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LONG READ:
THIS SYSTEM RUNS ON SLOP -
SPATIAL PRACTICE BETWEEN BOTTLES AND BRIBERY

by Julius Grambow

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London Sewage system being built in 1860. Unknown Photographer (1860).

Before going into detail, I would like to clarify that the following essay is an attempt to contribute to a fight which my personal background allowed me to have been least affected from.

Whilst rather helplessly trying to explain the possible outlines of this essay to my parents, my father introduced me to one string of global water politics: “Dirty water has become more valuable than potable water. Tap water in Germany (which arguably has one of the highest standards of drinking water in the world) costs around 0.1 to 0.2 cent per litre, whilst Germany also charges most for public water provision amongst European member states. Mineral water, on the other hand, as sold in local supermarkets, ranges from 13 cents per litre to 336 cents per litre.”

I had to think of the videos showing tank trucks deliveries to remote families and farmers in the hinterlands of Chile, Australia, the USA, or Kenya; of Coca-Cola advertisements in tiny shacks whilst stopping over in the Greek mountains.

My father continued: “Now, imagine the profit margins in countries which do not have access to drinking water at all. Imagine going to communities in the majority world to divert water from their wells, and instead use it for your own products, which you can then resell to them for a multiple of the price.”

When writing about water, the level of abstraction may appear infinite as it is the source to all life on this planet and, together with helium particles, is estimated to once have made up roughly 99 percent of all material in the universe. However, on earth, most living beings depend on water of some sort for their daily survival, with freshwater only making up for 2.5 percent of the total water volume. Of these 2.5 percent, only 0.4 percent sustain daily freshwater cycles around the globe: “In short, the fate of the world’s population depends on one tenth thousandth of Earth’s total volume of water” (Lanz, Renz, Schwarzenbach et.al., Who Owns the Water?)

In the Anthropocene, the continuous sharing of common resources has turned into a fragile balancing of capitalist interest and nationalist endeavours.

Thus, in this essay, I aim to contextualise key mechanisms of global water markets in their relevance to spatial planning. As needed for the further argument, I will begin by illustrating architecture as an extractive practice in modern capitalism, and then continue with introducing the conceptual transfer from global to planetary system theory. To reconnect the vital urgency of reproductive labour and decolonial theory within spatial practice, I seek to propose feminist ethics of care and reparation as a prospective on the treatise of water, which ultimately turns out to be a question of land and soil. In the end, I attempt to reinvigorate the capabilities of spatial practice as mediators in shifting geometries of power.

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36 cities under immediate threat of being submerged under the current scenario of +3° Celsius of global warming.
Courtesy of The Swiftest (2022) 

SITUATING ARCHITECTURE

Throughout most of its modern existence, architecture has denied a holistic responsibility to the complexity of its spaces. I would argue that, analogously to the energy source which is driving climate change, the contemporary state of the profession can be described as fossil, which amongst others may be rooted in the dominantly white, male-centred historical background, further heightened by imperial violence.

By fossil, I refer to two aspects. One, the constant re-excavation of dusty layers of knowledge with hardly any intentions to change the site or the instruments of investigation and thus prioritising the comfort of self-sustenance over progress in the greater discipline. Two, the pervasive arrogance of a profession which now mainly exists by transforming physical resources into virtual assets. Such is possible by degrading the time and efforts from labour which is deemed to be subordinate to its noble cult, all whilst educating its students to keep a fair distance to the very social realm it had been moulded by.

Architecture’s ‘humanistic’ turn towards a genius-ridden cult in the renaissance had vastly been influenced by the trade money coming from clients like the Medicis, allowing its practitioners to turn labour into commissions. For the next centuries, Architecture, capitalism, “religions, philosophies, and political regimes [would] mirror each other with different forms of ideational monotheism that search for the […] universal, the elementary particle, and the telos. The narrative arcs of cultural stories bend toward utopian or dystopian ultimates” (Easterling, Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World)

In the Anthropocene however, such binaries cannot be identified any longer.

Contextualised against the larger field of Urban Design, the current educational shortcoming might partly stem from the “geographical division of Urban Studies between Urban Theory, broadly focused on the West, and development studies, focused on places that were once called ‘third-world cities’ (Robinson, Global and World Cities: A View from off the Map).

