Struggling for water: Dams, pipes and urban-rural transformations in the global South

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We have received a grant from the University's Office of International Programs to convene an international research workshop on November 13-14, 2010. This workshop will serve to bring together an international group of scholars to develop a collaborative, comparative research agenda addressing the relationship between rural and urban water scarcity and abundance in different river basins in Africa and Asia. The workshop will provide the opportunity to identify common and comparative themes in research and move toward a collaborative initiative. Several of our ICGC alumni will be participating as well as a number of current faculty members, students and practitioners.

The workshop will consist of an open portion on Saturday, November 13, to which all are invited. A second, closed portion of the workshop on Sunday, November 14, will be for participants who do work in this area and have an interest in joining the ongoing research group forming around these themes.

If you work in this area and you are interested in joining the research group portion of the workshop, please send a one-page proposal outlining how your work connects to the workshop themes and why you are interested in joining the research group. A more detailed description of possible workshop themes appears in the last section of this document.

Please email proposals to Karen ( and Eric ( with a subject line reading "Water Workshop Proposal."

The deadline for receipt of proposals to participate: Monday, October 11, 2010.

Our workshop also aligns with the University of Minnesota Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) series on scarcity and abundance in the 2010-2011 year.One of the IAS activities on this theme is an interdisciplinary conference: "Experiments on Rivers--the consequences of dams".This will take place on our campus November11-12, 2010, immediately before our workshop. You might also consider looking into the IAS conference if this is of interest.

Water, a prerequisite for life, is crucial to economic and social transformations across the global South. Access to secure and adequate supplies of fresh water, integral to all ecological and social activities, has become increasingly challenging in the face of rapid economic growth, urbanization, pollution and climate change. Uneven and irregular access to water, combined with its privatization and commodification, has made it a contested resource, with intensified tension and conflict crossing local, national and transnational scales.

Recent years have seen a variety of such conflicts. Internationally, the damming of major rivers in such countries as Turkey, China and Lesotho is causing conflict with downstream neighbors (Syria, Vietnam, Thailand and South Africa). Nationally, large-scale dam projects are undermining ecological systems and societal livelihood possibilities, displacing populations, in such countries as Mozambique, China, India and Cambodia, triggering significant protests. Locally, urban residents of such cities as Johannesburg, Mumbai, Jakarta and Cape Town are struggling for water and sewage services, contesting water privatization schemes whose pricing schemes compound access difficulties.

Rural and urban struggles and conflicts are increasingly interlinked, as rapid urbanization accelerates demand for large-scale water extraction and reallocation. In the countryside, struggles over water have crystallized around the proliferation of large dams, rationalized in terms of inexpensive energy generation, flood control, irrigation of large agricultural complexes and supplying cities. More than 45,000 such dams have been constructed since 1950: Icons of development that have transformed natural and social landscapes. They have triggered deteriorating water quality, substantial soil erosion and deforestation, devastated fish populations, and increased salinity that threatens ecologically rich coastal regions. Hydroelectric projects also have had devastating impacts on the daily lives of millions of people residing in river valleys. The World Commission on Dams estimates that more than forty million people have been forcibly displaced from inundated historic homelands. Downstream, rural communities have not fared better, although effects are less visible because scholars and policy makers pay inadequate attention to this zone.

Adequate, equitable and safe water provision and management has become a central challenge for cities, particularly in large metropolises across the global south characterized by very rapid population growth and enormous disparities in wealth and livelihood possibilities. In such cities, the prosperous often live side by side with the precarious, creating particularly stark spatial gradients of well-being: social inequality is experienced much more directly on a daily basis than in cities of the global north. Inequitable access to water is a key issue. Urban elites are provided with potable tap water and sewage systems, whereas the least well off must buy water in canisters from water traders, or share public faucets. For the latter, water supplies do not meet health, sanitation and nutritional needs; supply can be highly irregular, water sources are polluted, and the price is higher than for potable water. Waterways also function as open sewers, with toilets frequently shared. Such inequities have been reinforced by the privatization of water, as neoliberal globalization has been accompanied by privately owned water companies, headquartered in Europe or North America, taking over water delivery and waste management. Poor households, unable to afford water rates, find themselves cut off from regular supplies.

These struggles over water, connecting the world's poor and disenfranchised across urban-rural and international divides, are further complicated by gender inequality. Women and daughters are particularly hard-hit, as it is their responsibility to devote the increased time and effort necessary to obtain water and reproduce a healthy household--often as a double burden that undermines their employment possibilities and education.

The complex urban-rural interdependencies around the question of water have been the subject of influential individual case study research (cf. Swyngedouw, E. 2004 Social Power and the Urbanization of Water (Oxford University Press); Gandy, M. 2008 "Landscapes of Disaster: Water, Modernity, and Urban Fragmentation in Mumbai." Environment and Planning A, 40: 108-30), but we know of no attempts to undertake an international comparative study. We propose drawing on the expertise of Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) scholars, faculty and alumni, to initiate a comparative international research collaborative focusing on selected river basins where rural and urban water issues intersect. Candidates include the Zambezi, the Mekong, the Ganges and the Tigris-Euphrates. A comparative dimension focusing on the global South will enable examination of how national political and historical geographic context shape water governance, and its implications for and contestation by the poor. Questions to be investigated include: How are shifting urban water demands linked with upriver or cross-watershed water management strategies? How is water governance, modulated by gender, economic, power, cultural and geographical relations, affecting the livelihood possibilities of marginalized urban and rural populations as well as socio-ecological resilience? What kinds of social movements, in and between rural and urban areas, have been triggered by the disruptive consequences of these dynamics, to which effect? What alternative approaches can meet the needs expressed through such protests and mitigate socio-ecologically unsustainable outcomes?

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