linkages between water provision and other material flows, particularly plastic, energy and waste. Both made out of plastic, sachet bags and polytanks are manufactured in Ghana from imported plastic. Energy is necessary to manufacture both sachets and polytanks, as well as in the packaging of water in sachets. Once used, plastic containers turn into waste. Sachet bags, in particular, have been at the centre of debates over the management of plastic waste – a long-lasting problem in Accra. Plastic Waste Management Programs have been introduced in the last years and informal waste pickers play an important role in recycling used sachet bags – collecting, separating sachet bags from other waste, and re-selling them to plastic industries. Yet, sachet bags “routinely clog urban gutters during rainy periods and cause flooding of open sewers” in turn exposing residents to a variety of water-related risks (Stoler, 2017, p.7).

Sachet waste collection

In this blog post I briefly outline what an exploration of urban water supply using water storing and storage facilities as a lens can offer. Buckets, storage tanks, jerrycans, or water sachets are not just objects but, like many other artefacts, they can tell stories and suggest new ways for grasping the complex and overlapping relations and transformations shaping life in the city. Looking at Accra through its infrastructures of storage contributes to moving beyond accounts of urban water inequalities that oppose pipe vs non-pipe as it draws attention to how residents, connected or not, resort to infrastructure other than pipes to secure their water access. It also calls for moving the analysis of urban water governance beyond water and including other materials and dimensions seemingly unrelated with the provision of water, such as plastic and waste management. In doing so, ‘thinking through buckets’ might help in the greater project of decentring the role of networked infrastructure and fostering a situated analysis of the politics of water in cities characterized by the persistent network fragmentation and the presence of heterogeneous arrangements for urban water provision (Furlong and Kooy, 2017; Lawhon et al., 2017).

References

Alba R and Bartels LE (2016) Featuring water infrastructure, service provision and access in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area.

Bartels LE, Bruns A and Alba R (2018) The production of uneven access to land and water in peri-urban spaces: de facto privatisation in greater Accra. Local Environment: 1–18.

Bohman A (2010) Framing the Water and Sanitation Challenge: A history of urban water supply and sanitation in Ghana 1909-2005. PhD Thesis, Umeå University. Umeå, Sweden.

Furlong K and Kooy M (2017) Worlding water supply: thinking beyond the network in Jakarta. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41(6): 888–903.

Lawhon M, Nilsson D, Silver J, et al. (2017) Thinking through heterogeneous infrastructure configurations. Urban Studies 55(4): 720-732.

Meehan KM (2014) Tool-power: Water infrastructure as wellsprings of state power. Geoforum 57: 215–224.

Millington N (2018) Producing water scarcity in São Paulo, Brazil: The 2014-2015 water crisis and the binding politics of infrastructure. Political Geography 65: 26–34.

Morinville C (2017) Sachet water: regulation and implications for access and equity in Accra, Ghana. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 4(6): e1244

Stoler J (2017) From curiosity to commodity: a review of the evolution of sachet drinking water in West Africa. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 4(3): e1206.

[1] http://polytankgh.com/ (accessed 21.11.2018)

[2] http://businessdayghana.com/sachet-water-producers-employ-over-2m-ghanaians/ (accessed 21.11.2018)

 

 

Categories
Commentary Teaching

Teaching Environment and Society: How do we Talk about Capitalism?

Most of my students have no idea what the difference between capitalism and socialism is. Let me say that differently: most of my students have emotional responses to those words. Some have strong instincts about which is good and which is ugly. But in terms of an ability to define and give distinguishing examples, maybe a few here and there walk in with this ability. (And given the conflation of terms in U.S. American public discourse, it seems hard to blame them).

Some have taken introduction economics courses. If I were in charge of general education requirements, I’d make sure that student learn not (only) about mathematical principles, but about the logics of different economics systems. Until that point (!), I accept it means I have to do this work before I can teach about environment and society.

One year, when still teaching from a textbook, I put capitalism up front. We spent a week dedicated to Marxian environmental critiques. I quickly found that does not work for my politically diverse classroom.

Instead, I now break the ideas down, avoiding the most evocative terms until the building blocks are in place. We slowly talk about markets, explaining what markets do well and what they struggle with (and, what human and environmental costs there are even in fully ‘functional’ free markets). We talk about property and the differences between private, state, commons (this is nearly impossible for many to imagine, regularly conflated with state ownership) and lack of ownership. We talk about government, its logic, and different iterations of democracy and electoral democracy (it is the will of the people, or what elected officials deem best for the people?)

