Urban water sustainability: Constructing infrastructure for cities and nature (Bell, 2018)

Jenia Mukherjee


Bell, S. 2018. Urban water sustainability: Constructing infrastructure for cities and nature. Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-138-92990-6 (hbk), 978-1-315-68081-1 (ebk), 180 p., £29.59.

(URL:  https://www.routledge.com/Urban-Water-Sustainability-Constructing-Infrastructure-for-Cities-and-Nature/Bell/p/book/9780367593483)

Jenia Mukherjee

Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur; jeniamukherjee@gmail.com / jenia@hss.iitkgp.ac.in

To cite this review: Mukherjee, J. 2021. Review of "Urban water sustainability: Constructing infrastructure for cities and nature", Routledge, 2018, by Sarah Bell, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/245-urban 


There is an emerging literature on city, nature and technology within the context of the undesirable gap between the United Nations' recognition of access to safe and reliable water as a human right and actual realities around quantity, quality and access to water by multitudes inhabiting the urban and the peri-urban global South. Urban Water Sustainability: Constructing Infrastructure for Cities and Nature by Sarah Bell is a significant addition to this scholarship.

Bell outlines five frameworks for analysing urban water systems around the world, tracing social, political and ethical implications of technical changes on sustainability. These are: sustainable development, ecological modernisation, socio-technical systems, political ecology and radical ecology. The author argues that these discursive theoretical frameworks assemble 'storylines' in terms of technological choices, determining infrastructural options and generating diverse sets of costs and benefits for different communities. She explains and explores sustainable urban water systems by encapsulating many waters and multiple environments beyond urban utilities. She shows why and how water scarcity is political, apart from hydrological. She argues that while discussing urban (water) sustainability, infrastructure planning should be the locus of discussion, as infrastructures craft path-dependent urban conjectures. The book stresses that infrastructures are simultaneously physical, technical and social, entailing complex and coupled technological apparatuses, and elaborate institutional arrangements that evolve over space and time.

The chapters are coherently organized along broad overview accounts on cities, water and infrastructures (chapters 2 and 3), description of the five frameworks and their key characteristics (chapter 4) and analysis of the five technological trends or drivers across the deployment of the five frameworks (chapters 5–9), followed by a concluding note (chapter 10). Chapter 2 brings to the fore city-water interconnections in global discourses, national debates and local practices. It covers every significant framing including sustainable development, integrated and sustainable urban water management and water sensitive cities. Chapter 3 familiarizes readers with an array of perspectives on infrastructures, from a humanly controlled and value neutral system to socially attuned and embodied assemblage. It captures the empirics of the everydayness shaping quotidian urban realties and ends by acknowledging the role of gender when Bell applies the lens of critical feminism to explore intricacies shaping infrastructures and cities.

I find chapter 4 to be the most crucial component of this book as it confirms the need to understand urban water sustainability within alternative conceptual and discursive paradigms. It outlines the five (afore-mentioned) frameworks evident in research, practice, policy and activism. Bell’s explication, "A framework is not merely an individual lens through which to view the world, but the foundation for shared narratives, meanings and knowledge" (p.36) provides the much-needed edge to the conversation centring on sustainable urban water systems. The summary of key attributes of each framework offered in chapter 4 lays out the context for the subsequent chapters (5–9) where the author analyses the five technological drivers steering urban water sustainability. The author provides an in-depth analysis of the implications of sustainability in water systems across different technological developments geared by each of the five frameworks. Water systems are laid out in terms of the five technical trends and drivers: demand management, sanitation, urban drainage, water reuse and desalination. Bell applies each of the five frameworks on each of these drivers to investigate the implications of development trajectories on water technology and infrastructure, finally shaping urban sustainability and the larger relationship between cities and nature. While acknowledging the diversity in the demand for water and the capacity of infrastructure systems to meet it across varied geographical contexts, Bell also maps and analyses intra-city constituents characterizing demand equations along wealthier and poorer neighbourhoods in chapter 5. Like water demand as the technical trend or driver, the author analyses challenges and potentials of (sustainable) sanitation (chapter 6), drainage (chapter 7), reuse (chapter 8) and desalination (chapter 9) from the five-framework perspective.  

Competing visions of water sustainability exist within cities shaping, and in turn, getting shaped by complex urban trajectories. