Water Systems and Management

Within the past century, cities have increased in population and land area which has led to capacity problems in surrounding water supplies and receiving waters. Newman believes future city models should incorporate improved methods for efficiently transporting water, while keeping in mind social equity, economic efficiency, and environmental responsibility. One question that arises is how can we create systems that naturally use less water to begin with?

Hanjra & Qureshi write about how food security and water scarcity are intertwined with one another. The irrigation sector is the largest user of water and therefore is prone to feeling the consequences of decreasing water quality and increasing climate change impacts more. There are new technologies however that could help increase crop yields and water/energy efficiency. If food scarcity is more of an issue in developing countries yet it is the larger overall carbon footprint of developed countries that contributed to climate change, how much responsibility should be placed on the latter to finance these new technologies?

Lastly Maganga et. al take a look at the reasons why there have been increasing problems over water use in Tanzania including “fragmented planning and management, a lack of integrated approaches, and conflicting sectoral policies”. What are the benefits and disadvantages of the WSS sector becoming involved in integrated water resource management? What are the pros of switching from a supply driven approach to WSS to a demand driven approach to WSS?



Sustainable Water Management


Due to the global population boom of the 1900s, the 20th century paradigm of water planning anticipated that future water demands would rise indefinitely and need would be met through vast engineering solutions. That anthropocentric lens led to dams, reservoirs, and pipelines being built without consideration for broader ecosystem impacts. Additionally, the rapid rate of water infrastructure growth failed to find common ground between conflicting stakeholders and instead imposed a fragmented and often inequitable network. Gleick suggests that the 21st century offers a new paradigm that will address the shortcomings of the 20th.  What are the elements of the new model of water planning development? How is ecological value incorporated?

Gumbo and van der Zaag, expand on the challenge that water resource management must balance- the use of water for the livelihood of an increasing population and the protection and conservation of water to sustain its ecological functions. In both The Changing Water Paradigm and Principles of Integrated Water Resources, the authors describe scarcity and the need for systems that use water more efficiently. A notable case involving sanitation treatment and efficient use of gray-water is the CuveWaters project in Outapi, Namibia.



From watching this video and looking over the site, how does the CuveWaters project fulfill the principles of IWRM? What components can be replicated in future development projects?

On Contaminants & Exposure


This week’s readings address some of the many pathogenic contaminants present in drinking water supplies. The Fawell and Nieuwenhuijsen (2003) reading introduce us to a series of environmental contaminants — microbial, chemical and radiological — that enter the waterways through groundwater or, more often, surface water contamination. We’ll go over these on Thursday. Though many are ‘naturally-occurring’, there is an implicit argument in this reading and others that we are witnessing an escalation of the number and kind of contaminants due to human activity (anthropogenic contamination). The production of harmful by-products from chlorine-based disinfection of water serves as an example of the complex trade-offs involved in ‘hydrosocial’ drinking water management. TTHMs are a class of disinfectant by-products that remains in elevated concentrations in the water in Flint, in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (City of Flint Annual Water Report 2014; in Hanna-Attisha 2016). The citation reveals this was known to the City and presumably the State, though no action was taken. The banality with which drinking water safety violations can occur — even where ‘improved’ sources and routine systems of monitoring exist — should remind us that Flint’s water crisis is only a dramatic case of a disastrously commonplace reality.


The study of WASH-related illnesses worldwide is wracked by the problem of data: the variance in water supply, distribution, uses and practices are often lost in the approximations needed to produce numerical metrics, making water-related illnesses particularly resistant to classification by these means (Schmidt 2014). This may hamper the ability to advocate for certain interventions in an era of global health (from colonial medicine and then international health and development) that has been largely driven by replicable metrics to which monetary projections can be assigned (see Adams 2015).  At the same time, water-related illnesses represent the greatest attribution of the global burden of disease, and so are inherently bound up in these global health projects.