Each week, we work really hard to understand the logic of different ‘stories’, building ‘archetypes’ of free markets, fully enforced property rights (and wrestling with whether this means internalizing costs for all externalities), regulated commons and so on. Then we talk about the disjuncture between these and the real world. We ask whether the archetypes work, whether they might work in practice, trying to find our way towards which imperfect ideas are worth fighting for. We disagree on the answers to this, and I think that’s useful.

My hope for my students is that by the end, they see that their world is not actually made up of truly democratic, capitalist free markets owned by private actors. They’re at a public institution, many living in state-owned housing. They share their apartments as if they were commons (with many unspoken rules and internal conflict resolution). I want those who believe in big and small government to consider ‘how big ought government be’ and ‘what are its capabilities’ rather than narrate ‘always smaller’ or ‘always bigger’.

Mostly, I want them to be able to make sense of those they disagree with. To understand where the other side is coming from. To see that most ideas have some logic to them, but that no archetypical idea is flawless in practice. To be able to have civil disagreements in which they can point to real underlying differences (rather than simply name indescribable ideologies). Maybe it’s too much to ask of our national public discourse, but at a very small scale, for a few months, on a few (big, important) issues, we work towards that.

Categories
Commentary Teaching

Teaching a Situated Environment and Society Class

What does it mean to teach a situated class? The easiest answer to this is to include ‘local’ examples. But for me, being deeply situated in my teaching has also meant starting from and responding to what the students know and helping them make sense of their own world. (In contrast to the typical academic textbook which is structured to present an academic field to students; it’s also in contrast to teaching what students ask for, for they often don’t know what they don’t know.)

After teaching from the well-used Robbins, Hintz and Moore volume, and asking my students at the University of Oklahoma to write weekly response papers, I realized that the course I was teaching simply wasn’t setting the students up to do much with the content. I tried tweaking and supplementing, but eventually resolved to write my own quasi-textbook and work through a series of real-world explanations for environmental problems. The open, online format (ok, it’s not yet open; I want to test-run it first) is also hoped to better enable place-situated approaches by making it easy to swap out examples and case studies.

I now have 10 weeks of text that presents different explanations for the fundamental, underlying cause(s) of environmental problems and the solutions that accompany such frames. The text has a few pages of explanation, accompanied by links to online examples of people speaking within these problem frames. The last 6 weeks will be focused on using these ideas to understand specific cases.

For many of my students, tackling environmental problems seems too momentous. Many are frustrated that we seem, as a society, to simply fail to act. I try to work from this reasonably common starting point to demonstrate that there are many different strategies for redressing environmental problems. And that while most people believe something needs to be done, we are often stuck with competing ideas about what to do, and what kind of world this would create. So, before solving problems, we need to carefully examine the assumptions and rationality of a problem frame, and why different solutions often seem to work against each other.

For example, lots of people are concerned about climate change. There are many different options out there. What can be done? Individual choices are the first way that many people try to create change. Maybe they change their lightbulbs, walk to work, and eat less meat. At a global scale, there are efforts to create carbon markets. This isn’t just a difference in scale or organization, though, in which some things are for individuals and others for officials. Officials only respond to the pressure put on them, a task that individuals join together to do! Individuals can help to create this change, by lobbying their representatives, participating in environmental NGOs, educating peers and children, and so on. A different approach is to invest in clean energy. This can again be through individual choice, purchasing a household solar panel. But it can also mean trying to get one’s own public electricity agency to increase the percentage renewable.

These choices- technology, markets, policy, green consumption- need to be recognized as different and not entirely compatible tactics. It’s easy to say that they are all good and people who care about the environment should just do them all, but that is quite a lot to ask. And some answers are contradictory: capitalism can’t be the problem and solution. If we believe that addressing the environment is both a bit of work and important, then we should be strategic about what we’re doing. We should think about what kinds of actions are going to give us the best result for our effort.

I’m going to experiment over the upcoming semester with this new structure, and let you know how it goes.

Categories
Commentary Conferences

Building discussion around infrastructural labour and livelihoods

Building discussion around infrastructural labour and livelihoods

By: Alejandro De Coss and Kathleen Stokes

** Many thanks to participants in our session. While we have endeavoured to capture key points, we also appreciate this summary should not be taken to not reflect everyone’s views. **

On April 18th, 2018, scholars from around the UK met for the symposium “Infrastructures for Troubled Times”. Hosted by the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics & Responsible Futures at the University of Brighton, the event sought to challenge and question the apparent neutrality of infrastructures, understanding them as “increasingly complex, multi-scalar and interconnected, affecting and effected by climate change, patterns of global economic debt, financial management and resource extraction/use.”

