1 The power and politics of water
The emotion of water and the access to it … I have had women who put their crying baby on the phone. I have had women hysterical. I have had people coming in here with guns and threatened to shoot me. I have had staff shot at and killed for water. So I know when you deprive somebody of water how emotionally.… There is this thing in you: it is like you close off somebody’s air supply. That fight for water and air. Because five minutes with no air and five days without water you are dead. Five weeks with no food. So the famous five.… But it is the minutes and the days, you know, in five days: if I haven’t had water I am dead. That triggers something in people, some irrationality. So it’s highly emotive. And people play on that. So you’ve got a very strong emotion that you could use. It’s like a feeling of injustice almost. So the manipulative, the anarchists, the clever ones try and play on that. I am in this game and I have seen it.
The above quotation is an excerpt from an interview with the then (2009) Head of Water and Sanitation (EWS) in eThekwini municipality, South Africa, and it is a good illustration of some of the main themes of this book. The quotation revolves around strong emotions that surround water because it is a necessity for survival. It highlights the contestations and tensions around its distribution. It illustrates, through the example of hysterical women, how water is gendered. It also tells a particular story of how emotions – despite the fact that they are stirred by the fight for survival – are associated with irrationality. It indicates how resistance against perceived injustices in water distribution are seen as something that is used strategically for political purposes. Finally, it signals that what the EWS stands for, in contrast to the emotive and political, is the rational.
In this book the representation of water and its functions, and its management and allocation, are addressed as inherently political and, more specifically, biopolitical. This means that water management systems are critically scrutinized in terms of their attempts at governing life and the distinctions they make between different forms of lives, as well as what such ways of governing mean for people’s lifestyles and
how they understand themselves and their (moral) responsibilities as humans/individuals/citizens.
The statement above is indicative of a particular understanding of water and its proper management. Such specific definitions of water and water governance in this book are understood as forming a ‘hydromentality’. Hydromentalities are assemblages of governing rationalities, techniques of ruling, and ways of thinking about and defining water, which govern both water use and water users. One of the aspects of a hydromentality is, as Linton (2010) has argued in relation to the hegemony of ‘modern water’, that it designates ‘a particular kind of identity, representation, and material form of water’. As such, it does not acknowledge other ways of ‘imagining, representing and materializing water’ as they are ‘made out to be less real or less legitimate’ (ibid., p. 11). Hence, they are viewed as irrational.
Recognizing biopolitical aspects of water governance means opening up the box of what water is and what water does. The answers to these questions are not as self-evident as they might first seem (Linton, 2010). The biopolitical perspective this book applies will help us look into the way that water and water regulation are part of a politics that governs individuals and populations in terms of their conditions of life (see Dean, 1999; Foucault, 1998). In the course of which water is addressed as an element that is productive for our ways of being humans and for the societies in which we live. Hence, water is not only a resource necessary for survival but ‘what we make of it’ produces ‘the worlds and the selves we inhabit’ (Linton, 2010, p. 3). Water can thus be understood as exceptional in that it is the prerequisite for all manner of life, as well as for how these lives are lived. Water can, however, also be seen as unexceptional, as its everydayness makes it ‘so normal that it retreats into the background of awareness’ (Sofoulis, 2005, p. 448). It is around the intersection between this exceptionality and the everydayness of water that this book revolves.
The politics of water during the last decades has been increasingly addressed under the rubric of ‘hydropolitics’ (Turton, 2002; Waterbury, 1979). Decisions in hydropolitics are concerned with the questions of ‘who gets what [water], when, where and how’ (Turton, 2002, p. 16). When studying these processes, previous research – especially in critical geography and under the wider umbrella of political ecology – has argued for the recognition of how power relations in water management produce, redistribute, and determine access to, or exclusion from, water (Loftus, 2009; Swyngedouw, 1999, 2004). Thus, for Swyngedouw, ‘the water problem is not merely a question of management and technology, but rather, and perhaps in the first instance, a question of social power’ (Swyngedouw, 2004, p. 175). Such critical research has analysed neoliberal trends in water management, including the effects of privatization, cost recovery policies, and water pricing systems (Bakker, 2005, 2007, 2010; Barlow and Clarke, 2003; McDonald and Pape, 2002; McDonald and Ruiters, 2005; Swyngedouw, 2005). By focusing on power relations, and
both the discursive and the material underpinnings of water regulation, critical researchers have politicized ‘hydrosocial’ relations in a number of ways. They have focused on the ways in which water acquires certain meanings and how these meanings and representations of water are pivotal for understanding ‘who gets access to it and on what terms’ (Linton, 2010, p. 69; see also Johnston, 2003; Linton and Budds, 2014; Loftus, 2015; Shiva, 2002; Strang, 2004, 2009).
As mentioned, this book explores hydropolitics as a form of biopolitics. The way that biopolitics is defined and understood here (outlined in more detail in Chapter 2
) invites an exploration of how such governance constructs populations and problematizes and governs their use of water resources. In turn, part of the methodological set-up of this book is to explore how such governing strategies are productive of lifestyles and identities, and how they relate to ideas of what it is to live a good and fulfilling life, as narrated by the water users themselves. These are no small matters. To quote Judith Butler, such a question of ‘what makes for a livable world is no idle question’ (2004, p. 17). It is not only a question of how one views one’s own life, but also a question of ‘what makes, or ought to make, the lives of others bearable’. In turn, finding answers to these questions, Butler argues: ‘we find ourselves not only committed to a certain view of what life is, and what it should be, but also of what constitutes the human, the distinctively human life, and what does not’ (ibid.).
What is at stake regarding the relationship between water and life is, hence, not merely survival. It is about what is recognized as a decent and proper life. The complexities of these questions as regards what is appropriate for different populations come to the fore in water governance, understood in this book as a form of biopolitical governance that is based on a population discourse that distinguishes between different forms of lives.
