The Water Dissensus – A Water Alternatives Forum
Wading across the frontiers: a new paradigm for peri-urban water security ?
I argue for some paradigmatic departures in defining and conceptualizing peri-urban water security. I argue for abandoning the notion of the peri-urban as an area contiguous to the city; reorienting our thinking from emphasizingstate intervention to improve water security to a more broad-based notion of "network governance" (Mathur 2008); and finally, moving away from quantifiable measures of water (in)security to more qualitative, process-based assessments that capture the daily lived experiences of people inhabiting peri-urban spaces who are losing access to water and their struggles in negotiating access to it.
The word "peri-urban" is a confusing term, with different frames of reference. However, the most widely used connotation of the term is a place located at the periphery of a city that is being gradually engulfed by it. Thus, it refers broadly to rural areas that are in the process of being urbanized; in this process, they provide resources like land and water to meet the growing needs of the city, while receiving its wastes. The typical peri-urban problematique is that of rural areas facing the brunt of urban expansion and suffering from state apathy and institutional neglect.
In the growing academic literature on the peri-urban, it is conceptualized as a zone that reveals both urban and rural characteristics; urban and agricultural forms of land use and settlement coexist and are intensively intermingled. Given the pattern of urban expansion in the global south, this co-existence of the rural and the urban can exist in the heart of the city, and not just at its periphery (Singh and Narain 2020). It is not uncommon to see gated communities, shopping malls, and amusement parks in the midst of rural settlements, interspersed with small patches of agricultural land, village ponds and grazing lands. Rural-urban boundaries are constantly blurring, making the identification of an area contiguous to a city as problematic.
Alternatively, if we see the peri-urban as a construct that captures rural-urban transformations led by land use and other changes, we could think of the peri-urban as an ecosystem where rural and urban land uses, economic activities and institutions co-exist. A peri-urban space could be a wetland, mangrove, a coastal belt, delta or estuary, not just a piece of land bordering the city. These spaces need to be recognised as ecosystems as such, and not mere extensions of the city. This may call for moving away from framings such as "peri-urban" itself, that position such spaces simply as city margins.
Commonly understood dimensions of peri-urban water (in)security include the encroachment or acquisition of water commons for urban expansion; the physical flows of water between rural and urban areas, for instance, through water tankers; the appropriation of groundwater from rural to urban uses; and the pollution of rural water sources through industrial and domestic waste. However, much of the transitions taking place, for instance around a wetland, could also be studied using a peri-urban conceptual lens. The same could be said for studying changes in mountain settings where the aesthetic beauty of the place drives land use change, depriving local communities access to such water sources as springs, representing cases of what is called amenity-led migration (Narain and Singh 2019).To think of these spaces as necessarily bordering cities can be problematic, but the nature of water insecurity being experienced in such cases is akin to that experienced by other rural areas losing water to the city.
Dominating public discussions and discourses around efforts to improve peri-urban water security is an argument that since peri-urban spaces lie between rural and urban jurisdictions, there is an institutional void; this can be filled by bringing such "areas" under formal urban governance structures. This is a very simplistic assumption. The peri-urban space is a messy space in transition, where the diversity of actors is matched only by the diversity of resource allocation mechanisms. Equating "governance with "government" can be misleading here. Most of what we call peri-urban "areas", do have functioning local governance structures and mechanisms, though they may be outside the statutory sphere. Ignoring these in attempts to bring such spaces under urban statutory governance mechanisms will create more problems than it will solve.
Not accounting for the diversity of water sources through which peri-urban resource users access water overlooks and possibly undermines the role of non-state actors in water provisioning. Paradoxically, this could translate into an overestimation of the supply-demand gap in peri-urban spaces. At the same time, it projects peri-urban resource users as passive recipients of the changes brought on by urbanization, undermining human agency. Planned adaptation measures targeted at improving peri-urban water security need to be based on an understanding of both statutory and non-statutory mechanisms of water provisioning in the peri-urban.
Improving water access and addressing water resource degradation challenges require grounded efforts at mobilizing communities, bringing them into dialogue with state agencies, and advocacy by non-government and civil society organizations. Simply bringing them under a formal urban statutory governance structure does not do justice to the complexities in water access and its iniquitous use in peri-urban spaces.