As part of this symposium, we organised a session on “infrastructural labour and livelihoods” which stemmed from the perspective that human work and labour is necessary to the development, repair, and maintenance of infrastructures. Despite this, we find that labour is rarely explored in depth in contemporary debates around infrastructure’s role in shaping social and material worlds. Our session wanted to question the role of human labour in developing and maintaining infrastructures, and understand how such contributions are perceived and valued – particularly as speculation of technological automation and mass labour redundancy increases.

Starting from the position that human labour matters, and that its relations with infrastructure are highly differentiated across scale and place, we went on to explore the relations between infrastructure, labour, and livelihoods. The session focused on gathering a shared literature that speaks to this triple relation, and on formulating questions that can lead to further research agendas. Ultimately, our intention was to spark a more politicized study of infrastructural processes and their relation to labour and livelihoods. Below we summarize some of the key points from the session. We hope this can inform subsequent scholarly discussion in the year to come.

Key points from the session: Theorising and researching infrastructures, labour and livelihoods

The session started with a collective mapping of specific problems related to the question of infrastructures, labour, and livelihoods. We touched upon the key conceptual notions like ‘people as infrastructure’ (Simone, 2004); the relation between labour and the operation of infrastructures; the issue of infrastructural grabs; the relation between surplus labour and accumulation regimes, including the question of uneven development and colonialism, and; the relation between infrastructure, citizenships, and rights claims. The diversity of topics mentioned points to the centrality of labour in understanding infrastructure, but also to the ways in which these relations are differentiated not only by space, time, and scale, but also through particular historical trajectories.

The issue of infrastructural labour and livelihoods also touches upon theoretical and ontological questions. In particular, labour brings to the fore diverse Marxist perspectives, and also postcolonial approaches to this issue. The group discussed whether differentiating labour and work as concepts might point to different relations not only with infrastructure, but also with the state, private actors, and others. We also discussed the need to consider migrant labour, indentured labour, and slavery, and to make their specific dynamics central to the unpacking of the relations between infrastructure and labour.

The case of women’s labour was explored in more depth. Women serve fundamental roles in urban contexts, beyond questions of social reproduction. By focusing on the gendered characteristic of the notion of ‘people as infrastructure’, questions of how women sustain cities at a basic level of functioning become central. This labour includes economic, health, sanitation, and social aspects. An example of this can be the feminisation of labour in waste infrastructures, which use disposable gendered labour to operate. In the case of Nepal, this work is systematically undervalued, yet central to sustaining cities and urban ecologies. As the basis of the city and its functioning, gendered labour can be thought of as a kind of incremental labour, upon which municipalities build their work, while it remains invisible as ‘grey labour’ or simply care.

We also questioned the role of the state the exploitation of infrastructural labour. This shed light on several processes, such as exploitative strategies which ensure infrastructural maintenance while cutting down costs. We questioned what might compel public workers to work under such conditions. We suggested that affect could be a way to mobilise this cheap, precarious labour – particularly in precarious labour markets. By claiming that the work performed is valuable, labour becomes entangled with the promises of infrastructure. If this is the case, then what kinds of promises can be made to sustain these labour regimes? Conversely, how might these promises become entangled with threats, not only regarding one’s labour but also towards the viability and materialisation of infrastructures projects? This led to reflections on both colonial and nation building processes. When researched through the relation of labour and infrastructures, such processes appear as rather fragile arrangements.

The session also addressed infrastructural labour and livelihoods beyond the state. We discussed the different ways in which livelihoods might relate to infrastructural labour. We asked how the specific forms of infrastructural labour might rely on broader social relations, and questioned how these wider sets of relations might be kept together. For example, how does precarity relate to everyday life of infrastructural workers? We discussed the case of Singapore, where these relations are organised through intermediaries, or agents, in such a way that the state can elude its responsibility for workers in state-run infrastructures. Elsewhere, the labour precarity might be related to other aspects of livelihoods, like the case of many cities in India, where informal labourers employed in the management of diverse infrastructures, are often propertyless.