Such complexities are also prominent in the water users’ stories. In these narratives, the (bio)political claim that everyone should have the right of access to basic water is straightforwardly acknowledged while at the same time being imbued with ambivalence. These uncertainties relate to how water users understand their own right in relation to other people’s right to water, making this into a question of the distinctions made between Self and Other. These ambivalences also revolve around the notion of payment as the (just) way of distributing water above the threshold of survival.
From a more theoretical perspective, the right to water for survival raises questions regarding whether a claim to such a right is to be understood as a simultaneous claim to political recognition, or whether the demand for the right to survival should be conceptualized as part of an assemblage that attempts to keep those who are ‘simply alive’ (cf. Agamben, 1998) from the ‘good life’. These ambivalences in relation to the notion of life are symptomatic of (neo)liberalism and its ways of simultaneously making (bare) life political and making a distinction between
different forms of lives, hence both including and excluding life (understood as zoë
, biological life) in (relation to) political existence (understood as bios
, proper or qualified life) (cf. Agamben, 1998).
Although this book does not attempt to give a definite answer to these questions, which relate to the debates on the different understandings of biopolitics as conceptualized by Foucault and Agamben, let alone settle the debates, they are at the heart of book. A biopolitical analysis, such as the one conducted in this book, also acknowledges the distinctions between animals and humans, even though they are a less prominent theme. The book, furthermore, offers a perspective on the complicated task of conceptualizing agency (including resistance) in relation to the strategies of a government that uses the very freedom of its subjects to govern. This first chapter provides an overview of critical research that focuses on the power and politics of water and its governance. It also introduces how a biopolitical perspective on water governance adds to our understanding of the complexities of the politics of water, while outlining the whole book.
The politics of water: from hydraulic societies to hydromentalities
The idea of relating water (and its regulation) to certain kinds of societies not new. Wittfogel, in his classic work Oriental Despotism (1957), outlined how large-scale irrigation systems, and the centralized bureaucracy needed to maintain them, produced despotic and powerful regimes, which he termed ‘Hydraulic societies’ (Linton, 2010, p. 64; Strang, 2004, p. 21; Wittfogel, 1957). Although Wittfogel’s hypothesis has been widely contested (see, for example, Barker and Molle, 2004; Davies, 2009; Molle, Mollinga and Wester, 2009), his ‘approach to the relationship between society and water (nature) might … be considered something of a forerunner to more recent historical and cultural investigations into what we are calling the “social nature of water”’, as Linton has put it (2010, p. 64). Through what has been termed the ‘hydrosocial cycle’ (see Heynen et al., 2005; Linton, 2010; Linton and Budds, 2014; Loftus, 2015; Swyngedouw, 2009, 2015), such research has studied the coproduction (cf. Linton, 2010) between water and society. Swyngedouw explains:
In a sustained attempt to transcend the modernist nature–society binaries, hydro-social research envisions the circulation of water as a combined physical and social process, as a hybridized socio-natural flow that fuses together nature and society in inseparable manners.
(Swyngedouw, 2006, cited in Swyngedouw, 2009, p. 56)
According to such approaches, ‘society and water can be understood to make each other’ (Linton, 2010, p. 5). This is a fundamental insight developed in this book. Below I specifically focus on three main ways of
approaching the politics and power of water that are specifically relevant to the development of the argument of this book: how the global water crisis can be perceived as constructed; how unequal power relations in water allocation have been addressed; and how researchers have interrogated the relationship between water, water technologies, and subjectivities/citizenship. This last point specifically addresses the way in which water has been understood as biopolitics, which is a theme developed throughout this book.
(Global) water problems as constructed
Taking a critical stance on how water and water use are governed requires looking into how water problems are constructed in the first place. This does not mean to say there are no water problems in the world, but that the ways in which they are represented fit into larger narratives of resource and environmental governance. In these narratives, problems and solutions are framed in certain ways due to particular political and social circumstances (Linton, 2010, p. 7).
Current policy discourses on water are centred on the Integrated Water Resources Management framework (IWRM).1
IWRM marks a shift from previous hydraulic and scientific discourses, which were characterized by a belief in an abundant water supply that could meet the growing needs of a modernizing society through hydraulic technologies (Bakker, 2010). This shift is more closely explored in Chapter 4
. Here, suffice it to note that IWRM is described as an integrated approach that takes into account the dimensions of sustainability
along with efficiency
. IWRM is thus closely connected to the mainstream definition of sustainable development in terms of its three pillars (environmental, social, economic). According to the IWRM approach, a more conserving and integrated way of managing water is needed, both because of decreasing availability and to provide access for those who are lacking water services. The approach has been immensely influential and is subsequently seen as the way forward. IWRM ‘has become the
discursive framework of international water policy – the reference point to which all other arguments end up appealing’ (Conca, 2006, cited in Linton, 2010, p. 216, italics in original). As global water governance has evolved, however, new frameworks and concepts have emerged. Among those, water security and the nexus approaches (food–water–energy) are the most prominent. Their relation to the IWRM approach is discussed in Chapter 3
, which concludes that IWRM is still the overarching framework for global water governance.
In Linton’s (2010) analysis of the construction of the so-called global water crisis that subsequently paved the way for the IWRM framework, Gleick’s edited volume Water in Crisis (1993) is viewed as one important factor that led to water becoming understood in a new way. In Gleick’s publication, a gloomy picture of the world’s water situation was painted:
As we approach the 21st century we must now acknowledge that many of our efforts to harness water have been inadequate or misdirected. We remain ignorant of the functioning of basic hydrological processes
. Rivers, lakes...