Finally, given the diversity of water sources in peri-urban contexts and the rapid changes affecting water access, quantitative yardsticks of water security  may be difficult to apply. On the one hand, such water sources as village ponds, lakes and tanks are constantly being acquired or encroached upon to meet the needs of urban expansion, and groundwater is being steadily depleted to meet urban needs or being pumped and transferred to the cities through water tankers; on the other hand, new sources of water such as wastewater for irrigation keep steadily emerging. There is a wide diversity of sources of water to which people may have access, depending on the location of their agricultural fields, social relations and norms of co-operation. In such contexts, we need dynamic framings of water (in)security that capture the transitions underway, and their implications for changing and differential water access, as well as peri-urban water users' differential abilities to negotiate it.Vishal Narain
Cook, C., & Bakker, K. (2012). Water security: Debating an emerging paradigm. Global environmental change, 22(1), 94-102.
Mathur, K. (2008). From government to governance: A brief survey of the Indian experience. New Delhi: National Book Trust.
Narain, V., & Singh, A. K. (2019). Replacement or displacement? Periurbanisation and changing water access in the Kumaon Himalaya, India. Land Use Policy, 82, 130-137.
Singh, A. K., & Narain, V. (2020). Lost in transition: Perspectives, processes and transformations in Periurbanizing India. Cities, 97, 102494.
 For a review of the emergence of the paradigm of water security and different measures to operationalize and measure it, see Cook and Bakker (2012).
The article makes a very valid point, I wholeheartedly agree. I do see a tendency to assume that a standardized, centralized model of urban water governance should be extended to cover peri-urban areas, often with an argument that this is the best way to ensure good services at reasonable costs - an issue of equity. It's true that peri-urban residents often pay much more within the mixed provision arrangements prevailing there, than those in the formal system. But we need this kind of openness to networked management both in terms of analyzing current situations, and in terms of envisioning pathways towards improvement.
First, it's important that we look carefully at the systems of networked management that currently exist, avoid doing possible harm to both the services and the capacity-building and participatory process that has been taking place. While this varies from country to country, I have seen estimates that very high percentages of peri-urban water and sanitation services globally are provided by small-scale providers, whether private, community-based, or some hybrid which often has been supported by NGOs. Many are in cities and countries with very limited ability to extend services, much less to sustain them. As you point out, there are many complexities of the peri-urban space that have shaped these responses in the past. Often these were established with strong community participation, and it's important to maintain that into the future, as a basis for future accountability of any governance arrangement. There are some very dysfunctional services among these, so-called water mafias, which may even impede further improvements due to desire to maintain status quo revenue activities. However, there are some quite good examples of networked water governance, so it is a mistake to generalize too much, and it would be harmful to overly criticize or disband systems which are currently providing much-needed services in cities which have limited options. While it may be easy to pain them as corrupt or self-serving, if they have been sustained over time with support from the community then any alternative must be carefully analyzed for its potential pros and cons.
In terms of moving forward, I do see valuable efforts to extend water and sanitation to all, and this should be combined with a good governance view, of greater integrity, accountability, transparency, and participation of civil society and community (not necessarily the same thing). But as you say, it may be overly simplistic to assume we can quickly solve all problems by incorporating diverse services into a formal system, even if it evolves towards that in the longer term (10, 20, 30, 40 years). Clear-headed situation analysis is needed of how to build on the networked governance already present. The requirements of good water governance (the OECD model is not bad, also WIN's approaches to integrity) should be applied and adapted to these networked services. If the formal urban services are accountable for their income and water supplies, if they are tracking non-revenue water and systematically handling customer complaints and so on, then the networked services should be supported to provide similar safeguards of integrity. Water regulators have a key role to play, to gradually improve service functioning, understanding that peri-urban networked arrangements will have their own characteristics. I do actually think that quantitative yardsticks should be applied, but adapted. And as you state quite well at the end, this must be with a high degree of participation and partnership, and unfortunately these are not common strengths of formal water institutions, they will need to find allies among NGOs and others to facilitate a dialogue. Thanks for this contribution and I hope it sets off a lively discussion.
Thank you Darren for a very elaborate response on the post. Interestingly, the literature on the role of informality in water provisioning in peri-urban spaces of the global south has grown quite well in recent years. The challenge remains in getting to account for this in formal planning mechanisms.
