Book review: Water, Technology and the Nation-State

Edited by Filippo Menga & Erik Swyngedouw and reviewed by Lucy Goodman

7 Feb 2019, 9:54 a.m.
Lucy Goodman

Water, Technology and the Nation-State cover

Water, Technology and the Nation-State

Edited by Filippo Menga & Erik Swyngedouw and reviewed by Lucy Goodman

New York: Routledge, 2018; 225 pp.: 978-1-138-72465-5 (hbk)


This book should not be read as a book about water, or at least, not only about water. Rather … water provides an excellent lens through which some of the contradictory and often unequal dynamics that shape social interactions can be interpreted and explained.

This quote from Filippo Menga and Erik Swyngedouw’s Water, Technology and the Nation-State summarises why this book is important and should have wide appeal. Each chapter presents an insight into the complex and contradictory relationship between Nation-State and water technology based on a case study analysis of a project or initiative. The studies presented are wide-ranging, from ‘the demise of the “hydro-dinosaurs” (p. 35) in France to the role of ‘mythologised ancient monarchs’ (p. 201) in justifying Thailand’s agricultural irrigation plans. There are 12 studies in total, with broad representation across the Global North and the Global South. The book covers diverse water technologies including a canal that has been discussed and ‘imagined’ to connect France’s Rhône river to Barcelona across the Pyrenees, desalination plants in the US and the world’s largest hydropower station, the Three Gorges Dam.

The book challenges the reader to take a fresh look at many of the common themes in the literature on this topic, namely the role of the private finance and financiers, High Modernism, trans-boundary conflict and resistance.

Where in the past water-management infrastructure finance was mainly the preserve of states and multi-lateral development banks, today there is an increasing role played by the private sector in the Global South. The private sector investors themselves are often urban elites far removed from the dam impacts. However, in his chapter ‘Speculation and seismicity – Reconfiguring the hydropower future in post-earthquake Nepal’, Austin Lord offers a fascinating analysis of why hydropower companies are offering local shares to affected communities in order that they literally buy-in to the project, and how seismic risk is, and is not, considered over time since the 2015 Gorkha earthquake and within Nepal’s ‘imagined hydropower future’.

The discussion of Scott’s ideas around authoritarian High Modernism, the ‘strong elite belief in the benefits of scientific and technical progress associated with industrialisation’, featured in many of the chapters (p. 197). However, in a nuanced break from the literature, David Blake’s chapter ‘Irrigational illusions, national delusions and idealised constructions of water, agriculture and society in Southeast Asia’ focused on Thailand states we should be cautious when assuming that the burgeoning dam building movement of the 21st century has been driven by High Modernism ideology. He instead highlights the role of the ‘elite constructions of idealised pasts, incorporating … subordinate time-frozen peasant farmers portrayed as innate paragons of “Thainess” for practicing irrigated agriculture, thus safe-guarding Thai culture and demonstrating national unity in official representations’ (p. 201). Further, in their ‘sweet story’ Emanuele Fantini, Tesfaye Muluneh and Hermen Smit discuss how Ethiopia’s Beles Valley sugar cane irrigation project actually may distance sections of the population from the state, by increasing the complexity of the social and economic position of individuals through social mobility and class re-stratification, rendering some people ‘more invisible and less intelligible to the state’ (p. 76). This process is simultaneously happening alongside the federal government increasing through the irrigation project its ‘territorial control, resource accumulation and surplus extraction’ (p. 78).

Blake’s and Fatini’s chapters link in turn to that of Ramy Hanna and Jeremy Allouche’s on ‘Water nationalism in Egypt’, which reflects on the history of the nation and the integral role that the control of water of the Nile has played in ‘shaping state-building and nation-making processes’ (p. 83). Hanna and Allouche draw attention to two key transboundary events that are threatening Egypt’s ‘hydraulic mission’ and the ‘entrepreneurial state’. First, that of the upstream countries attempted renegotiation of the Nile River basin treaties of 1929 and 1959, and, second, of course, the next great mega project of the 21st century – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, both of which increase hydropolitical tensions with downstream Egypt.

