A Future History of Water in all manner of devices

A Future History of Water, by Andrea Ballestero (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019)

Reviewed by Veronica Strang, Durham University

Andrea Ballestero’s intriguing account of the future history of water focuses on the subtle devices through which water’s history is formed, and the technical crafts of knowledge and practice that shape water futures. The book deals with four such devices: the formula, the index, the list, and the pact. She invites the reader to start from a position of wonder in which such technical devices hold the same fascination as ethnographic objects did for early modern collectors, as they provide exemplars of how laws and morality are articulated and enacted in everyday life via water price setting, or legal reforms.

A device, Ballestero says, “is a highly effective instrument for organizing and channeling technopolitical work” (p. 9). It merges practices and desires with longstanding assumptions about sociality, and it reaffirms or destabilizes categories and institutions. She presents the device as an ethnographic category, something that is “good to think with” (p. 142). This is an original and illuminating approach to instruments, such as pricing tools and regulations, that are often taken-for-granted and sometimes barely visible.

The first chapter deals with a formula enabling economic regulators to calculate the price of water for human consumption in Costa Rica, a country in which a strong tradition of social welfare has led citizens and officials alike to resist moves towards water privatization. Based on a legal principle of servicio al costo, utilities are forbidden from making profits on the basis that water is a human right. Ballestero notes the historical precedent of medieval ledgers expressing, through Aquinas’s notion of “just price,” that too much profit constitutes an immoral expression of avarice (p. 55). This moral assumption was later transferred to ideas about markets and their capacities for self-regulation. 

Based on a case study from the Costa Rican town of Cocles, the chapter considers how water meter readings are transferred to an Excel spreadsheet, then subjected to a formula through which regulators calculate a price that covers the costs of supplying water but excludes profit from this service provision. However, discussions with ARESEP, the body responsible, reveal that the costs within a utility are to some degree those defined by the regulators, and are therefore vulnerable to ideological shifts which tend to reposition water delivery as a commercial service, from which profit can be taken. The formula contains within itself a tension between financial capitalization and humanitarian concerns: it locates ethics within the logic of finance and seeks to balance how they co-exist. In this sense, even as more market-based methods of financial calculation overtake the process, the formula attempts to reconcile an opposition between profits from and rights to water. The underlying premise is that if the formula is balanced, society will be too. Thus a technical formula seeks to create a just water future, and reinforces a metaphysic of harmony and equilibrium.

In the second chapter, also located in Costa Rica, Ballestero considers how a price index is used to set water rates, and at the same time affirm a humanitarian right to water by finding a way to track patterns of water consumption, household incomes, and the cyclical adjustment of water prices in relation to inflation and other economic factors. Consumer price indexing aims to uphold people’s rights to water by ensuring that it is affordable. Adjustments are made, in theory, so that the costs of delivery – in accord with UN recommendations – do not exceed 3% of the household income, although in practice poorer households may spend up to 10% of their income paying their water bills. Via this device, objects become active participants in world-making endeavors: the costs of water are considered relationally, vis a vis other expenditures on household goods, thus transposing rights to water onto things that act as surrogates for the human beings to whom they belong. The index assumes that water is a right, up to a point, but it retains an idea, expressed by an informant, that although water is a “gift from God… he didn’t put it in all of your houses” (p. 77). In this way the infrastructural arrangements that deliver the water “turn a godly gift into a worldly concern” that can be measured and compared to other commodities.

The third chapter considers how a list can compose human relationships with water. Also from a case study in Costa Rica, it explores libertarian efforts to critique the notion of water as a public good. Ignoring long-standing accounts of successful common-property regimes, this group argues that, in being owned by no-one, water is vulnerable to over-exploitation (they draw on the well-known Tragedy of the Commons to make their case). Creating a tactical ontology, these libertarians compose complex lists of morphologically diverse types of water: clouds, water in the body, canals and so forth, in order to argue that such fluidity makes nonsense of the notion that water could be public property.

The final chapter shifts to Ceará in Brazil, to examine an experiment in creating a water pact in an area of severe water scarcity. Attempting to include a range of water users and managers, the pact asks people to make a public promise to conserve and protect water. The aim is to enlist their capacities to care for water and to compose a larger collective aggregate through which, situated as a shared social responsibility, universal rights to water will be assured.

As Ballestero puts it: “each device constitutes something of a collective attempt, an awkward juncture in which temporalities, utopian imaginations, and pragmatic tactics implode to craft vigilant everyday practice” (p. 35). The politics of water flow across different domains and are not exceptional: “formulas, indices, lists and pacts… proliferate in all domains of collective life and in all sorts of environmental and political settings” (p. 191). It is through such “desk work” that the futures of water and others things are produced. Her insightful analysis convinces the reader that such apparently mundane technical devices are indeed wonderful in their capacities to compose the water worlds of the future.