The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
Dry humor: aquathoritarian cities pretend to be water-smart
By Kris Hartley
Smart cities are not water-smart. To unpack this proposition, we must first consider how they are conceptualized. In a 2018 article, Vu Ming Khuong and I define smart cities as "the institutionalized and integrated application of smart technologies with a digital age mindset to the tasks and challenges of urban management" (p. 849). This is a first-generation definition of smartness.
Today's smart city projects maintain their first-generation focus on technology, with data collection and monitoring dashboards helping public agencies improve service quality and consistency. Emerging technologies like AI, IoT, and machine learning are pushing smarteness to the frontiers of autonomy and virtual agency. At the same time, a next-generation narrative goes beyond bytes and cables to address sustainability, livability, and social justice.
While the new smartness softens its own technocratic edges, it offers no epistemic novelty. Scholarly critiques still implicate it in the misadventures of technocratic, managerialist, and pseudo-scientific policymaking, particularly the reduction of problem complexity (Homer-Dixon, 2011) to unduly simplistic terms. My present proposition extends these critiques to water.
Water-smartness fails in two ways
Water-smartness fails in two ways: (i) mistargeting policy commitments (i.e., 'doubling down' by strengthening existing efforts and perspectives) and (ii) neutralizing societal agency. First, smartness does the same things but faster and cheaper (see Hartley and Kuecker (2020) on smart water management). It offers only the impression of novelty while optimizing old policy approaches and justifying deeper commitment to techno-rationalist logics.
For example, autonomous sensors monitoring water flow and quality, infrastructure conditions, and customer usage provide granular detail about operational issues but make no novel imposition on existing governance paradigms. This epistemic double-down confines measurement of policy problems and solutions to a technical scope. Moving the needle on ring-fenced metrics also gives the illusion of progress while making transformational change seem unnecessary.
Like water down a drain, this epistemic loop tends towards a narrower and faster vortex, bolder with successive waves of technology and impervious to alternative epistemics that sever its logic-chain. The resulting moral hazard breeds a risky belief that technological advancements will always outpace the growing unsustainability of human behavior.
At its logical apex, water-smartness perpetuates the narrative of a Cartesian nature-culture split in which natural phenomena are viewed as affronts to human reason. An example is the portrayal of floods as shocking catastrophes rather than naturally expected events. Narratives like 'rebuild stronger,' 'don't let nature win,' and 'we shall not be moved'  often dominate post-flood political discourse and peddle false technocratic promises to communities searching for hope. Even the term 'land reclamation' (in reference to replacement of water with land) laughably suggests that nature once stole land from humans. Perhaps 'land clamation' is a more apt term.
Aquathoritarian policy narratives transform natural settings into existential battlegrounds and rally communities with a defiance that has no sensible target. This water-as-enemy perspective intensifies infrastructure for collection, piping, and removal – now accelerated by datafication, mechanization, and technical innovation. Listening to nature about where and where not to locate human settlements is a better long-term strategy than using technology to artificially force sustainability where it does not exist.
The second way water-smartness fails is that it neutralizes agency. Fortified by the command-and-control logic of techno-rationalism, smartness helps governments and knowledge brokers discursively frame water crises (e.g., floods and droughts) as technical failures in prediction and preparation.
In a 2021 BBC article about flooding in Germany and heat waves in the United States, a former UK Meteorological Office scientist stated "we should be alarmed because the IPCC (climate computer) models are just not good enough. (We need) an international centre to deliver the quantum leap to climate models that capture the fundamental physics that drive extremes. Unless we do that we will continue to underestimate the intensity/frequency of extremes and the increasingly unprecedented nature of them."
While this sentiment reflects the urgency of the climate crisis, its underlying logic implies that technology double-down is the only sufficient response – even as anomalous data and repeated human failures suggest deeper causes. With water-smartness dwelling on infrastructural, technical, and technocratic issues, solutions are epistemically bounded while societal agency and pushback are crowded out by elite political, advisory, and corporate expertise.
The sidelined public is left to passively hope for better technological performance and more committed technocratic policymaking. What should airplane passengers do but simply trust the pilot? There is no agency here. Oppressor epistemologies present techno-rationalist logics as the only 'common sense,' marginalizing potentially valuable societal and alternative wisdoms that are accessible only through participatory and collaborative action.