From my recent research in Gurgaon and Delhi in India, I also notice that formal and informal are really not binary categories, but closely related. The diversity of actors in the peri-urban space means that there is a wide diversity of actors, technologies and institutions through which water access is mediated. Water provisioning materializes through institutionalized relationships among local politicians, residents and water vendors in a way that state and non-state boundaries are increasingly blurred.
I think that the temptation to meet the water needs of such spaces by bringing them under the jurisdiction of formal urban governance mechanisms arises from their labelling as "peri-urban", as extensions of the city that are on their way to being urbanized, so the logical way appears to bring them under formal urban governance structures.. as if this should just be waiting to happen. If we recognize them as spaces in their own right with a diversity of resource allocation mechanisms, we will more likely remain open to other options.
The article is very well timed, since urbanisation is a top priority for most emerging countries. As cities grow, they need resources to sustain that growth that I think are appropriated from not only the immediate periphery but also from areas much beyond the physical extent of the cities. More importantly though, a thick description of one’s peri-urban is critical for the purpose of theory making. For instance, the peri-urban of India may be different than that of Bangladesh. Also, differences might emerge between the cases of big and small cities.
What do you think?
Thanks Aditya for continuing the conversation. True, among the many debates and controversies surrounding the periurban is the meaning of the term itself. In the academic literature, as I observe in the post, it is seen as a transitionary space between the rural and the urban combining some features of both. However, in popular discourses the term is rather loosely used, to refer to a wide variety of situations and contexts, for instance, confusing it with suburbs, small towns or informal settlements away from the main city. Often the reference is a to place at the periphery of cities without any rural or agrarian features at all. Thus, when we use the word periurban it is good to specify what we mean by it to bring our audience on the same page.
Yes, as you say, the post is timely, thank you for the comment. In fact, the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report (Working Group 2, chapter 6) defines periurban development as a key driver of risk. This is not surprising given the diminishing access to natural resources, weakening social capital and insecure tenurial arrangements found in such contexts. All these factors shape people's adaptive capacity; therefore, for the same level of exposure to a hazard, peri-urban spaces will experience greater vulnerability than rural or urban contexts.
I would not expect the periurban of India to be very different from the peri-urban of Bangladesh, though. Of course local contexts may vary in terms of what the drivers of land use change and urban expansion are. I expect more substantive difference between the peri-urban of the global north and the global south and the peri-urban of large cities vs peri-urban of smaller towns in the global south.
Needless to say, this rules out any "one size, fits all" approach to addressing the challenges faced by periurban contexts, or of policy transfer from the global north to the global south, and reinforces the case for highly localized interventions based on the premise of networked governance that I argue in my post.
Thank you very much for your inspiring article. In so-called peri-urban areas of many low-income countires, many people do much for themselves to improve their own water supplies, usually at household level - known as Self-supply. Despite the widespread prevalence of this phenomenon (1), it is often completely overlooked, much to the detriment of water users, and governments.
Thus, the actions that you call for - dialogue and advocacy are much needed, alongside education of water users and the skills development of the enterprises who serve them, including those who drill wells and install pumps or other systems.
(1) Sally Sutton, John Butterworth (2021) Self-Supply Filling the gaps in public water supply provision, Practical Action.
Thanks Kerstin, for your remark. Yes, that is absolutely true. Water users are constantly innovating to engage with what you call "self-supply". In Hindi language, there is a beautiful word called "jugad" which denotes impromptu coping, often through innovation. It is often used in a pejorative way, to denote a situation of helplessness that compels people to "make do" with what(ever) they have. The absence of direct state engagement to meet the needs of water supply often compels periurban water users to co-operate; pooling in resources to create new water storage and transportation infrastructure and develop new norms for collective action. They wade through - physically and metaphorically - murky wastewater to irrigate paddy and wheat. Reminiscent of the Simon and Garfunkel classic, they build their own bridge over troubled water !
But as you rightly state, such actions are often ignored. Formal state intervention to meet urban needs unfortunately further restricts the scope of such actions. For instance, while working in Gurgaon, in North-west India, I met several farmers who used the city's wastewater to irrigate paddy and wheat. However, in a bid to beautify the city and to prevent the stench of the wastewater canal reaching the terraces of the gated colonies that came up on its banks, the wastewater canal, was soon going to be covered. So the issue is how do we take cognizance of factors such as these in an ever increasing urge to build a city like Gurgaon ?