Another fundamental assumption in all this — one drawn from the biomedical tradition — is that human beings respond identically to the presence of pathogenic contaminants — or predictably unequally, based on age, gender or nutritional status. But in addition to the projects of describing the pathophysiology of various contaminants and accounting for them quantitatively, there is a small but growing effort to understand the qualitative and even affective dimensions of our relationships with these kinds of toxic exposures.


There is a move among medical anthropologists to think more about these contaminants as part of the “chemical infrastructures” of our everyday lives (Murphy 2013; Nading 2015). As Alex Nading explains, drawing on Marget Locke’s nuanced understanding of ‘local biologies’: “Despite global health’s universalizing vision, neither bodies nor chemicals behave the same way everywhere” (2015). This body of work is especially focused on the ways in which global health projects to eradicate disease have unanticipated consequences of producing new harms, in scale or in kind — like the disinfectant byproducts in our readings. These effects are carried through by chemicals and other substances which ‘leak’ from the ‘social’ to the ‘natural’ world and reveal the inadequacy of these conceptual borders. Such inorganic chemicals may translate social effects between, for example, humans, bacteria, watersheds, and bureaucracies. It is a framework I introduce as a means of destabilizing the universality of human health in relation to particular contaminants, and in turn, troubling the hegemonic production of data and interventions into water and sanitation systems from a global scale.  I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on the utility — or futility — of this kind of research!


Adams, Vincanne. Metrics: what counts in Global Health. Duke University Press, 2016.

Fawell, J. & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. Contaminants in drinking water. Br. Med. Bull. 68, 199–208 (2003).

Hanna-Attisha, M., LaChance, J., Sadler, R. C., & Champney Schnepp, A. (2016). Elevated blood lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: a spatial analysis of risk and public health response. American journal of public health, 106(2).
Murphy, Michelle. “Distributed reproduction.” Corpus. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2011. 21-38.

Nading, Alex M. “Local biologies, leaky things, and the chemical infrastructure of global health.” Medical anthropology 36.2 (2017): 141-156.

Schmidt, Wolf‐Peter. “The elusive effect of water and sanitation on the global burden of disease.” Tropical medicine & international health 19.5 (2014): 522-527.

Is our water safe?

The two Bain articles this week remind us that access to water isn’t enough. The water must also be safe for human use. Not fully considering the quality or safety of water worldwide means that we’ve overestimated access.

One challenge is that humans decide what is “safe” and that decision can impact billions of people. For example, Bain mentions we have assumed improved (sources of water)=safe. Yet, according to their studies, improved sources are not always free from contaminants. These kind of assumptions impact how and when we collect data, monitor water, report our findings, and then share information with the public.

For water, what does safe mean? Who defines it? In what context? Is the definition the same everywhere? Can it be? Should we have stronger global and local definitions? What happens when we determine that water might not be safe?

The Huffington Post article answers this last question for a case in the U.S. In California, the Water Resources Control Board has known about a probable human carcinogen, TCP, in water for 28 years. It’s been considered a contaminant by EPA since 2009. However, little has been done to regulate TCP and that’s just one example.

Even when we have data and know water might be unsafe, that doesn’t mean governing bodies can and will act quickly. We talked about governance last week. Are there any lessons we could apply here? Is this another pro for a more decentralized approach? How might household treatment play a role?

Unfortunately, much of this assumes we have frequent, timely, and accurate data in the first place. As Bain points out, we don’t have a lot of the data we need. Should we prioritize finding better ways to collect data and monitor water first? If so, who do we trust to lead that effort? It looks like the EPA has asked for innovative solutions to this very challenge. Have you come across other examples of this kind of work? Given the Huff Po piece, some might argue we shouldn’t wait on or trust the EPA’s notion of “safe.” What do you think?

Article share: Survey of Water Challenges and Injustices in the U.S.