Re-thinking epistemic double-down
Smart city technologies ("boys and their toys"; Kosovac, 2021) mostly do what they promise: economize data collection and analysis while improving data granulation and timeliness. Definitions of smartness offered by major corporations reflect this expectation: "an urban area that uses information technology to improve its services, while optimizing operation and minimizing costs" (Veolia Group) and "using digitalization to create future-viable, self-optimizing, sustainable urban communities where people love to live, work, and learn" (Siemens ).
What political and economic interests sit behind this seemingly benevolent rationalism? I call on scholars to use water-smartness as a discursive setting for asking who benefits and whether technocratic legitimacy is durable amidst systemic disruption. Answers to these questions could explain the peculiar and counterproductive policy interest in overlaying new technologies onto legacy thinking. Critical reflection that changes how society thinks about water is possible only beyond the narrow epistemic confines of instrumental rationalism (dressed as smartness).
In the meantime, off-the-shelf and heuristic policy solutions to complex water problems remain the politically comfortable strategy. A trickle of progress is just enough to encourage more of the same, while teacup victories are declared and celebrated (e.g., digitization, denser data, and investment efficiency ). Lingering performance gaps justify disingenuous technocratic gestures that fall intentionally short of destabilizing the economic status quo. Every privileged actor wins – politicians, technocrats, and corporations – for now.
Ultimately, no epistemic liberation is found in smart water or aquathoritarianism. Society must confront the possibility of a systemic disruption that forces the old policy epistemic and its smart clothing into a hard self-reckoning. This eventuality is what Glen Kuecker and I (Hartley et al., 2019) call the 'liminal state.' More enlightened approaches would shun atomistic and incremental interventions, instead embracing holistic and fluid paradigms that recognize the mutual embeddedness of human and natural systems.
The prospects of epistemic dissonance and emergence, and their impact on water governance, may be laughed off – perhaps even by some readers of this journal. I welcome the debate. These prospects are at once frightening and promising, so imaginative scholars should be open to their opportunities and lessons.
Hartley, K. and Kuecker, G. 2020. The moral hazards of smart water management. Water International 45(6): 693-701.
Hartley, K., Lim, N. S. W. and Tortajada, C. 2021. Policy note: Digital feedback-based interventions for water conservation. Water Economics and Policy 7(01), 2071004.
Hartley, K., Kuecker, G. and Woo, J.J. 2019. Practicing public policy in an age of disruption. Policy Design and Practice 2(2): 163-181.
Homer-Dixon, T. 2011. Complexity science. Oxford Leadership Journal 2(1): 1-15.
Kosovac, A. 2021. 'Boys and their toys': how overt masculinity dominates Australia's relationship with water. The Conversation. May 11. https://theconversation.com/boys-and-their-toys-how-overt-masculinity-dominates-australias-relationship-with-water-158772
Venugopal, R. and Yasir, S. 2017. The politics of natural disasters in protracted conflict: the 2014 flood in Kashmir. Oxford Development Studies 45(4): 424-442.
Vu, K. and Hartley, K. 2018. Promoting smart cities in developing countries: Policy insights from Vietnam. Telecommunications Policy 42(10): 845-859.
Excellent contenu, pour en effet reconquérir ou relever les défis de l'eau, on a besoin de recadrer les textes qui régissent et respectent l'environnement, en mettant en application responsable ces textes de rigueurs.
Excellent article, thank you as it shines a light on the politically expedient approach - by putting in the word 'smart', which I am also suggesting bears a strong resemblance to its overused bedfellow 'water-wise'.
We have a similar problem here in the west of Australia where high-tech desalination plants are popping up like mushrooms along our coast while fit-for-purpose wastewater reuse and recycling is essentially ignored.