Nicely explained. The concept of peri-urban area and the give-and-take water relationship between the urban and peri-urban areas are clearer to me now. Also, this reminds me of some peri-urban areas in Bangladesh. When the tannery industries were shifted to Savar from Dhaka, the consent of public was hardly taken. Some locales advocacy could have given a much better scenario than what it is now.
Thanks Khadiza for the example from Bangladesh. In fact, it is not possible to understand peri-urban dynamics without looking at the politics of urbanization. The hegemony of cities means that polluting industries are often moved from the city core to the periphery. This reflects an urban bias in our development that we should question.
The article initiates a much-needed discussion on peri-urban spaces and water as a crucial resource. I agree with the author’s thought on the need for reconceptualising the ‘peri-urban’ spaces and elaborating the definition to incorporate a comprehensive understanding of the ‘eco-system’ they create. Though the peri-urban areas are greatly impacted by the consequences of urbanization and city-making processes, these are heterogeneous places with strong and diverse socio-spatial and ecological identities. These spaces host critical socio-ecological processes which are ignored in the current discussion which restricts the peri-urban as an ‘impact zone’, to be read in relation to and with a bias to ‘the urban’ or ‘the city’. The extreme transformation of these non-city landscapes while on one scale gives rise to intimate and complex actor-networks, it also contributes to a planetary scale crisis. Peri-urban needs a re-reading with a multidisciplinary lens to reveal the dense layers and complex system of actors and activities.
Thanks Sheeba for your reflections. Pertinent indeed.
While peri-urban areas may supply water and land, they also benefit through supply of machinery, technology and expertise. So, it is not a one-sided relationship. But in my view, the most important thing is how equity issues play out. Rural areas may be expected to conserve the environment and make environment goods like water and clean air available to the city. However, in most cases, these rural areas get back nothing in return even though urban populations pay for such goods and services. Why can't it be equitable so that a percentage of revenues generated from environmental goods and services that originate from rural areas could be invested in improving the lives and livelihoods of people at the source? Without equity, cities will always derive unfair advantage in the rural-urban relationship.
Martin: True. In fact, there are two way relationships between the villages and the city. Expanding cities also provide markets for the agricultural produce and may provide employment opportunities for youth as well. But there is an unequal relationship between the village and the city and a peri-urban conceptual lens allows us to see that.
Your proposal about a percentage of revenues generated from environmental goods and services originating from rural areas being ploughed back to support their livelihoods sounds good, but I wonder how this could be implemented. If any one in this discussion is aware of such efforts or practices, would be good to know. Perhaps the fragmented governance structure - for instance, in India, rural areas are governed by villages Panchayats and urban areas by municipal corporations or municipalities may come in the way of this ?
PES seem to be one way of paying individuals or institutions for the restoration of ecosystems. I have known the case of Peru, though this is criticised by many authors (Bleeker & Vos, 2019). The legislation for payment of ecosystem services was passed in 2015 in Peru. Accordingly, all urban water supplies are mandated to include a tariff to protect, restore and conserve the source of water. This is the source in villages where water transfers are made to Lima and other cities. In a way, this is source protection by payment for ensured water supplies to the city.
In Gujarat, some cities are entering into contracts with farmers to supply wastewater. This is an example of cities' economic and political power, and they can bring water into cities from far away hinterlands and then claim it as their own, subsidised mainly by the state, and sell it back to rural areas after use to earn some revenues. With the focus on urban development, rural and agricultural needs are neglected. Many irrigation dams now supply water to cities for their growing needs. There are several examples of such changes in the use of water infrastructure all over India.
Thanks Alka for the response to the comment raised by Martin. In Haryana, in North-West India, the state government is considering options for eco-tourism; possibilities of involving local communities to provide tourism facilities to urban residents and tourists around the Sultanpur National Park. Perhaps that is another example of what Marten is proposing ?
Recently I read in the newspaper that soon after piped water supply was provided to a locality at the periphery of Delhi and Gurgaon, the piped water supply was interrupted as the local water tanker mafia who earlier provided water to the locality damaged the piped water connection. I wonder how we accommodate observations like these in our discourse around networked governance.
An important and insightful discussion on the peri-urban water security issue. In my experience, while we, the researchers emphasize peri-urban as the transition zone and the transition process aiming to draw attention to the ignored implications of urban-oriented flows of resources; it is also important to monitor how such articulations get framed by the formal authorities in justifying negligence to the differential experiences. Referring to the post-war transition in the country, the formal authorities often argue transition is a complex period and claim the peri-urban issues will naturally get resolved after the transition i.e. as the “peri-urban” transform into “urban” and get access to urban services not only overlooking water insecurity issues that our “urban” areas are beset with but simultaneously justifying the rush to urbanization as the “best way to sustainable development” through policy endorsements.
