How a megacity might share scarce water, or rethinking social resiliency [from the archives to the future]

A dry irrigation canal in the hills near Cochabama, Bolivia, as pictured in 2008. Photo by Daniel Aldana Cohen.

A dry irrigation canal in the hills near Cochabama, Bolivia, as pictured in 2008. Photo by Daniel Aldana Cohen.

When infrastructures let us down, our first instinct is to hunt for technical answers to technical problems. Engineering. Economics. But politics and social structures are wrapped all up and around our pipes and aqueducts. Same goes for the economic and physical models we use to interpret how these will work in practice. What if simply asserting basic egalitarian values, then setting up social institutions to ensure that these determine our access to precious resources, worked better than even the most ingenious pricing schemes and algorithms?

I’m getting ready to travel to São Paulo later this spring to do research on the drought and water shortages there. I thought I’d lay out some tentative ideas, based on previous work, to help benchmark my evolving thinking. These days, my work on cities and nature is focused on climate change, and mainly the link between low-carbon policies and urban struggles over the built environment. Of course, water plays a major role. As the world warms, sea levels rise. It can get ugly. In the US, Katrina and Sandy showed us what that looks like. In the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan was orders of magnitude more devastating. But even a wet city like São Paulo, ordinarily used to convulsive, annual floods, can also suffer massive droughts. Broad climate trends are a thousand times easier to predict than chaotic weather. At least locally, at least given present knowledge, climate chaos works in mysterious ways—and through socio-natural landscapes that politicians and capitalists have treated with stunning disdain to make a quick buck.

We shouldn’t just extrapolate from high-profile failure, though. Small-scale success can also teach at least provisional lessons. So I’m revisiting the first real research I did on socio-ecological tensions with a decent resolution, namely journalistic work on I did on the aftermaths of Bolivia’s water wars. And in particular, a magazine piece I did on a water law that transformed the lives of a million farmers (sadly, the website “update” has killed the formatting of the piece). Key to the story is a water engineer who realized, after years working in Pakistan, that he had been looking at water all wrong:

The man behind Bolivia’s new irrigation laws is a tall, pale, charismatic water engineer and NGO director named Juan Carlos Alurralde, known to most as Oso Andino (Andean Bear). When I visit him in a spacious conference room in his buzzing office in the Zona Sur, an affluent suburb of Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, Bear is wearing jeans and a black long-sleeved T-shirt. His beard is trimmed, and his hair is drawn back in a ponytail. In 1999, Oso returned to Bolivia after working for several years on one of the world’s largest irrigation systems, in Pakistan. “That project was very technical,” he tells me. “When I arrived in Bolivia, I realized the central theme wasn’t one of engineering or design, but of rights. The legislative and regulatory frameworks, those are the central debates. To a community, what’s the use of a beautiful irrigation structure if you don’t have judicial security over your water?”

But even there, judicial security is just the beginning. The next, deeper question, once the collective right is established, is how do you manage water scarcity? Or, how is that right made manifest? Is access rationed by currency? Or something else? The stakes were high. When Bear got involved, the Bolivian government had already failed 32 times to fix its water laws in just a few years. This was going to be tricky.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Oso convinced a Canadian agency, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), to finance an innovative research project. The IDRC had been working on water issues in the Andes since 1996. Unlike the much larger Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), from which it is entirely independent, the IDRC is a crown corporation devoted to research with a view to development. (In other words, it doesn’t finance traditional development projects such as water pumps or dams, but mostly studies by Canadian and foreign researchers.) Oso’s proposal to the IDRC was a blend of hard science and social science. Armed with a $270,700 grant, he and a number of colleagues from his NGO, Agua Sustentable, teamed up with Tiquipaya’s irrigators to map the area’s networks of water distribution. They then plugged their findings into MIKE, cutting-edge water modelling software developed by the Danish Hydraulic Institute.

“We took a real situation,” he tells me, still glowing with enthusiasm, “where there are real people, real systems, real demands for water—everything real. And we invented a new model called a ‘rights map’ that reflected the usos y costumbres [uses and customs] with GIS, so you can see, visually, on the computer, how the water is distributed and what the demand is. We introduced the neo-liberal government model, and we modelled using the usos y costumbres, and we compared them. We had two parameters, efficiency and equity. And the result: the government model was less efficient and less equitable. Yes, the government model worked, theoretically, when the rain fell the way it was supposed to. But in Bolivia the climate varies tremendously. In years where there was a lack of rainfall, their model would provoke tremendous conflict. The Andean model knows how to distribute the water deficit without conflict, and the mathematical model proved this.” Oso’s subsequent work has had its share of critics, but none of those I spoke to suggested that his initial study was flawed.