I penned an article a few years ago about the situation here in Perth, the capital of Western Australia which I would like to share:
Thank you Stewart for the comment and for sharing your interesting article! Indeed, Perth is a good illustration of the types of water challenges that may befall other cities amidst climate change (less consistency of rainwater/river flow and insufficient natural replenishment of groundwater). The Perth groundwater map (https://maps.water.wa.gov.au/Groundwater/) seems to indicate that much of the region (perhaps mostly in areas already developed) is unsuitable for garden bores. I do not know what this situation says about the accessibility or sustainability of groundwater supply more generally, but it does not seem promising. There also seems to be concern about lack of natural replenishment, given decreasing rainfall (https://theconversation.com/decades-of-less-rainfall-have-cut-replenishing-of-groundwater-to-800-year-low-in-wa-208751). Will artificial replenishment schemes be enough as climate patterns become more irregular and severe (e.g., this year’s El Nino)? Can desalination fill widening supply gaps in efficient ways? While Perth’s desalination energy seems to be supplied sustainably, is the energy intensity of the process still a concern? I agree with your statements in the linked article about finding more opportunities to use fit-for-purpose water. One cannot consider ‘smart’ (or ‘waterwise’) a system that uses so much energy (no matter its source) to purify water so far beyond the level needed for its use. The up-front commitment to build parallel infrastructures (if needed) that deliver varying qualities of water could be offset in the long run by cost savings from not purifying water to a high one-size-fits-all standard. One example is Hong Kong’s seawater toilet flushing system, which delivers fit-for-purpose water to about 85% of the population. Separate delivery infrastructure exists and is, predictably, in consistent need of maintenance (challenging given the high salinity). But this is one example of how a fit-for-purpose solution requires long-term planning and some up-front commitment (cost) in exchange for decades of benefits. Unfortunately, I do not believe that political leaders in many parts of the world think in these time horizons – to the detriment of water sustainability and many other public services. Once again, the politically expedient solution is to commit to the latest flashy technology, establish a success metric that the new technology triumphally meets (declarable political victories!), and kick the can down the road for somebody else to solve (potentially with the next wave of flashy technology). And so the cycle goes. Best of luck there in Perth dealing with the coming chaos of climate change!
Thank you Kris for raising this important theme for discussion. Your note reminds me of recent themes of international water congresses. The 2022 International Water Association World Water Congress & Exhibition in Copenhagen, Denmark, ran under the theme ‘Water for Smart Liveable Cities’, gathering 8,900 water professionals, and World Water Week in Stockholm, Sweden, 20–24 August 2023 under "Seeds of Change: Innovative Solutions for a Water-Wise World" with 15,000 participants online and on site.
These themes might imply that there is nothing more important in the world than smart technologies. Yet, e.g. in the case of Stockholm, they stated ”World Water Week 2023 will focus on innovation at a time of unprecedented changes. Human activities have triggered a global water crisis where we have for the first time crossed the safe planetary boundary for water. Yet, this is only one of multiple interlinked crises; in addition, we must simultaneously tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, and poverty. Water is at the core of all these threats, which also means that it is one of the most powerful tools to find solutions.” Thus, even by this organiser´s description, the programme was much more than just smart technologies.
Since these mega conferences are sponsored by international companies, it is no wonder the themes are like they are. From professional, scientific, and ethical points of view this is alarming indeed.
If we want to improve water governance and management and, especially, give better access to sustainable water and sanitation services to people and communities as well as manage water resources in more sustainable ways, we need to remember that information technologies and artificial intelligence should be good servants only, not the bosses. This is analogical to the ideological promotion of privatization of water services in the 1990s and early 2000s that has then been largely abandoned due to the many problems faced.
Therefore, e.g. conferences such as the above should have proper titles related to major challenges of water services and resources: themes on better management, institutions, policy and governance. The professional and scientific community should be more critical to such isomorphic processes (World Polity Theory, e.g. John W. Meyer) and not behave like a large school of fish where one dozen fish species follow each other. This way all fish species will go in the same direction without any critics or analysis.
Furthermore, as Acemoglu and Johnson argue in their recent book “Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity”: evidence and the long story of humanity’s technological development confirm that “there is nothing automatic about new technologies bringing widespread prosperity. Whether they do or not is an economic, social, and political choice.” Or as Arnold Pacey stated in the 1970s: “technology alone is not enough”. Smart technologies and digitalisation can bring many advantages if properly used. Yet, we should not mix the aims and means.
Thank you for your interesting comment, Tapio. I certainly agree with your comment that “information technologies and artificial intelligence should be good servants only, not the bosses.” I maintain that our obsession with optimization has led to a reductionist view of progress-measurement. This is a forest-and-tree problem. We ring-fence whatever we can easily declare as progress, because technologies allow us to measure things more narrowly and intricately. This is, of course, counterproductive in the governance of multifaceted and complex issues (the forest) – of which there are few cases more complex than water. Advancements in technology simply help us measure selected things better, but there is little incentive to step back and take an integrated perspective. Indeed, we could combine measurement capabilities for a multitude of indicators into one index and claim that we are now being holistic. But even this does nothing to escape the trap of technological double-down at a time when it is the thinking itself (epistemics) and behaviors that need changing (and who wants to be inconvenienced with that?). I also agree with your comment about knowledge-sharing institutions and events creating a school of fish effect. Global collaboration is, of course, essential when addressing environmental issues, but social systems – even those genuinely focused on altruistic knowledge-sharing – devolve into a normalizing force that generates in-groups and out-groups based on conformity. As I stated in a recent co-authored chapter on smart and sustainable narratives, “Given its conceptual ambiguity, its increasing influence on governance practice, and its role as a universalizing and normalizing force, smart governance and related concepts invite critical examination as discursive hegemons in a crowded but top-heavy marketplace of normative policy ideals” (https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-030-87624-1_255-1). We must find a way to be comfortable with the tension between global collaboration and sensitivity to local context and needs. This is no continuum that should be chased to either end, as the balance is constantly re-negotiated based on evolving conditions and political preferences. This process is democratically necessary but also uncomfortable for deterministic and technocratic policy thinking wed to problem definitions that come only from narrow expressions of empiricism. Thanks again for your comment. Quite thought-provoking!
A nice and telling illustration of the smart & wise hype (and of associated commercial interests) is provided by the GIZ-supported project 'Smart and reliable water and wastewater infrastructure systems for our future cities in India and Germany'; see http://smart-water.solutions/
while there is certainly much to ponder about when it comes to smart cities and the issue of AI, machine learning, etc - your general take on smart-cities is hardly controversial for plenty people will agree that tech will not change distributional fairness and fundamental governance challenges. Plenty of people will also have examples of the naivety of putting exceeding amounts of trust in the miracles of tech.
But clearly that is not why you indicated that "The prospects of epistemic dissonance and emergence, and their impact on water governance, may be laughed off". That no one comments on the larger part of your post, and your proposition for "More enlightened approaches" ... and "embracing holistic and fluid paradigms that recognize the mutual embeddedness of human and natural systems", is varied, I believe: some already agree to this general outlook; while a good amount of others (me included) probably don't really know what you specifically mean and where your road takes us.
Your master narrative is of course an old one: in fact, quite as old as the Cartesian worldview itself (even if it has evolved over the many centuries; as has the Cartesian viewpoint, of course). It's about the "Disenchantment of the World", which in a nutshell suggests that modernization equates with the rise of instrumental reason, the gradual alienation of humanity from nature; and the production of a bureaucratic and technological life world stripped of mystery and wonder. (wonderfully examined by Josephson-Storm, 2017: The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences).
This narrative has produced, and will continue to produce quite amazing attempts to re-enchant the world and put some magick (see Aleister Crowley) back into people's daily life. Some of those are rather compatible (in my view with an intelligent academic discourse), while others clearly not. And their is good reason that Charles C. Gillispie already in the 1960s cautioned that ruins of attempts for an alternative science lie strewn like good intentions all along the ground traversed by science (p.199, The edge of objectivity: an essay in the history of scientific ideas). Coupled with epistemic fluidity (read by me as anything-goes with a good dose of relativism), this has certainly the potential to foster some rather pointed responses; including by myself.