Regarding the reciprocal sharing of resources and revenues, examples from Nepal show that monetary and material incentives have become crucial for succeeding and sustaining the water-sharing agreements. However, these do not always ensure socio-economic development and watershed conservation nor sustained water supply for downstream water users.
Thanks Anushiya for providing another perspective and example from Nepal. Relates closely to my point about seeing the peri-urban as an extension of the urban. In this case, this is taken to such an extreme that it is assumed that as peri-urban becomes urban, all its problems will get resolved (as if, as you rightly point out, there are no urban water governance challenges). So the peri-urban water security challenges are seen as a necessary evil that society must confront on its path to urbanization.
Perhaps expressions like Desakota (meaning village - city) that McGee used to describe such spaces in the context of south-east Asian countries better capture the features, characteristics and processes that are revealed by such spaces. What we label a situation as, is fundamental to the narrative that develops around it, and which in turn shapes the possible courses of action to deal with the problem.
In response to the comment from Anushiya above, I mentioned the word desakota which actually means village city. This better describes the features and processes of the spaces that we call peri-urban - a word that positions that space simply in relation to the city. I am curious: are we aware of similar words in other languages that mark the co-existence of the rural with the urban, which may present better ways of engaging with this space ? Further, for those of us in this discussion who have worked in peri-urban spaces across the global south, do we notice marked differences: for instance, in comparing peri-urban spaces of South Asia with China/Africa/South-East Asia. Perhaps there is a re appropriation of water resources from the rural to the urban, but is there a difference in the extent of control and autonomy that local governments have in dealing with these?
A very insightful article. I think there's definitely a point to be made on existing governance institutions for resources such as water in the peri-urban. While there has been a recent reckoning on the role of agrarian histories and institutions of land governance in the making of property regimes that impact urbanisation (the field of agrarian urbanism), there is relatively much less on institutions governing water use, common lands, firewood, grazing and so on, that also come into conflict with urbanization.
There's also a tendency to erase peri-urban institutions in peripheral villages when it is assumed that there are a thousand cuts being made through the patchwork encroachment of the city. Hence how would customary institutions built on assumptions of a certain ownership structure, a certain demographics, survive this assault or urbanization? Mountains and wetlands are otherwise understood to have resilient and still strong customary institutions, not understanding that the assault of urbanization may be equally strong through metabolic relations, forms of migration, livelihoods, even if not expressed fully in the built-up space.
I think it's definitely the case that the peri-urban, if it is to be useful further as a concept, should embrace an association with the saturation of metabolic infrastuctures (and hence a political ecological understanding) that define it. This would mean that the peri-urban can be located in a mountainous region supplying the city, but also in a neighbouring peripheral village (because indeed some of the key resources the city needs such as water or soil have a heavy materiality and the value chain is quite local). It would also mean that one side of the city is more peri-urban(ising) than the other, because of the relevant resources and intensified extraction/ metabolic relation.
A final point that comes to mind is with regards to the quantitative metrics of water availability/ insecurity itself. Moving away from measures of insecurity to qualitative dimensions of insecurity is well and good, but may overlook the qualitative politics of the metric itself. The politics of what is the scale.unit of measurement used, how is it actually measured, what are the assumptions of available and adequate water for the peri-urban? I study the wage relation and have found that the wage (as a quantitative number) is imbued with cultural significance (even if a thin artifact), so that there is a difference between 99p and 1 Rs. I would perhaps push speculatively to see if there's perhaps something there, a politics of entitlement to water, a politics of number within policy framings or peri-urban water users demands (unlikely, but perhaps productive)
Thanks Pratik for such an elaborate and insightful remark. For once, it is nice to see some one disagreeing - even if partially - with what I have said in this forum, as I am told that is what the forum is actually meant for - to spur debate !
Indeed, the question of institutions is relevant - moreso in the peri-urban space. As institutions shape access to water: so when we look at water institutions - and here I mean - like you do - institutions not in the sense of water management organizations and baords but more so the norms and practices around water; it is important to see how these norms are shaped by urbanisation processes. Migration and occupational diversification can cause customary institutions to erode, but at the same time, can also cause new institutions to emerge - like norms for collective action, resource sharing or infrastructure provision or creation. And yes, these are as relevant in the context of a mountain or wetland, as in a village at the periphery of a city.