So first—yes, research works. But second, what the research tells is kind of interesting. The price mechanism works when there’s lots of water. But when there isn’t, because of climate change’s local mysterious ways, the neoliberal price model’s no good. Those downstream from the water source are the most vulnerable to having their water cut off. If they can’t afford to pay, they’re screwed. If those upstream can’t afford to pay, they just grab what they need. What about all the other ways that needs vary in complex agricultural communities?

So Evo Morales’ revolutionary, indigenist Bolivian government, in which a prominent irrigator sat as Senator (you can also meet him if you read the full piece), ultimately passed the water law that Bear, working with the country’s irrigators, helped research and formulate. This was a triumph of social science and social movements working together in a dynamic political context. And one million farmers is a seriously constituency. But one million people is also one twentieth of metro São Paulo’s population.

And as I detail in the piece, the robust uses and customs in question here have been worked out, in small groups, over hundreds of years. (Or at minimum, if you accept certain scholars’ critical positions, the somewhat weak uses and customs have been around for only a few dozen years.)

What in metro-regional urban governance could possibly compare to those kinds of established grassroots democratic practices, honed and repeated in the intimacy of a village less populated than a single large megacity block?

But flip the question around, and use it as an assumption for a thought experiment. What if the lesson of Bolivia’s water law is treated less as a surprise than a reminder: yes, of course, people can work out and address their needs under chaotic physical conditions better in dialogue than by applying an abstract mathematical formula. You can decide that everyone gets equitable water access, and then work backwards to figure out the best institutional, social, political processes needed to achieve that equitable outcome. Start with the social values, then go from there. Who says local democracy only works in the ultra-local context of the peasant village?

So then how might a metro-regional population go about aligning infrastrucutre systems and neighborhoods and values and disaster practices? How, in other words, could a city reconnect itself to its citizens, ensuring that everyone gets the basic resources they need to survive, and even flourish? The answer isn’t easy. Even in the city of Cochabamba proper, with less than a million inhabitants, I found that residents struggled to get anywhere close to their dream of a democratic water utility. Then again, Cochabamba in the mid-2000s was perpetually shaken by massive political upheavals; and it utterly lacked the kinds of financial resources available to a prosperous mega-city. If the premise is that egalitarian values and cooperative practices are the priority, then disaster governance, which by its urgent nature is already improvisational and ad-hoc and experimental, could make those priorities the object of its experiments. Use the energy and focus of the disaster environment to put equity first, and use problem-solving resources to figure out the implications. Then research and write up the story of what worked. Success in decently resourced cities like São Paulo could make it easier for poor cities like Cochabamba to secure funding from development banks for analogous practices there.

“Social resiliency” would then mean something other than a happy result we still do not know how to attain, never mind define. It would refer to experiments with democratic processes that make the best of a difficult situation, and that take the insistence on equitable outcomes—everyone gets the water they need as their foundation, their starting point.

Anyway—as I suggested above, research works. This is all just ground-clearing to clarify some questions. I’m looking forward to what I’ll find in São Paulo. As in more recent work with the Superstorm Research Lab, looking at many actors at once, I’ll be especially interested in comparing and contrasting high-level government agencies’, and grassroots groups’, projects and imaginaries. I know I’m unlikely to find, in practice, an unfolding of a socio-spatial, processual utopia. I do expect, though, that reflecting on basic principles and democratic possibilities, in addition to the usual empirical research on this and other cases, will deepen my perspective. As the Brazilian social theorist and political actor Roberto Mangabeira Unger has recently written:

We understand a state of affairs by grasping what it can become in a range of circumstances: the understanding of the actual is inseparable from the imagination of the possible—of the adjacent possible, of what can next happen or of what we can make happen next.

1 comment
  1. This was a fantastic article to read because it was very insightful and provides plenty of food for thought. It was nice to read solutions from different perspectives, such as legislation. An excellent blog post!

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