Just last month News21, a student reporting project based out of the University of Arizona published an in-depth 11 article series and 30-minute documentary on water challenges and injustices in the U.S. https://troubledwater.news21.com/

In Will’s questions for this week, he asks “how can the right to water be scaled to local geographies and varying government agencies?” Many of the examples in the Troubled Water series could be insightful in answering that question.

One other recent article, I wanted to share from The Guardian gives a damning critique of water inequity in the U.S., focusing on Lowndes County Alabama, mentioned in last week’s US Water Alliance briefing. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/05/hookworm-lowndes-county-alabama-water-waste-treatment-poverty

Week 4 Reading Questions: Governance

1.     The right to water places the burden on the state to provide access to safe, sufficient, affordable, and acceptable water. However the role of government in water management varies significantly between and within nations. Both the Little Hoover Commission report and Bakker and Kooy article discuss the implications of governmental and geographical scale in water supply. The Little Hoover Commission advocates for a single, integrated public agency to oversee the management of water resources across the state of California. This may be appropriate in a country like the US where there are large-scale federally sponsored water projects, however water sources are much more localized in the global south. In the Jakarta case study, governance failure is explored at a local level where land-use planning, culture of governance, and economic disincentives have resulted in the exclusion of poor households from the municipal supply network.

Achieving the right to water will involve working at various scales of government. How can the right to water be scaled down to local geographies and varying government entities? What are the possible roles that government can play in supplying water? Are there certain roles or programs that should be prioritized over others? Is it ideal to integrate all water planning and management roles in a single agency? What is the appropriate scale for government to operate with regards to water supply?


2.     Last week we discussed some of the barriers to achieving the right to water in peri-urban or informal communities. While these areas were largely ignored by formal planning efforts, the Jakarta case study outlines a more systematic failure of government. As Bakker and Kooy describe, the local government failed to address the needs of poor households in the municipal supply planning process. What are the major barriers preventing poor households from connecting to the municipal water supply? What are the associated government failures that created these barriers? What planning or policy mechanisms could be implemented to incentivize connection to the municipal network?

Reforming Water Governance at the Source

This week’s readings ask us to (re)consider the mechanisms of water provision (be it private, public, or hybrid) available in primarily urban and peri-urban settings and the historical, social, and political dynamics that shape how water management practices are formalized within institutions and networks.

As I read the Little Hoover Commission’s report on the proposed restructuring of California’s water governance system, I was struck by the following statement: “In California, the amount of water that rights holders are authorized to use is far greater than the average annual amount of surface water” (viii). It goes on to make the case for more closely linking data collection on water usage to water rights administration. The report also mentions that groundwater is an additional, important source of water for many in the state (it accounts for about ⅓ of the water used by growers and households), but remains unregulated (19). How does (or might) bureaucratic consolidation or other governance mechanisms address what seem to be THE fundamental issues?

In essence, this report exemplifies how sub-national actors deal with issues of inefficiencies in the context of excessive bureaucracy and scarcity (that in many ways can be said to be human-made). It’s now seven years after the publication of this report and five months after Gov. Brown officially declared the end to California’s historic “extreme to exceptional” drought–a potential policy window. I can’t help but wonder how the recommendations offered by the commission would differ if written today.

A primary issue that the report seems to skirt around is the issue of reforming water rights. In addition to displacing indigenous communities from their lands and claiming ownership, settlers in California also claimed rights to the waters flowing through their “property.” They instituted the “first-in-time, first-in-right” principle through a series of reforms and court rulings dating now more than a hundred years. This gives broad discretion to the oldest property owners to use water for “reasonable and beneficial use.”

How, then, do we ensure that the obligation of the state to respect the current “enjoyment of the right to water” is not used as a legal defense by current water rights holders to prevent government actors from allocating water access more equitably? If legal rights are irrevocable, what types of hybrid arrangements can we foresee or predict in the not-so-distant future where the private sector will step in to respond to this government failure and capture profits?