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Tapping the Oceans

Seawater Desalination and the Political Ecology of Water

Edited by Joe Williams and Erik Swyngedouw

Increasingly, water-stressed cities are looking to the oceans to fix unreliable, contested and over-burdened water supply systems. Desalination technologies are, however, also becoming the focus of intense political disagreements about the sustainable and just provision of urban water. Through a series of cutting-edge case studies and multi-subject approaches, this book explores the political and ecological debates facing water desalination on a broad geographical scale.
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Jamie McEvoy

In the last 40 years, environmental governance broadly, and water governance more specifically, has been influenced by a set of policy principles emphasizing decentralization, private sector involvement, and public participation. Simultaneously, growing water demands and uncertainty about climate change and the future quality and quantity of water supplies have led to an increased interest in desalination technology to augment water supplies in many regions. In coastal northwestern Mexico, desalination technology has been identified as a solution to address regional water scarcity. Using two large-scale desalination projects in the state of Baja California Sur (BCS) as case studies, this chapter examines how desalination fits within the contemporary water governance framework. The chapter concludes that the adoption of desalination technology in BCS facilitates some policy principles (e.g., semi-decentralized and semi-privatized), but also deviates in important ways (e.g., lacks genuine stakeholder participation).

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David Saurí, Santiago Gorostiza and David Pavón

This chapter traces the origins of desalination in Spain in the 1960s which we relate to the parallel emergence of nuclear power. Contrary to the latter, however, desalination did not take off because of its high costs, and, more importantly, because of the preference of Spanish water planners for conventional hydraulic works such as dams, reservoirs and aqueducts. After decades of obscurity, desalination resurfaced in the 1990s, when a series of droughts hit the country, and especially after 2004, when social opposition to conventional hydraulic solutions (the Ebro water transfer) made this alternative the selected option for Eastern and Southeastern Spain through the so-called AGUA Programme. The crisis of 2007 and its devastating effects on the urbanization of the Mediterranean coast showed the limits of the ambitious AGUA Programme with many desalination plants canceled or working at very low capacities amidst accusations of overspending and corruption.

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Mark Usher

While it may no longer be particularly controversial to highlight water as a matter of politics, to describe water’s matter as political still challenges mainstream understandings of natural resource management. Indeed, water provides a sticky medium for the formation and consolidation of broader social, economic and discursive relations, which are enabled or constrained by the production history or ‘cultural biography’ of the commodity. This has been widely demonstrated in relation to capitalist urbanization and neoliberal accumulation in the field of political ecology, with both processes shown to be dependent on the prior commodification of water. This chapter will provide an original perspective on water commodification by demonstrating how desalination technology has allowed for the commercialization and ‘worlding’ of the water sector in Singapore, elucidating the close linkage between economic clustering and resource management. Before the 2000s, when desalination and recycled water were introduced, Singapore was dependent on imported water from Malaysia, requiring ongoing and contentious diplomatic negotiations. The politicized character of the supply network prevented the restructuring and commercialization of the sector, but with the fourfold increase in privately manufactured desalinated water, the Singapore government could apply its cluster development policy to the embryonic industry. The sector, now home to 180 water companies and 26 research centres, has been designated a key growth frontier, with water acting as an agent of worlding in the global knowledge economy.

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Felicia Peck

This chapter focuses on a shortcoming in global environmental politics (GEP) research: the largely neglected role of the material environment itself as a force upon environmental politics. The knowledge deficiencies that result from inadequate incorporation of environmental influences in political analysis are illustrated through the case of the role of “carbon” in climate governance, and examples of GEP research that are strengthened by attentiveness to the materiality of climate governance are given. Methodological approaches most apt to support the incorporation of materiality in GEP research include discourse analysis, multi-scalar consideration, and the pairing of inductively and deductively gathered evidence. The case of carbon and climate outlined in the chapter suggests that the efficacy of the carbon-based, econometric, and techno-managerial modes of global climate politics is in need of further investigation by scholars.

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J. Timmons Roberts

Is the arc of history bending towards climate justice? This chapter outlines Boston Abolitionist minister Theodore Parker’s argument about the arc of history bending towards justice, and then reviews the history of climate governance, weighted by two variables: equity and adequacy. Both are required to reach a lasting solution to the problem of climate change. This history raises crucial lessons for efforts to make our field more impactful in the future, so the chapter describes the work of one hybrid group of activist-researchers who have spent over a decade seeking to build workable indicators of climate justice and make them part of the global governance system. The chapter discusses some possible areas for useful research, concluding that researchers could have far more impact if they engaged in joint work with actors in the governance system. Scholarly models of publishable research need rethinking, and university hiring and tenure criteria need rewriting.

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Harriet Bulkeley, Mark Cooper and Johannes Stripple

The attention to new kinds of actors, including sub-national governments, private sector organizations, and transnational associations, has broadened the idea of what constitutes climate governance in international relations, and thus what kinds of studies it is legitimate to pursue. Students of GEP should resist the tendency to approach climate governance as a general, abstract, and undifferentiated entity, and instead explore the specific instances, places, processes, and materials through which climate governance is encountered. The chapter recommends approaches that (1) rely on productive and relational accounts of power, (2) pay attention to the socio-material dimensions of carbon and climate, and (3) are attuned to the cultural politics of climate change. Encountering climate’s new governance implies getting close to how climate issues are woven into the socio-material and cultural fabric of our lives. Such a research agenda has the potential to cast a new light on what is considered global, environmental, and political.

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Timothy Adivilah Balag’kutu, Jason J. McSparren and Stacy D. VanDeveer

This chapter explores the potential for global environmental politics scholarship to contribute to extractives governance and practice. The extractives sector causes substantial environmental and social impacts, especially in the developing world, and these in turn often drive activism and mobilization. Civil society responses to the socio-environmental externalities of the extractive sector have led to the emergence of various transnational governance mechanisms. The sector and its impacts are growing, in terms both of large corporate-operated mines and of large areas of artisanal mining, often worsening deplorable environmental conditions. GEP scholarship to date has neglected the environmental consequences of extractives as an area of study. This chapter calls for increased GEP research on the extractive sector, proposing that many common themes in GEP research can be applied to aspects of the sector’s impacts, transnational governance arrangements, artisanal mining challenges, and civil society roles and influence.

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Kate J. Neville and Matthew Hoffmann

This chapter examines the contradictions and complications of global environmental politics (GEP) scholarship in turbulent times. It identifies a series of cross-cutting pressures that challenge GEP scholars: institutional pressure for particular forms of research; external pressure for “policy relevant” research; a climate of skepticism about expertise and science; and a growing sense of environmental catastrophe. It argues for four pathways to address these challenges, whereby analytically rigorous research is underpinned by: normative transparency; the development of methods to address incomplete information and dynamic systems; diverse understandings of scholarly engagement; and increased community building. The goal of the intervention is to identify both opportunities and challenges for increasing research transparency, improving relationships of trust between researchers and other communities, and enhancing the plurality of perspectives and diversity of debates in environmental politics.

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Susan Park

What is the relationship between money and the environment? Money is used as a means to buy, sell, produce, distribute, and invest. Money can grease the wheels of the international political economy, which generates environmental harms. Can we tackle environmental problems with money? States, as well as non-state actors like corporations, make international financial commitments to address a myriad of environmental issues. This chapter examines private sector efforts to mitigate environmental damage as well as state financing for (sustainable) development through the multilateral development banks and the Global Environment Facility. It also analyzes the more recent green funds for their role in supporting the multilateral environmental agreements, including the various mechanisms of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The chapter highlights the research findings and theoretical insights on green financing, the gaps and emerging issues, and recommendations for future research.