In mentioning such categorisation, it becomes apparent that spatial discourse seems to slowly gain awareness of its fundamentally flawed trajectory, which I would like to cite from Samia Henni in full-length:

 

“In historicizing early Modern architectural histories and theories—including European Renaissances—the existence of European colonial discourses, architecture, and planning in the large and abundant overseas colonies, colonized territories, departments, and protectorates of the European empires has often been overlooked and isolated. During this long period, numerous […] architects, engineers, planners, civil servants, and military officers were involved in building European empires and developing architectural knowledge, technologies, and techniques. Several theories […] and cities were established in these “other” geographies since the first wave of European colonialism that began in the early fifteenth century” (Samia, Colonial Ramifications)

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At the same time, the geographical origins of colonial practices, e.g., New York, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, or Paris, act as “dual cities”, in which highly skilled labour from the service economy requires compensation in form of unskilled, poorly paid, and often immigrant workers. Commissioned by the top percent of global investments, countless examples of speculative built works like office towers, glazed housing projects, neoclassical villas, or publicly founded prestige projects manifest the deep involvement of architecture as an expression of institutionalised force. Considering the tight entanglement of the profession and the environments it coproduces, Elke Krasny points out the normative valuation in which the production of space has been mostly exclusive to the white, male-centred, and middle-class canon, in asking “for whom and for what does the built environment care? […] Who are the ones undertaking daily care works for architecture in order to support societies’ everyday life?”, and lastly: “which scale would architecture do justice to?” (ARCH+ 246, Zeitgenössische Feministische Raumpraxis)

FROM THE GLOBAL TO THE PLANETARY

 

To move away from Eurocentric definitions, various authors have proposed a new corporality of nomenclature, moving from ‘global’ to ‘planetary’ descriptions. Following the shockwave which had set off through the deregulated sphere of finance and quantum leaps in technological evolutions in the ‘Global South’, East Asian and Latin Americas economies in particular “decentred […] traditional metageographical categories of core/periphery and even of global North/global South” (Arboleda, Planetary Mine).

Hence, reselecting the nodes which are necessary to understand hypercomplex systems demands a “process of conceptual experimentation that can transcend the limitations posed by the intrinsic Atlanticism, state-centrism, and Eurocentrism of traditional social theory” (ibd.). At the basis of such theories, “the shift from the global to the planetary is also understood as a steppingstone towards novel formations of collective consciousness and […] agency” (ibd.).

In this case, such awareness might include the efforts of humanity to dismantle its crust wherever possible.

Therein, a proportion of humans on earth is reconfiguring primordial matter whilst operating in time magnitudes far beyond human imagination: from minerals, fossil fuels, and forests to atmospheric constellations and planetary water resources.

 

In the following paragraphs, I will introduce three key mechanisms of how such operations are displayed in the global water business and how spatial practice is involved in their continuation.

Visualisation of the Seasteading Project, designed by Oceanix/BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group.
Screenshot taken by the author (2022).

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EXTRASTATECRAFT: EXTERNALISATION

The first mechanism might be summarised as externalisation. It enables gains from revenues to go beyond the realm of real economy and instead create their own ontological sphere, being finance (Sassen, Expulsion: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy).

Referring to Keller Easterling, some underlying principles of such spaces can be described as extrastatecraft, as “sites of multiple, overlapping, or nested forms of sovereignty, where domestic and transnational jurisdiction collide […] – a portmanteau describing the often undisclosed activities outside of, in addition to, and sometimes even in partnership with statecraft”.

Tax havens count as prime examples of such transcendent spaces. Under consideration of planetary influence, the top three “greatest enablers of corporate tax abuse” are former British colonies, namely the Cayman Islands, British Virgin Islands, and Bermuda. Further island states include the Cook Islands, Seychelles, and Mauritius. Multinational corporations and governments, as creators and beneficiaries of tax havens, multiply the ecological cost of their actions by establishing resource-intense value chain. Here, the paradox which colonial capitalism bestows upon the archipelagos comes in form of belated consequences: resulting from moving assets throughout the world and externalising footprints via imperial trade systems, global wealth confronts these islands with the under immediate threat of vanishing under rising sea levels due to climate change.

Interestingly, the ecosystems of finance counter this dilemma by replicating the systems which they are destroying. In recent years, a growing number of swimming micro-states have been proposed, set outside of legislative boundaries and societal norms – as extrastatecrafts. Amongst others, a concept funded by the right-wing, ‘Authoritarian-Libertarian’ billionaire Peter Thiel came to international attention after it had been dragged to various governments around the globe before it was ultimately endorsed by the UN and finished off with a design by Bjarke Ingels Group.