Running through these different conversational points, we encountered a preoccupation with the ways in which labour, and its relation to infrastructure, is frequently invisible. This is yet another area of potential discussion. How are different forms of infrastructural labour made invisible? What does being made invisible tell us about different infrastructural projects and processes? What kinds of hierarchies might be built, sustained, or subverted when labour is obfuscated or hidden? How do gender, race, caste, and class intersect with the question of infrastructure labour, and livelihoods?

Next steps

Using this session as a starting point, participants are now looking for ways to carry this conversation forward, and consider some of these questions in further depth. We are looking to create subsequent forums and opportunities for scholars interested in infrastructural labour and livelihoods to discuss ideas, work together, and develop this area of scholarship further. If you are interested in joining this conversation, sharing ideas and information with session participants, or have recommendations of other groups or scholars to approach, please get in touch with us:

Kathleen Stokes – @KathleenStokes, or kathleen(dot)stokes(at)manchester(dot)ac(dot)uk

Alejandro De Coss – @AlexDeCoss, or j(dot)de(hyphen)coss(hyphen)corzo(at)lse(dot)uk

 

Categories
Commentary

Temporalities of Crisis: On Cape Town’s Day Zero

Temporalities of Crisis: On Cape Town’s Day Zero

By: Nate Millington and Suraya Scheba

Cape Town is currently facing a water crisis. While Day Zero, the day when the city’s water would have been cut off, is apparently no longer a possibility in 2018, scarcity remains a concern. Arguing that water will only get scarcer in the years to come, the Cape Town municipal government response to the water crisis has been to invest in considerable efforts to reduce water consumption, including charging for excess usage and the continued rollout of water management devices for residents deemed to be over users. Additionally, the city has called for the acceleration of augmentation schemes, including desalination and groundwater access. Drawing from climate science and longer term strategies of demand management, the City of Cape Town is attempting to situate reduced demand within a changing climate. 

Day Zero Cancelled. Photograph by Nate Millington. 

In response to the possibility of citywide water cuts, commentators and journalists engaged extensively with Cape Town’s ongoing water dynamics. Many suggested that the city is a harbinger of things to come in a future marked by climate change and climate uncertainty. Critical to these analyses was the oft-repeated phrase that Cape Town could become the first ‘major’ or ‘modern city’ to run out of water. While this possibility appears to have been canceled – or at least delayed – concerns about scarcity continue to mark Cape Town’s political and social life.  

The idea that Cape Town’s experience with scarcity could become a new normal is reflective of broader anxieties about climate change and changing local and planetary ecologies. Commentators regularly linked water crisis to the threat of global climate change and the overuse of water by urban residents, stressing the degree to which scarcity is constitutive of an unknowable present. While some commentators have situated these anxieties in a refusal of white South Africans to understand that water scarcity marks the lives of many black residents in the city, others have seen the crisis in more general terms. For the city, a focus on specific water targets has largely avoided a deeper conversation about unequal infrastructure and inequality more generally. While residents are asked to reduce to 50 litres per day, those with access to boreholes and well points are increasingly able to go off-grid, for example. While this water is not municipal water, it is water that could be used by residents if infrastructures were managed in different ways.

Infrastructures are obdurate and hard to change. Managing water is a technical and political process, one that ties together dynamics of land use at the regional level with national, provincial and local funding pressures. These broader dynamics then intersect with smaller-scale technologies like pipes, wells, and water metres. Infrastructures are also reflections of inequality; they determine who is entitled to the benefits of citizenship and, in some cases, modernity. Infrastructure in Cape Town have long been unequal, reflecting longer patterns of apartheid spatial planning and histories of what Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin call ‘splintering urbanism.’ While Cape Town has high levels of water access — nearly 100% – access looks different depending on what neighborhood you are in. As Lucy Rodina argues, a lived experience perspective of water access makes clear that many residents still struggle to access consistent water in ways that are safe and dignified in township communities.

Paying attention to the existing geographies of infrastructure makes clear that crises are not momentary events. They are, instead, reflections of longer-term dynamics. They have a temporality, a past and a future. It is important to pay attention to the temporality of crisis, to understand both how crises are produced but also what they make possible in the present and future. It is critical that we understand the relationship between crises and longer patterns of vulnerability: we are not affected equally by crises. Vulnerability intersects with a changing climate in intimate and violent ways. Cape Town’s experience of water scarcity makes this abundantly clear. In a future that may be marked by longer periods of drought, those with the means to withstand scarcity will do so through the purchasing of bulk water, the installation of private boreholes and water infrastructure, and mobility. The rest will suffer.