But for this to happen, I believe there is a need to provide some more clarity. For yes, if your epistemic liberation suggests that we should (a) put the same trust in burrying cowhorns (see biodynamic agriculture, and Rudolf Steiner's fantastic world of demons and astral forces) as in the work of more classical scientific work on organic agriculture; (b) consult astrologers for weather forecasts; (c) put the same trust in dowsing, folklore and hydrogeology in managing groundwater (see this journal); (d) employ radiestheses to help listen to nature and ensure that evil forces don't encroach on one's home etc; than yes: there will be people that will have a differing view on how to overcome challenges in the water sector and the environment. And while occult, esoteric and new-age worldviews are both widespread (including in academia), there are still people that try and safeguard the scientific tradition and believe that academia produces justified belief systems, over and above common superstition. How societies accomodate such believe systems, is of course an altogether different question; and there is plenty evidence that
The above is of course just one (extreme?) way to interpret your proposition and I don't want to imply it is necessarily yours. But it should highlight that more clarifications are required for there to be a discussion.
And lastly, it is quite amusing to observe that while the export of the enlightenment project is blamed on much ill in this world, the export of eurocentric/western irrational believe systems, and its entrenchment in discourse across the globe, doesn't quite attract the same furor (if any) but is seen in rather romantic terms.
Thank you for a thought-provoking piece.
Thank you Philippe for this very thought-provoking reply. I very much respect your engagement with these theoretical claims (however elegantly nuanced or absurdly blunt my arguments may be!). You have properly seized on the weakness of my argument, and now I get the opportunity to try to clarify the practical value of this vague alternative epistemic. From the book my colleague Glen Kuecker and I published a couple of years ago (https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/disrupted-governance/6AE130C92B1695D206E600BD2275F8F7): “we conclude that ways of thinking about and doing public policy – along with policies themselves – that emerge from the fog of epistemic liminality are unknowable, and that the policy field must be prepared to divest itself from its own anachronistic thinking to remain receptive and relevant in the process of emergence that likely lies ahead.” The epistemic liminality we anticipate is the product of pushback from various sources, ranging from anti-elite/anti-science/post-truth populism on one end of the ideological spectrum to the valorization of so-called folk, local, and indigenous knowledge on the other. Our argument situates policy instrumental-rationalism within its noisy political context, which no matter how virtuous or absurd is an inconvenient reality for technocracy. Wicked problems and convergent crises (e.g., climate change and socio-economic inequality) do nothing to resolve this dissonance and only magnify the dysfunctionality of the prevailing epistemic. With that said, the alternatives are elusive, hence our proposition about the ‘fog’ of epistemic liminality. The old, unfit ways are on continued life support as long as technology keeps moving the needle, however meaningless these teacup declarations of progress may be. At the same time, the new ways are unknowable, so they are unusable. We are stuck in disfunction with no obvious pathway out. How then could we envision a tangible reality based on what you call ‘esoteric’ or ‘new-age’ worldviews (terms whose meanings are themselves defined relative to a hegemonic epistemic)? That is the Achilles heel of my argument – the ‘now what?’ question – and I am hoping the answer will magically appear somewhere here in the comments. My answer now is that I just don’t know. My propositions are not strong on their ability to articulate actionable alternatives – if they were, we would already know them and the debate would center not upstream on epistemics but downstream on application and implementation. Absent clear pathways forward for these more reactionary than proactive critiques, I am inclined to venture beyond my argument and be either (i) radically localistic or (ii) fatalistic. The former takes a pragmatic ‘do whatever you can’ approach that categorically rejects universalism and synopticism. This localism is either geographic (context-based solutions that take no inspiration beyond their surroundings) or epistemic (solve the problem at hand, as it is (however incompletely) defined right now). Fatalism zooms out and trusts nature to take its course; the world will survive even if humans do not. This may sound politically problematic, but it is also very convenient because it asks little from us. As my colleague Glen says, we party until the money runs out. These two may actually be embedded – fatalism can involve letting go of authority and coordination and letting every community loose to do whatever it wants. This would be the dream of free-market liberals, in a type of Mad Max dystopian way. But it could also be considered the most purely virtuous because it sets us up for the fate we deserve. Lastly, I would like to hear more on your thoughts about “eurocentric/western irrational believe systems.” I am not sure I understand you correctly, but for the sake of argument I would say that the modern epistemic (and I, actually) place little stock in the merit of mythical or religious narratives created to help people come to terms with the unpredictabilities and disappointments of life (or to simply keep them compliant). These belief systems are, however, a political reality and consequential because they shape narratives and narratives seem to shape our reality. Lo these thousands of years later, such beliefs continue to impact public life in undeniable ways. Incredible! Speak against them and we are elitist, speak for them and we are regressive and barbaric. Perhaps this is too simple a dichotomy, and I would need another blog post to fully think this through. But thanks again for the really interesting engagement! You have me confronting many of my assumptions.