Due to the rapidly expanding water market, water is becoming increasingly scarce to many indigenous people around the globe
Courtesy of Carlos Latuff (2009)

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MISSIONARIES: COMMODIFICATION

On a more individual scale, the commodification of water has spread to most major wells, springs, fountains, and fresh water reservoirs on the planet in form of expanding multinationals.

One of the most illustrative examples includes Coca-Cola’s involvements in Kaladera, a village in Rajasthan, India. In the early 2000s, after having retrieved large amounts of groundwater for production process, water tables fell significantly in the region, causing substantial problems to the local population. Additionally, the factory had been polluting groundwater sources in the region, which lead to health crises in affected villages. It did not help that the company sold its sludge and sewage water to nearby farmers as ‘fertilisers’, containing toxic materials and pesticides to a multiple of bearable levels. It took international protests and more than a decade of protracted lawsuits before Coca-Cola had to shut the plant in 2017. Comparable incidents happened in factories in El Salvador and Mexico, amongst others. Other large multinationals like Pepsi, Unilever, or Néstlé, have adopted similar methods through their subsidiaries in the beverage sector (Bienkowski, Corporations Grabbing Land and Water overseas).

Even in privileged countries like Canada, Néstlé is extracting millions of litres of water from Ontario’s Grand River indigenous reserve every day, Again, it is the marginalised communities of the reserve that suffer from the abuse of their own lands.

Opaque involvements of various institutions make it difficult to counter the industrial exploitation of water. When the global market of nutrition and beverages is controlled by a few giants and aided by strong lobby interests from corrupt politicians in rich countries, the interests of the majority world and multiply discriminated populations are going to face existential problems with climate change intensifying. “The United Nations predicts that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live with dire water shortages, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under stressed water conditions”, which partly explains the race for monopolisation on crucial commons: under the pending stress of survival, people will pay no matter what to keep themselves alive. It has only been in their interest that Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, former CEO of Néstlé, declared in 2005 that the perspective of water as a basic human right were ‘extreme’ and that he would opt for water as ‘a grocery product’. Consistently, “just as every other product, it should have a market value”.

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In the summer of 2022, various water companies across the UK have discharged their sewage into public waterways and the sea, lamenting that the British should be 'less squeamish' about drinking reprocessed sewage water, according to the head of the UK's Environment Agency.

Despite being multiply fined for spillage, leakage, and gross environmental pollution, five exemplary CEOs from English private water companies received between £1-4.2 million in salaries, shares, and bonuses in 2021.

Courtesy of FAY / BBC

SUPRANATIONALS: PRIVATISATION

With the revival of Manchester liberalism in the 1980s and under the influence of the Chicago School, finance became increasingly deregulated under the regimes of Reagan and Thatcher in the USA, respectively in the UK. This ‘neoliberal turn’ was an attempt to answer the global recession of the 1970s that was connected to the failure of state-led economies. High social and investment spendings had reinvigorated austerity politics. In aiming to mitigate high national debts and industries, spendings in social welfare were cut and infrastructural expansion got subsidised; all fired by strict budget norms coming from the EU. Besides, in order to achieve greater economic flexibility and efficiency, investors from the whole spectrum of finance began looking for alternative sources of income: “Nature in all its forms (including the production of new genetic materials) became part and parcel of new accumulation strategies. Water presented itself as a possible new frontier to harness, as a potential source for turning H2O into money and profit” (Swyngedouw, Kaika and Esteban Castro, Urban Water: A Political-Ecology Perspective).

Thus, state-led and -managed sectors have been opened to globally oriented markets, often as part of conglomerates spanning various industries. Such new constructs were labelled Public Private Partnership (PPP). This has been the case with the German energy giant RWE or the French companies Veolia and Suez, which took over the water facilities of Berlin, London, and Paris in the early 2000s, only to later sell them back to the municipalities once the margin between running costs of the water networks and price increases for consumers has become unprofitable.

 

Alongside some major cases involving two of the largest water corporations globally, Veolia and Suez, documentaries like “Water Makes Money” have shown the entanglement of political lobbies, tax havens, global corporations, and the control of media outlets through the construct of PPP.