Installing a reservoir in Observatory, Cape Town. Photograph by Nate Millington. 

Crises have pasts but they also have futures. In response to the crisis, activists are currently voicing concern that the crisis may usher in new dynamics of water privatization, linked to the ongoing installation of water management devices and the adoption of desalination technology. In both cases, privatization occurs not necessarily at the level of the water itself, but rather through the technologies and processes that are necessary to access water. Both involve private technologies that make water available or, in the case of Water Management Devices, periodically unavailable in the form of what activists have termed ‘silent disconnections’. When a water management device has been installed, it is not just the city that can decide to cut off water. Instead, that responsibility is outsourced to a private company through a technological fix.

 Water Management Device. Photograph by Nate Millington. 

In the case of desalination, uncertainty marks the technology in myriad ways, including those related to ocean dynamics, the appropriate technological design for the surrounding environment, and funding access for bulk infrastructure. In addition, the adoption of desalination technology will have implications for future water governance within the city as contractors for the temporary desalination plants will be selling the produced water at an apparent cost of R30 to R40 per kilolitre to the city, as opposed to  a cost of approximately R5 per kilolitre for surface water. The capital costs of augmentation schemes, and rising cost of water access per kilolitre, are further intensified by the reduction of municipal revenue due to the crisis. Cumulatively these raise a number of questions about the future of water governance in the city, specifically the question of how and by whom these costs will be born.

To what extent these changes in the water governance configuration are linked to a broader project of privatization remains to be seen, but these worries deserve attention. As climate change increasingly animates new infrastructural development, it is critical that we push for new equitable infrastructures that do not ask the poor to bear the brunt of a changing climate. More research is needed to understand who is being outfitted with water management devices, and why. These technologies have implications for the equitable distribution of water, and need to be understood in the context of longer term trends of inequality in Cape Town.

Banner produced by the Cape Town Water Crisis Coalition. Photograph by Nate Millington.

Scarcity is not a pre-existing condition but rather a produced reality; managing scarcity in egalitarian ways will require a real engagement with uneven water usage and the politics of rationing. That these decisions are currently a reflection of top-down governance is cause for concern. Cape Town’s water crisis has shown the ways that crises can both heighten discord while also allowing for new opportunities for solidarities and linkages of seemingly divergent political ambitions. Crises are opportunities to reflect on the infrastructures of the present moment. To the extent that Cape Town’s water crisis can create opportunities for reducing water consumption at the city level while increasing consumption for the poor will depend on civil society’s capacity to link the water crisis with the development of political alternatives that prioritize equitable access.

Categories
Commentary

Maintaining the Mexico City water system

The history of Mexico City can be told through the ways in which water flows both into and away from it. 500 years ago, the then capital of the Spanish Viceroyalty of New Spain was a city undergoing an unparalleled transformation. The conquest of the indigenous lands was set to change not only the politics, economics, and society of this territory, but also its environment. Once covered by five interconnected lakes, two freshwater and three brackish, the Spanish set to desiccate the basin, transforming it into a valley. They did this through canals, tunnels, and other water infrastructures, built by the hands of thousands of workers, mostly indigenous and forcibly conscripted to carry out this labour. By the beginning of the 20th Century, the desiccation was almost achieved, except from some lacustrine areas south of Mexico City that were left. The Mexican capital could finally enter modernity, cleared of the waters that hampered its economic development and made it sick, according to the elite in power.

Diego Rivera’s mural “Water, Origin of Life on Earth”, within the old River Lerma water deposit

After the problem of desiccation was apparently solved, a new set of issues appeared. Mexico City was now facing the permanent risk of scarcity, as it grew far beyond its previous limits. In response, water was tapped in the springs of Xochimilco, the last remaining lake in the Mexico Valley, currently at risk of disappearing. Soon, this supply was not enough. New sources were surveyed. Amongst them, it was the Lerma area, another lacustrine system, located 50 kilometres away from downtown Mexico City. The Lerma area is part of a neighbouring valley, slightly higher than that of the Valley of Mexico, and separated from it through a mountain range called Las Cruces. As with the issue of draining the valley, supplying it with faraway waters required the construction of a new set of water infrastructures. These make up the Lerma System, built between 1941 and 1952 by largely anonymous workers, many of whom perished in this process.