While current media attention is on trans-boundary water conflict over infrastructure in the Global South such as that on the Nile, and on the Mekong and Indus, the book also offers a less internationally publicised case of failed trans-boundary cooperation from the Global North in the context of the EU. In their chapter, Santiago Gorostiza, Hug March and David Sauri analyse the proposed water transfer project between the Rhône River in France to Barcelona, Spain via a 320 km pipe. The proposal, first mooted in 1994 in response to ‘a scenario of a water supply crisis’ in Barcelona perceived by Catalan planners has yet to be completely dismissed as an outdated solution. Greased by viability studies funded by the EU and supported by Catalonian conservative nationalists, the project has to date been undermined by Spanish conservatives championing alternative interventions that make ‘Spanish’ waters the ‘backbone of Spain’.

Another way in which this text is novel is that while many scholars have focused on the impacts of protest and resistance in blocking or delaying water-management infrastructure, Bengi Akbulut, Fikret Adaman and Murat Arsel focus their chapter on the lack of resistance to mega projects in Turkey when compared to strong resistance against small-scale hydropower. They argue, based on interviews from an Anatolian case study site, that this is because:

while dams as a form of hydrotechnology could animate modernisation and development as collective interest on which the Turkish state’s hegemonic project is built on, HPPs [small-scale hydropower plants] failed to do so and thus were, and still are, widely opposed (p. 96).

All the chapters trigger a fresh perspective on common themes in water scholarship; however, the vivid history of the building of Three Gorges Dam (TGD) between 1919 and 1971 by Covell Meyskens in the final chapter is worth highlighting as a real gem. He documents the personal stories and conversations of key individuals involved in the TGD before 1971, as well as the critical decision points. These make for compelling reading, and include the stories of Mao swimming across the Yangtze in 1956 and subsequently composing a poem –‘walls of stone will stand upstream … to hold back … the clouds and rain till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges’– a technocrat being released from prison to give his opinion on the project during the cultural revolution (p. 214) and Mao’s concerns over the flooding an atomic bomb strike would cause if the structure were built and targeted.

Only three of the 24 authors are women, which perhaps restricts the perspective of a book which otherwise finds a balance between regions and technologies relevant to water, technology and the Nation-State. Differentiated impacts between genders of ‘the multiscalar processes related to technology and the nation-state’ (p. 2) are critical to understanding unequal resource distribution. The lack of gender balance in authorship is the sole criticism to what is undoubtedly an exceptionally useful addition to the shelf of any scholar of water-management infrastructure, politics and society, or indeed a thick-skinned planning bureaucrat.

The editors argue from the very beginning that the planet is not moving into a water crisis, but rather that there is already a differentiated crisis of water access for many communities. However, the sum total of the rich evidence base of interviews and empirical data is more positive. As the editors note in their concluding paragraph:

water also generates strategies of resistance and contestation, and these, even though they are often scattered, have the potential to be channelled into the creation of a collective consciousness that could lead to the radical change needed to share our resources more equally (pp. 13-14).

 It is now up to the readers to take the book’s collective knowledge and learning forward, for such a desirable ‘radical change’.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Drink what you can pay for: Financing infrastructure in a fragmented water system

by Tyler A Scott, Tima Moldogaziev and Robert A Greer

Financialising urban water infrastructure: Extracting local value, distributing value globally

by Michael Pryke and John Allen

Integrating what and for whom? Financialisation and the Thames Tideway Tunnel

by Alex Loftus and Hug March

Polycentricity of urban watershed governance: Towards a methodological approach

by Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah

Politicised nexus thinking in practice: Integrating urban wastewater utilities into regional energy markets

by Timothy Moss, Frank Hüesker




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