ANDREA BALLESTERO: The things that come to mind when you think about water. Yes, think about what comes out of the pipe. But also think about the person that is in an office calculating a formula, deciding how much thousands of households are going to pay for the water that they use that month. That is also water.
My name is Andrea Ballestero and I am the author of A Future History of Water.
So I’m originally from Costa Rica and I came to the US to do a master’s degree in natural resource policy. Before that, in Costa Rica, I was doing work in conservation. My advisor, Maria Carmen Lemos, she had a project in Brazil looking at water issues, and that redirected my interest to the question of water. The other moment in which it starts is the moment in which I started hearing NGOs—in Costa Rica and Brazil, and really globally—arguing for the idea of the human right to water and always speaking about that human right to water in opposition to water as a commodity. I became more and more curious about what exactly it meant to say that water is a human right and not a commodity when we live in societies that are for the most part organized in capitalist forms of production and exchange. And so, if you’re saying that water is not a commodity, what exactly does that mean and how does that relate to the legal claim that water is a human right? And it was a curiosity about how those two very big categories, human rights and a commodity, actually differed in the social and concrete worlds that I was a part of through my fieldwork. And how those differences were produced? In what specific decisions? In what specific events? By what specific people? The core question that I was trying to pursue was this one: How exactly do you create that difference, which is politically so important for so many people around the world, and also materially?
At the international level of the United Nations, since at least the 1950s, there have been conversations about the place of water in relation to other human rights. But it is not until 2010 that the General Assembly recognizes the right to access water and sanitation as a primary human right. Up until then it had been described as a necessary condition for the fulfillment of other rights.
So that’s at the international level. In Latin America, since at least the 1990s—as a result of many public utilities that were sold and were converted into private companies—politically, there was a sense in which our countries were giving away these entities that had channeled resources in the country for a long time trying to increase access to water. There was a problem of access, so I don’t want to say that the situation was optimal. There were large numbers of people that did not have access to water; to treated water and water infrastructures. But the political reaction was one of, we’re losing something that should be in our hands. And so at that point the idea that water should be treated as a human right that is lodged in a political contract between citizens and their states, and not treated as a commodity subject to market laws, started to crystallize. The idea of water as a human right, it became the language that could articulate all of these movements that had different demands.
The book took me to many places. I did fieldwork in Northeast of Brazil, in the state of Sergipe. I did fieldwork in Costa Rica. I did fieldwork at the World Water Forum, in Mexico City and in Istanbul. And I also did fieldwork in Sweden. But the stories are not about all of those places. The stories that we find in the book are a way to grapple with these highly distributed work that is happening all around the world. So to make this concrete, how do you talk about the fact that there’s a policy recommendation that comes from the World Water Forum in Istanbul, travels to Sweden, then comes to Costa Rica and a friend from Brazil sends it to me to say, You really should look at this. So how do you tell a story about all of those scales? At the same time it’s impossible, but you need to account for the fact that this is how this “water world” is organized, and this is something that this book tries to contribute.
There are some really important and interesting accounts of how people are pushing against the system, trying to construct radically different “water worlds,” to put it that way. And I was interested in this book in getting into the belly of things that we call mainstream—arrangements of institutions and people that are not necessarily pushing for radical change, but are working with the given tools that they have to propel differences. Because I found that we didn’t know as much about how those people do their everyday work. And these are people that are smart, that are aware of the responsibility that they have. They are people who are struggling against the limits of the systems in which they work—bureaucratic, legal, economic systems. And I was really interested in thinking about them. So my critique is never a critique of the state in which it’s an absolute critique. I’m really interested in thinking about, what are the things that might work given the fact that the state is one of the existing forms in which we can organize collective life?
One of the really powerful critiques of bureaucracies is the way in which their management and understanding of time doesn’t match the urgency and the pressures that we everyday people face. The temporality is one that causes violence and harm to many people, which is true. But I was interested in thinking, now that we know that what is it that is going on in there that creates, on the one hand, that harm; but on the other hand, opens the possibilities for different futures in a system that is supposed to be stuck and fixed and unchanging? We tend to think about the future in a cinematic kind of way. There might be uncertainties, but overall we can have an image of things happening in the future. That image is the thing that you work towards. That is a generalized sense of the future.
What I found with the people that I was working with is that they were not operating in that way. They are absolutely aware of the limitations of the instruments that they have at hand. So they know that if you are in a regulatory agency that exists in a capitalist society, you are really not going to be able to push for a radical transformation. And yet, despite that, you have the responsibility to act, to do something. So they did not have a vision of, “This is how the world will look if I make this decision.” But they were operating under the notion that I have a responsibility to make whatever is coming next, less bad, in a way; or to push it closer to something that is more acceptable for us as a society. To put it in yet another way, not having an image of how the future looks like does not mean that you’re not working for the future.
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Duke University Press
Andrea Ballestero is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rice University. She is also the founder and director of the Ethnography Studio. Her research examines spaces where the law, economics and techno-science are so fused that they appear as one another. Her areas of interest include the politics of knowledge production, economic, legal and political anthropology, water politics, subterranean spaces, and liberalism. She is the author of A Future History of Water (Duke, 2019). Her research and publications can be found at andreaballestero.com.
It’s a book that had multiple layers of existence within the project. Not only because I used some of the theory, but importantly because a lot of the people I worked with made reference to it. To either abide by it: to say, we have answers there. Or to say, the problems come from there.
I like this book because it does this work of not taking for granted what water is. It takes you through very different formulations of what could be. I like books that ask me to undo my habits of thought.