When the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI, now IWMI) was established in the mid-1980s, there was a significant group of irrigation engineers at the World Bank that felt our emphasis on taking an integrated technology-management approach was wrong: they argued that what is needed is simply more high-tech irrigation system technology. They even established a competing initiative ("IPTRID"), housed at FAO, which lasted about 5 years. In Sri Lanka, where I was working, they promoted expensive rehabilitation of dilapidated schemes, including the installation of new types of automatic gates (which failed very quickly). Pakistan and Egypt spent billions using Bank funds to install new watercourse structures including concrete outlets ("pakka nakkas" in Pakistan), and raised mesqas in Egypt which require a jointly-managed pump at its head. Encouraging reform of government irrigation bureaucracies, strengthening farmers' capacities, etc. were seen as not needed and indeed I was told more than once that organizing farmers is "too expensive". However, evaluations of these technocratic approaches to "modernizing" irrigation schemes almost universally found they were expensive and not sustainable. We now see the same biases in public investments in irrigation technology in Africa.
So your essay resonates but is also disappointing: it shows that lessons we thought were well-documented in the past have not had any impact on current investments. Very discouraging after 40-plus years working in this area.
There have obviously been tremendous shifts since the mid-1980s. And while it would not be hard to find technocratic (and engineering heavy) attempts for irrigation modernization (I have encountered them in many places), this is by no stretch the norm in my view.
Since you mentioned Pakistan, it is probably important to recall that the Irrigation Sector reforms in Pakistan (establishment of Provincial Irrigation and Drainage Authorities, Area Water Boards, Farmer Organizations), was both heavily influenced by IIMI/IWMI (if memory doesn't fail me) and carried along by the World Bank over the last 20+ years (with plenty money spent on the institutional part of project). I am most familiar with the results and ups-and-downs in Sindh (and somewhat in Balochistan), and with the benefits of hindsight, I personally found the ideas that carried the reforms slightly naive or utopian. And the status quo after almost 3 decades of reform remains patchy.
It is probably not hard to imagine, that the question of the status of the reform, and next steps occupied people quite a bit as the provincial government recently prepared its Sindh Water Policy; and the World Bank prepared a follow-up project. The very fact that there are in essence 2 parallel systems of governance: 1 system informed by the institutional reform proposal (3 canals as of 2020); one based on the traditional system of governance.
Remaining in Pakistan, I believe ADB's project preparation in Sindh (https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/project-documents//41514-01-ind-tacr.pdf) also highlights this tendency that investment decisions are hardly technocratic only - in a nutshell, this project was not financed, as ADB and the Government of Sindh could not agree on adequate steps to ensure wide spread governance questions that underpin the viability of this public sector investment (one is at liberty to google, as there are still records of newspaper articles online).
All this is to say, people have long recognized and have made attempts to shift the focus towards institutional questions - in fact to such extend that people widely accept that there is no "institutional fix" either and that many of the institutional reform proposals advocated around the 2000s were inappropriate. Which as a result have than made people focus on questions of governance more generally (for which the ADB case is probably somewhat representative); this was during a time when I did my almost 2 decades ago.
It is rather trivial, in my view, to understand that all three aspects: technical, institutional and governance are important; and it is also rather trivial to see that good governance is the one area where the World Bank, the UN, donor's more generally, have comparatively less options at hand (and rightly so).
Now: are there projects that equate modernization with lining canals - sure (not just in internationally financed projects, of course, but it is the norm in the often significantly larger government part of sector investments); and there are many reasons for this. Are there plenty projects where the institutional support is marginal (and inadequate) - sure. You may recall the IWMI study for an IFI that looked at the performance of investments into Water User Associations from around 10-15 years ago. But I do not believe that the support to Pakistan is an exceedingly good example for being technocratic - it is rather a text book example how the thoughts about water management evolved alongside the thinking more globally; and how those policy blueprints have translated in the real world.