 

In Toulouse (FR), Veolia tricked municipalities by pretending to pay an entrance fee to guarantee concession in water provision. In fact, this money is a hidden credit which citizens will later repay with their water bills, blown up by (double) interest rates on the initial fee. In cities like Toulouse, Lille, and other municipalities, the entrance fee had been used for prestige projects, such as concert halls, or to pay off debts. In late reaction to the nationwide fraud, entrance fees were eventually prohibited by French courts. In 2007, Veolia and Suez have been expelled from Paris and its waterworks were re-communalised. Further projects might include Veolia’s purchase of sewage treatment facilities in Braunschweig (DE), which was due to similar proceedings.

After 2000, Urugay, Bolivia, and Argentina are some examples of where Suez has had to leave PPPs outside of Europe after price increases became too blatant, even for corruptible governments. Over the past 20 years, more than 180 communities and cities in 35 countries have re-municipalised their water facilities, including Nairobi, Paris, Stuttgart, Johannesburg, and Atalanta. Even in Berlin, a referendum led the capital’s administration to repurchase its water supply in 2013, after it had sold 49 percent of its water utilities to RWE and Veolia in 1999.

 

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Ranging across various scales, Public Private Partnerships unify the three key mechanism which I have aimed to outline. This can be explained by the “tendency for privatised water companies to internationalise activities, either by taking over privatised water businesses elsewhere or by means of mergers, acquisitions and/or diversification into other sectors, or by selling their “know-how” overseas”. The scheme of such partnerships repeats at various points in the global network: the public sector is held accountable for long-term maintenance works, whereas the private sector is acting on behalf of its shareholders and accordingly rather cares about supply-and-demand than the responsible administration of critical infrastructure.

Privatisation, hidden under the agendas of PPP, continues to threaten the human right of access to water. One of the outcomes of such imbalance is that the “national scale has been re-defined (and partially hollowed-out) in terms of its political power, while supra-national and sub-national institutions and forms of governance have become more important” (Jessop, The Transition to Post Fordism and the Schumpeterian Workfare State).

RETURNING FROM THE PARTICLE TO THE POLLEN

 

In conclusion, as negotiating global water presents a multifaceted package of large amounts of land and soil, built infrastructure, edifices, and long-term implications of environmental governance, it is a fundamental part of spatial practice.

 

First, many-sided issues such as flooding, groundwater renewal, shifting forms of agriculture, settlement policies, deformational processes, deforestation, and energy conversion, to name a few, will continue to become pressing subjects. Responding to such problems on a transnational scale demand experts with both the knowledge and the capacity to readjust their professional scope.

 

Second, such adaption will demand for other career paths. In the UK, less than 1 percent of architects have been working in the public sector in 2019. Processes of privatisation, commodification, and externalisation have proven that the maintenance of public goods requires a focus on reproductive work which architecture had got rid of. This would not necessarily have to happen in the public sector only, but relying on education for profit-oriented, oversaturated markets will only suffocate the capacities of practitioners to find a voice amidst the climate emergency. Spatial practice, by its nature, includes a more horizontal spectrum, i.e., that of commoners; in that, all those who “have access to the commons [like housing and water], who rely on them for their livelihood or way of living, and who participate in the governance, preservation and reproduction of a commons.” In the sense of the latter part of this broad definition, spatial practice has been said to be especially prone to the overly cited “Tragedy of the Commons”, which in fact should have been named “The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons”, as its author Garret Hardin stressed shortly before his death.

It is exactly in commoning that reproductive work, care, and decolonial practice can open up possibilities to restructure fossil systems towards inclusive cohabitation. With the climate emergency and the scenarios which marginalised communities have been facing for the past centuries, concepts like Haraway’s situated thinking can extend the institutionalised discourse of spatial planning towards a more dignified environment.

 

At last, regarding methodologies in which to address the climate emergency, it is helpful to keep in mind that “mitigation is energy and adaptation is water”. With the coming end of the fossil age, energy will be unaffordable to the majority world. Despite its comparably young age, the conditions of the Chthulucene haven repeatedly proven that the growing inequality and systemic discrimination against the majority world put the future of the planet at risk. In foresight to the coming tenth of degrees, adapting approaches of spatial planning towards those of the administration of water cycles could set off promising alternatives in maintaining habitable environments.

©️ 2022 Panta Rhei Collaborative