Of course, the relationship between the peri-urban concept and urban metabolism is an important one. A periurban conceptual lens shows how the urban metabolism expresses itself, whether at the periphery of the city or in a distant wetland or mountain eco-system.
Your final point is interesting, and I did not think about it earlier. Yes, deciding what to measure and how is a political process indeed, and I wonder if that could be the reason for not devoting enough time and attention to indicators of peri-urban water security, as much as for urban.
Thanks once again for the insightful remarks.
It is indeed an exciting conversation and a very timely contribution by Prof Narain. Taking the conversation forward, I want to touch upon the time element of periurban spaces.
To me, peri-urban as a concept explaining process and space is perpetual. Even though these spaces are in transition, they represent change (negative/positive) for communities living within and outside (urban) these spaces. Even if such peri-urban spaces do not exist in the future, the peri-urbanization process will continue to evolve. For instance, the current 'urban' may turn into 'meta urban' in the future.
More than institutional void, there is policy neglect for peri-urban, considering these spaces will not be there tomorrow - spaces of transition. However, the policy actors forget that the peri-urbanization process is perpetual, the existing spaces will continue to evolve, and new transition spaces will continue to emerge. Maybe the transition spaces will look different from the existing spaces in the future, with significantly less rural or even less urban characteristics. What is urban now may not be in the future? However, the current knowledge and policy practices on peri-urban spaces will help understand the nuances of these 'spaces in transition'. Therefore, the time element of peri-urban is very critical.
I, therefore, argue that it is no point in creating separate institutions to govern peri-urban spaces. However, it is essential to generate knowledge and evidence-based policy practices to manage peri-urban spaces' water and land resources.
Thanks Sumit for that comment. True, the transitory nature of peri-urban spaces makes it somewhat difficult to govern them by organizations designated specifically for this purpose. So it makes little sense to have a "periurban policy" or a designated organisation for "peri-urban areas". Rather it is more important to see how within policies for urban expansion, we can take account of the negative spillover effects of urban expansion.
Another important factor impacting the peri-urban dynamics is the presence of the local government, which is an organic part of and closely linked with the community on the one hand, and the state government and administration on the other. Nothing can be done or planned without their active and honest participation, which is more easy to say than implement. In this situation, the NGO or researchers from outside might play an useful role in planning the future course of action that would address the question of water security and other developmental aspects, only if they can negotiate successfully with both the community and local self-government and bridge the gap between the two, created due to the political hierarchy inside the village society by the three-tier system of governance as in India.
thanks Partha for that very critical intervention. On this forum we have been arguing for networked governance, and your intervention gives us a critical lead on how to operationalize this. True, in peri-urban spaces, which often have weak or inappropriate institutional cover, NGOs play a critical role in mobilizing communities, lobbying for change and facilitating dialogue between communities and state agencies. In doing so, they draw on their local networks and understanding of social and power relationships. They act as intermediaries, as you point out between communities and local governments. So they succeed in effecting change at the local level and especially in South Asia there is a burgeoning literature on trans-disciplinary and participatory research and its potential in improving both resource access as well as resource management outcomes in peri-urban spaces. Specially NGOs can play a role in providing platform for dialogue between periurban communities and state agencies and improving accountability in water access. Challenge of course is in scaling this up, so that these efforts remain more than localized pilots.
Thank you, Vishal for this thoughtful post and for all of the work you continue to do on peri-urbanism and marginalization.
I agree that peri-urbanism within the water insecurity community should transition from one where a peri-urban space is viewed as a fixed boundary between urban-rural settings towards an understanding of “peri-urban ecosystems” that are characterized by flows and processes. If we remain fixated on the boundary definition, we will fail to grasp the complexity of water insecurity challenges that are experienced by these ecosystems far and beyond a given boundary area.