However, Pakistan is a good example, within the context of this general Dry Humor post, for two reasons
(a) reminding us that the world is messy, and improving water management relies on plenty things outside sector governance. To name the most visual: there is really no policy/rule, study or structure that can stop the guy with the bigger gun to get their way (unless there are ways to enforce rules); this is in the literal sense in that a chief engineer will instruct opening a gate to satisfy the water demand of a landlord when looking down the barrel of an AK47. But I have satisfied myself that plenty downstream farmers would prefer the enforcement of rules based on benevolent rationalism (that is, as a result of analytical worked, and shaped through a participatory process), to the status quo.
(b) putting the head in the sand, by stopping to use the tools that technology provides (including climate modelling), to avoid an "epistemic double-down", is in the case of Pakistan (and many other places) beset with so many moral, ethical and logical questions that it strains my imagination.
I agree that ditching the technological tools would “strain the imagination,” because everything we understand and do now is based on those tools. This epistemic lock-in preserves the primacy of technology by rendering any departure an insult to reason – or a strain on the imagination. This is why the critique is framed in epistemic terms, or how we think about problems to begin with. I acknowledge that the technological dimension is increasingly viewed as only one among multiple inputs. However, even participatory processes are designed and executed within the technocratic-epistemic frame. I wonder whether there was an instance in which citizen feedback generated an over-ride of what the models suggested. What are the ‘moral, ethical, and logical’ implications of soliciting feedback on decisions that have already been made? This would be an indictment not so much of the technology but of the decisionmaking system itself. One might say that the way out is to merge the technology and participation in such a way that citizens are asked to make decisions based on facts produced by the technology. This ‘informed input’ or ‘educated citizen’ approach risks serving up information that is already predisposed to a particular pathway. The model variables themselves have to be selected, which is a decisionmaking process that is confined largely to technocratic/engineering spaces. As my colleague Julian Kirchherr and I state in a similar critique of the circular economy concept, “Modeling outputs are shaped not only by data but also by structural design and related decision systems – e.g., what is included and excluded, how variables are weighted, and the certainty with which outputs are interpreted and applied” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344922006255). We further state, “The formality of modeling, projecting, and forecasting can hide or legitimize technocratic narratives and biases, privileging some policy perspectives while marginalizing others.” I agree that this is a very tough issue to reconcile. Would we submit ourselves to the whims of the public even if they are ‘uninformed’ on technological or scientific grounds? I think there is fundamentally some type of tyranny that comes with a technocratic approach to decisionmaking, whereby we just have to trust in the benevolence of it. Is the epistemic system worth upending or merely tinkering with in ways that convince us (falsely but satisfyingly) that it is open and participatory? Anyway, I really appreciate the continued engagement and pushback. It is a really interesting discussion and I sincerely respect your extensive experience in this field.
Thank you for the call for comment. I really appreciate that. I will try to present commmentaries that will not be the empty critic. Please treat my opinion as a legal and factual (practical) background concerning main article (post) in my way of understanding. That is the crucial task – how to create meritorical and coherent fundaments in the light of „dry humor” in order to make this text the most usefull and clear.
If we want to talk about integral and smart water management system we have to identify what elements the system includes, what is the character of connections between this elements and what condtitions decides about the effectivenes and the coherency of the the whole system and the elements as a seperate parts (the „integrity conditions” means: - best available technologies - best available technics - IT systems – recommended building projects solutions, land use (spatial) planning documentation - legal, political and social background.)
If the „Water Alternatives” would like to accept my proposal I will present 3 condensed comments (with few days interval) entitled:
1) „Elements of the urban water manegement systems” (presented in this post);
2) Essence of links between „Elements of the urban water manegement systems”;
3) Integral and innovative urban water manegement systems - potential and barriers (Conclusions).
In order to ensure interaction and feedback during this discussion my question is if the main Author will decide to present his opinion concering conclusions included in Comment no. 3.
