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What is Water?


Q. In your book What is Water?: The History of Modern Abstraction, you talk about how the global water crisis has exposed fundamental issues with the way we think about water. What kind of issues have been exposed and how should we think about water?

Oh that’s a big question that draws together so many ideas! Basically, I argued that the water crisis has far more to do with people than with water. We often ascribe to nature the problems that are better understood as social problems. What we call natural disasters offer plenty of examples. For instance, floods are perfectly natural; they are even necessary to maintain ecological functions of rivers. But because we tend to live and build in flood-prone areas, floods become a problem. They become a problem that we have created. The same is the case with the so-called water crisis. By my way of thinking, there are no water problems as such. There are only social problems with water issues as a manifestation of those social problems.

By this way of thinking the water crisis is more correctly thought of as a social crisis. We have created the social conditions that produce growing suffering and misery in relation to water. This is most evident in the millions of people who have little or no access to safe supplies of water for their domestic use. It less evident in the ecological suffering – the harm done to the earth and to its biodiversity if you will – that results from our abuse and mistreatment of water. So we have a situation where there is a crisis of suffering among the poor and among other species. The crisis is caused by people, and water is the medium.

Q.You highlight the importance of reframing and exposing the water problem as a social and political problem. Can you talk us through your argument?

I would start by saying that even in the most arid regions on earth, -- places with very meager and poor quality water resources -- wealthy people never suffer from a lack of clean water. In fact, when you think about it, the combination of aridity and concentration of wealth tends to produce a widespread phenomenon known as the private swimming pool. This will be evident to anyone who has flown over a city such as Las Vegas, Nevada in the United States. I’m sure your readers will be familiar with many other examples…

At the same time, even in regions that are exceptionally blessed with natural water resources, the poor and the powerless often experience water problems. I’m from Canada, where natural water resources are second to none in the world. And yet, there is a longstanding and pernicious water crisis experienced in many communities of First Nations peoples in more northern parts of the country. These people do not have access to clean, safe drinking water because the treatment and distribution systems that virtually all of us reading this article take for granted, are grossly inadequate in these places.

The root of the problem has nothing to do with natural water supplies, and everything to do with the poverty and lack of political power held by the affected First Nations peoples. This is an example meant to illustrate that what we call water problems are very real, and very urgent, but they are not “water problems” as such.

Q. In the book you outline some of these social problems. Which one should we address first and how? To what extent could fixing these issues help prevent a water crisis?

If our laws and public policies were addressed to reducing social inequalities, I think this would go a long way to resolving the water crisis. At every scale – between continents, countries, and (social) classes – social inequality creates the conditions that allow some people to benefit disproportionately from the way water is used and abused on earth, while dumping the costs on less fortunate people and other species.

Q. You also talk about the concept of Modern Water. Could you talk us through your definition of it?

I have defined “modern water” as the dominant, or hegemonic, way of knowing and relating to water, originating in Western Europe and North America, and operating on a global scale by the later part of the twentieth century. Of course, there have been and still are many different ways of thinking about and defining water. But the definition that has been dominant – that has been associated with the concentration of social power, as in the agencies of the modern state – is of a lifeless, measurable resource.

What I call modern water can be considered an intellectual achievement, the main feature of which has been to abstract all the world’s waters from their local, social, cultural, religious and ecological contexts, to reduce them to a single substance (represented as H2O), and thus render them commensurable.

Q. What is the Hydrologic Cycle? Do we need to adapt or rethink our understanding of it moving forward?

Such an abstract, measurable, conception of water as described in the previous answer, was necessary in order to construct the modern, scientific hydrologic cycle, which is based on the mathematical equation of precipitation with runoff and evaporation. The hydrologic cycle remains an important concept and a useful didactic tool. It helps us understand why, for example, climate change has such a huge impact on water resources.

At the same time, alternative concepts are more useful for representing the idea already expressed, that water problems and water issues are fundamentally social in nature. Some of us have introduced the notion of the “hydrosocial cycle” to this effect, and there are many other examples.

Q. Could you also explain the evolving relationship between the Hydrologic Cycle and Modern Water?

The hydrologic cycle and modern water go together. As suggested in the previous answer, it is interesting to note that as the hegemony of modern water gives way to growing recognition of alternate waters, a variety of concepts alternative or complementary to the hydrologic cycle are being put forward by water scientists as well as social scientists.

Q. Water is now being treated as a commodity as indicated by some of the new names its earned e.g. 'blue gold' and 'liquid assets'. We can clearly see a direct correlation between how societies are starting to treat and talk about water. Is this a cause for concern or does it signal the necessary maturation of an overwhelmed and at-risk market?

The commodification of water is a huge issue and concern to many people. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of books and articles have been written on this subject. There was a moment, in the 1990s, when putting a price on water was seen by some as a kind of panacea to solve all the world’s water problems. The decades of debate that have followed have resulted in far more nuanced, contingent arguments.

Whether markets allocate water resources efficiently depends on a variety of circumstances, some of which are met some of the time in some instances. The problem is that – as we all know and feel – water is much more than simply a “resource”, and thus the question of its efficient allocation is often beside the main point. And even when considered as a resource, what is often of greatest concern is its equitable (rather than efficient) distribution, and for this, markets are clearly inadequate in themselves.

Q. As you point out, climate change is an opportunity to take action and deal with social and political injustices. This however takes time and time is of the essence right now. Can we afford to put climate action aside in favour of addressing social issues first? Do we prioritise one course of action over the other?

I would answer this question by saying that as with water, there is no climate crisis. There is rather a social crisis manifested in pernicious climate change. And as I replied to a previous question above, I think the root of the crisis is the social inequality that is growing at every scale.

Although I don’t doubt the sincerity of all those concerned about the causes and effects of climate change, I am slightly uncomfortable when I hear it said that we just have 10 or 20 or whatever number of years to act before it is too late. First, the question is, Who is the “we” that is being referred to? The first implication is that “we” (i.e. those of us who are reading this, who are educated, who have the luxury of being concerned about the state of the world well into the future…) the implication is that “we” ourselves will suffer, that things are going to get hotter, drier, more dangerous and more difficult for “us.” The point though, is that there are already millions of people for whom things are difficult, hard, hot, dry, desperate and getting worse. “We” clearly have not been able to solve this problem. Indeed, in terms of the disparities between the haves and the have-nots, the problem is widely recognised to be getting worse. How can we possibly solve the climate change problem if we are unable to solve this more basic problem? Or to put it another way, what are the ethical implications of making efforts to solve the climate change problem before we have solved (what I consider to be) these more fundamental problems?

The second implication is that “we” need to act. But let’s be really clear that the people who are poor and disadvantaged do not fall into this category of those who need to act, who need to sacrifice or reduce their expectations or whatever. If the argument is to have any meaning let’s be clear that the “we” has to be us, the privileged.

I’m not so worried about climate change affecting the wealthy among us. We, the wealthy and advantaged, will always have the power and the means to look after ourselves. We will find the solutions that allow us to shield ourselves from the worst effects of climate change, to live comfortably in safe places, to have access to plenty of resources, to eat and drink well… We already know that climate change will affect the poorest and least advantaged first and most. This is common knowledge. It is already evident in phenomena such as the growing numbers of “environmental refugees.” So, every rule, policy or technical solution that is proposed to help protect ourselves from, or adapt to climate change, needs first of all to be subjected to a kind of test determining what effect will this have on the poorest, on the least privileged. The question could be considered a moral one, but not entirely. As is increasingly evident with such things as environmental migration, it is also in self interest of the privileged – of those of us privileged enough to be writing and reading this sort of text - to act first so as to alleviate the effects of climate change on the most vulnerable.

Finally, I think it is important to maintain a somewhat critical stance toward those offering what might be described as technical solutions. We are hearing these all the time from a variety of experts in fields ranging form engineering to natural and social science to business. At the very least we need to subject their ideas to a democratic test. The effects of any new machine, process, technique, or program are always divergent, impacting different people and places in different ways. The question that needs to be put at the forefront of any technical proposition is; Who does it benefit the most, the least, and not at all?

When it comes to environmental problems, we often hear people talking about “win-win” solutions. These people usually have an interest at stake in the solution they are proposing. Maybe they have a point. But to be sure, we need to ask others, people who do not benefit directly from the technique, process or product proposed, what might be the impact on them.

I am basically optimistic. History shows that modern societies have survived several phases of very serious social and environmental problems, arguably just as serious as climate change. I think we will come up with the solutions, but only if we are sensitive to their wider social, political and ecological consequences.

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