I’m curious: How are you thinking about the temporal dimension of peri-urbanism as it relates to water insecurity? For instance, in some villages that may be considered “rural”, we’re seeing the emergence of water tankers and mafias serving urban and industrial needs. In other villages, the processes seem much more in place, as observed through gated communities, agro-industries, shopping malls, and even nearby airport construction. What are the implications for creating water insecurity metrics specific for peri-urban areas when we consider these spaces are always “in-the-making” and are in constant flux and dynamism?
thank you Sameer for the thoughtful reflection. Your comment connects very closely with two earlier comments in this discussion, one by Pratik and another one by Sumit. Sumit pointed to the transitory character of such spaces, which makes it difficult for them to be governed by organizations designated specifically for this purpose. Pratik drew attention to the seemingly false dichotomy between objective, quantifiable indicators of water insecurity and the more qualitative, contextualized understanding of what drives the choice of such indicators. So, as he put it, deciding what to measure is in itself a value laden and political process, rather than the result of some objective, value free "science".
My suggestion for peri-urban spaces would be to give up the urge to produce quantitative indices of water insecurity and focus instead on the diversity (or lack) of water sources, the processes which shape the disappearance of water sources and the appearance of new ones and the factors that shape the differential access to water of people inhabiting such spaces. As mentioned in my post, these could include but will not be limited to social capital, norms of co-operation, location of houses and agricultural fields (for instance in proximity to fresh water or wastewater canals). Needless to say social relations are important: all axes of social differentiation, gender, caste (in India, Nepal), class, ethnicity, marital status, age and physical (dis)ability.
If you must produce quantitative indicators ( for instance, bound by habit or paradigm) then do so after thorough exploratory studies of the diversity of water sources across households. Knowing fully well that the indicator may soon lose its relevance in due course; and of course that it could not be applied uniformly to a another peri-urban setting. As each setting is different.
Thank you for an excellent, thought-provoking article! Being someone who conducted research on peri-urban water security in India almost a decade ago, this article felt like a trip down the memory lane, and validated several of my field experiences.
I must admit though that a decade ago, I very much operated within the conceptualization of peri-urban being an area that’s contiguous to the city. As the author argues, perhaps the word “peri-urban” is confusing, and implies a geographic placement of this emerging/evolving resource context at the periphery of the city. However, that need not be the case always, because rural and urban resource dynamics can exist in the heart of the city.
I wholeheartedly agree about the need to mobilize peri-urban communities, build platforms for them to engage in dialogue with state agencies, and advocacy by non-government and civil society organizations, as measures to adapt to water (in)security, especially in light of climate change driven impacts.
To build upon the author’s final point, I wonder if developing a typology of what constitutes water in(security) that draws upon qualitative, process-based assessments, and is grounded in people’s lived experiences, is the way to go. The choice of research method(s) used is driven by the research question(s) posed, and peri-urban water security is a topic that I believe demands that as researchers we ask “how” and “why” questions.
Once again, thank you for nudging us to think critically about paradigms around defining and conceptualizing peri-urban water security!
Thanks Pranay, yes developing a typology of what constitutes peri-urban water (in) security could be the next step in operationalizing an approach to dealing with water insecurity in peri-urban spaces. We could think of different ways in which this happens: for instance, water insecurity induced by the physical flows of water (say through water tankers between rural and urban areas) as against in situ exploitation (groundwater being pumped by farm houses and gated communities; water insecurity induced by the encroachment of the commons (lakes, wetlands, ponds, tanks); and water insecurity related to urban metabolism and infrastructure (the creation of canals to carry fresh water from the rural and peri-urban areas to the city and wastewater from the city into the rural and peri-urban areas). At this stage I would like to point out that the expansion of the city may also create new water sources and opportunities for peri-urban communities, e.g. through the flows of wastewater, though the health effects of growing and consuming wastewater irrigated produce are well - known. Here I would like to add that we need to know more about the institutions - norms, practices and codes of conduct around the use of waste water, though the predominant discourse around wastewater is technocratic - emphasizng its role in raising small- holder incomes, as a mechanism for disposing waste and its implications for soil health and productivity.
There are two ways of solving a problem. The first one is to start defining and redefining a problem and use all our intellectual capital on it so that so much before we come to the second part of the task, i.e., finding a solution, we have run out of time. The second one is to begin with an operational definition of the problem and put all our intellectual capital to solve it. For peri urban water security, we need to begin with an operational definition of peri urban areas and 'water security', in a way that doesn't lead us to a completely wrong or flawed solution for addressing water scarcity.
While debating of water security, often the tendency among academicians (especially from social and political science) is to broaden the debate and start talking of 'water governance', as if governance is a far greater goal than management and if governance is good, everything is good--though we know quite well that governance structures and mechanisms are different from the institutions responsible for management. We need good governance, but definitely need sound management of infrastructure and services. Ultimately, people (the poor and the rich) have to get water.