A commemorative plaque that reads: “In memory of the workers whom, carrying out their duty, died in the construction of Lerma System works: 1943-1951”

The Lerma System still works today, alongside another inter-basin water transfer: the Cutzamala. This system was built later, between 1975 and 1993, although there are plans to further expand it. These two water transfers meet in the Lerma area, where the water they carry mixes and crosses the Las Cruces mountain range through a 14 kilometre tunnel that terminates at the Chapultepec Forest in central Mexico City. Together they supply Mexico City with 42% of its total water consumption, of which 12% corresponds to the Lerma System. The rest of the city’s water supply comes from artesian wells in the Mexico Valley itself, which are causing rapid ground subsidence in Mexico City as they are overexploited and depleted.

Outside of the city itself, the environment has also been transformed. In the Lerma area, the lagoons have disappeared, their waters captured through 300 or so wells managed by the Mexico City government. They are extracted, filtered, chlorinated, and pumped towards the Mexican capital, where they are unequally distributed through a series of networked infrastructures: wells, pipes, pumps, and engines, all working to urbanise water for Mexico City. As always, these infrastructures do not sustain themselves automatically. To operate, they need to be constantly repaired and maintained. To become embedded in the making of water, the environment, the city, and the many institutions that seek to shape and control them, they need human work.

Manuel Ávila Camacho water catchment plant, in Lerma

For a year, I followed and worked with the Mexico City water system repair and maintenance teams as they fixed diverse breakdowns in the infrastructural paths of the Lerma waters. These workers are employees of SACMEX, the public utility company that manages the city’s water. The company is systematically underfunded; last year, it faced a budget cut of close to 70%. This was not an anomaly by any means, but the continuation of a financial situation that has been long the norm in the system. Materials are scarce, infrastructures are in a constant state of decay, and available urban water is rapidly depleting. It is in this space that workers must keep infrastructures working, and through it sustain the political ecological processes that make up city, country, the state, the environment, and their own livelihoods.

The everyday work of these teams is characterised by ingenuity and improvisation. Workers fix failing infrastructures through patchwork practices. These are a form of bricolage, in which workers scavenge, sort out, and reassemble scrap pieces from broken down infrastructures. Through this form of practical knowledge and embodied expertise, workers upkeep the system, patching it constantly. By maintaining and repairing the system, the many political ecological relations that it bundles are also reproduced. The making of water into a resource, its urbanisation, and the myriad environmental transformations it has brought about both in town and country are all made durable in time through these labour processes. In that way, work becomes a way to explore wider political ecologies from a situated practice; it is an everyday point of view that offers a particular way to understand both change and continuity.

A leak is found after digging under the streets of downtown Mexico City.

Workers are acutely aware of the weight their work carries. Often they talked about the fact that infrastructures had brought modernity to many rural towns and urban neighbourhoods. This modernity meant, for them, the introduction of piped water controlled by the state, and the ways in which this shaped both the landscape and the lives of those whose life depends on this water. As lagoons disappeared and livelihoods were transformed, the issue of water supply became, centrally, one of state power. As they fix leaks and wells, workers are not only allowing for the material transformation of water into a resource, but are also reproducing the control of the state over the environment. They become, as Alfred Loos once said of the plumber, the first artisans of the state. They patchily sustain a set of political ecological relations that, from the ground, appear not as overwhelming and seamless but rather fragile and porous while still durable and deep.

Discarded pumps, pipes, engines, and other materials that workers reassemble to patch the system

Following the work of repair and maintenance in the Mexico City water system is a way to situate urban political ecologies. By looking at labour practices, it puts an emphasis on the ways in which large socio-technical systems require constant care to keep working. This standpoint allows us to see how matters of socio-material production and reproduction are always already entangled with infrastructures and with the labour that goes into sustaining them. Analysing how infrastructures are maintained and repaired can reveal how processes of capital accumulation, the reproduction of social class (including of these workers), and the myriad environmental transformations associated with the urbanization of nature are intertwined.

Workers reassemble a pump before it is installed at a well in Lerma

This point of view can also change the ways in which we conceptualise and analyse other processes and institutions. The city can be seen here not as a form but as a process, one which extends far beyond its visible borders through the work that labourers do through infrastructures. In this process, the state too is being constantly reproduced, both as an obdurate claim on a specific political ecological ordering and as a porous and flaky process that too must be cared for. At the centre of it all, there is a specific way of producing a historical nature which is geared towards sustaining always expanding urban and industrial processes. In the workers’ everyday practices, these and other processes are stake, fragile yet durable, situated in multiple contradictions.