As I’ve mentioned - today I will share with you the COMMENT no. 1 „Elements of the urban water manegement systems”. The core of this comment is when designing smart urban management systems we have to remember to take into account the following component parts:
Water supply for industrial and social uses;
Monitoring of point and dispersed sources emissions;
Monitoring of chemical, ecological and quantitative status of surface water bodies;
Monitoring of chemical and quantitative status of ground water bodies;
Monitoring of protection status of habitats, animal and plant species located in the reparian zones;
Ecological networks (inclusive water bodies and reparian zones);
Flood protection infrastructure;
Spatial planning regarding building conditions in flood plain zones;
Spatial planning regarding water retention for the purposes of minimalization of climate changes effects.
Thats all for today. Try to think about possibilities of integratory management measures … Thank you for your time.
Thank you Tapio for your post, that really blew new life into this dissensus. There is no doubt, that our governance systems have lost ground contact, and the gap just gets wider by the day. Just look at the issue of global warming. It does represent a serious existential risk, but governments are still sitting on their hands, or even taking actions, that increase the risk. Urban planners seem to be the worst in this respect. They continue to allow developers to squeeze in smart houses, encroaching on green areas, or located in areas subject to increasing flooding risks. By now, there have been 27 COP meetings on the climate issue, with essentially negligible results. The most tangible result has been a boost to air travel.
The pandemic created sentiments saying “Build Back Better” or “never again normal”. These were essentially cries for abandonment of the neoliberal ideas and dogma. But once the pandemic was retreating, the political result was more of the same neoliberal ideas.
A more subtle, but very important issue concerns the fate of the idea of sustainable development. The adoption of Agenda 21 was a major feat, but since then, the idea has mainly been threading water, or even started to sink. The MDGs were supposed to bring new life to the idea, but effectively had the opposite effect, as they were developed by an expert group with poor understanding of it. The original version even lacked any mention of water, although the Rio +5 Conference had found that water would be the most contested issue for the 21st century.
Then came the SDGs, which were conceived at the Rio +20 event, as it had become quite clear, that the MDGs would fail badly. At this conference, we could hear a new kind of talking, that was more akin to the idea of sustainable development. Its motto was “The Future We Want”. This event was also more inclusive and democratic, than the previous ones had been. Thus, there was reason to hope, that the SDGs would really make a difference.
They didn´t, The major reason being that two Colombian delegates meddled with the process, and managed to buck the system, with the result that the SDGs followed the same script as the MDGs. The recent half-time evaluation, unsurprisingly, showed the results to be very meagre. This made a frustrated António Guterres tell the delegates to go home and reconnect to “Our Common Future”.
The recent follow-up on the 1977 UN Conference on Water, clearly demonstrated that progress within the water sector had been minimal since then. This confirmed what the OECD had found, from an examination of of the water governance systems in around half of its member countries, which showed that water governance was confused in all of them.
Pope Francis has also showed his dismay with the current state of the world, and he said that "The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal." On another occasion, hit out at unbridled capitalism , calling for ethical reform to create a more humane society.
Generally, the major focus of any government within an industrialized country, is to increase efficiency and competitiveness. We are on the road to populating the future with one-dimension people.
PhillipeF is a bit cryptic, but it seems to me that he is trapped in the 350+ years old Enlightenment paradigm, and even hints that nothing of importance has happened to it since the 1960s. This may well be, what politicians and water professionals believe. In fact, this old paradigm has effectively been debunked since by now. Our understanding of the world , changed radically during the second world-war and the following decennia. We now understand the world and its ecosystem as an integrated system, within which each of us, and every living being is a participant. Our existence depends 100% on nature, and we need to cooperate with it rather than mastering it. Homo sapiens is but one of species in the web of life. We need to understand holism and systems thinking. We now appreciate the complexity and uncertainty as important aspects of life. It’s no longer possible to solve real world problems, by means of the rational methodology of breaking problems into smaller parts. We need the whole picture, the context, to solve a problem, and we can never be sure that we really solved it. In fact, we understand that there is more to life than money. That’s why I share my motto for the future I want: Love – not efficiency.
Our major problems are rooted in our brains – not in a lack of fancy hardware.
Finally, Tapio’s post reminds me of two statement by Antonio Gramsci: The crisis depends precisely in the fact, that the old ideas are dying, and the new ones are prevented from taking root. (Somewhat paraphrased by me), and ”To live is to take stand. I hate people that don’t care”. They explain why people follow the crowd to ”more of the same”, closing their eyes and locking their ears.