It is well known that peri urban areas are transitional areas. Things are highly fluid there in the sense that everything changes dramatically over short time periods--social systems, cultural set up and economic dynamic--, unlike the rural areas. This doesn't mean that we wait and watch till things consolidate and become absolutely clear. But we know that tomorrow, their requirements (in terms of water supply levels, wastewater disposal, storm water disposal, etc.) would be different.
We know that our water institutions have many deficiencies. Yet, there are large and handle huge problems, given the large constituencies they often cater to. They have survived even in the most adverse conditions, and in fact they have been able to tackle crisis situations (urban floods, severe drought conditions) even better than some developed countries, if we go by the recent examples. But one major deficiency is that they are incapable of doing futuristic planning. It is important that the urban (water) utilities start planning for these areas ('spaces') as new urban landscapes rather than trying to over-stretch the existing infrastructure so that the planning for water supplies, sewage disposal and treatment, storm water management, etc. doesn't complicated.
As someone said: "we cannot predict the future, but we can create it". What shape the peri urban areas finally takes depends on what kind of futuristic planning that we do now (like in the master plan for cities). Most of the problems that we face in urban areas today is because we have not anticipated the growth (population and economic development), and the infrastructure that we would require to support and the constraints and opportunities.
It is important to have a 'vision' and define the goal in terms of the population that we want to accommodate in the new 'space', the kind of services that we want to deliver (water, electricity, transportation and the environmental services) and then start mobilizing resources to plan, design and build infrastructure to address the problems in those areas. This is what is being done in many transitional economies. This is probably the 'paradigm' of development we may need to follow. The capacity of the existing institutions needs to be build to do visioning and 'futuristic planning'. It is time to stop doing 'patchwork', and 'retrofitting'. We don't want institutions that plan for 40 lpcd of water, and with no facilities for sewage disposal and treatment.
Thanks Dinesh for being the devil's advocate. So you are proposing that we be pragmatic and start with a practical and operational definition of peri-urban areas and of water security, and get going. May be abstract conceptualizations and theorizations are not of much practical relevance to planners and policy-makers who need a concrete sense of spatiality in dealing with the peri-urban. That is why they are comfortable with a sense of peri-urban area, as then they know where to focus their attention.
Well written article Vishal. Congratulations! The lakes, ponds, wetlands and even rivers in the peri-urban are classic threats of water grabbing in the guise of land development. Firstly, we need integrated land and water planning at all scales, and secondly, we need regional planning (land and water) which are totally missing in our system. Before that comes the issue of governance. The peri-urban areas are like unparented areas with remote administration of the development authorities who do post development land-use planning and the collector office that is overloaded with revenue and other issues of the rural areas. In principle we need a complete new administrative setup between state and city that transcends into regional issues.
As far as community ownership of the peri-urban areas, it shall remain a challenge with more ghost townships for investors and migrant populations. There is no sense of belongingness among those who reside as they consider it as alternative or transit place. It is the cheaper land price with richer resources syndrome of the peri-urban which is putting it under tremendous pressure. With the new land reforms, we will see more of land as well as water grabbing in the peri-urban with high per capita ecological footprint.
Thanks Mansee for the comment. Yes, the peri-urban is one context where the land-water nexus deserves attention. This is especially true for wetlands. During the time of the year, when they are not flooded, they are used for cultivation. The state often recognizes Kasthakari rights, as I saw during my field work in Udaipur. These are like seasonal or temporary rights to till. Gradually then these lands get encroached upon and diverted to construction and real estate. I think we also need greater understanding, evidence and documentation of the social capital - the nexus between real estate, local elite and politicians that allows this transition to take shape.
So we now come to the close of this discussion. Thanks every one for responding and sharing your thoughts on this subject. It is not possible to summarize what every one has said, nor do I have that intent. But all that we heard does reinforce that the peri-urban is a complex and messy space, not amenable to easy solutions or interventions. We need more grounded research to unravel the complexity and more forums like these to promote reflection, debate and conversation and then committed actors - both within and outside the state - to act and intervene, based on what we understand is going on there. Thanks to Doug, Francois and Water Alternatives for creating this space and hope to continue talking/ or collaborating with those who shared their thoughts here.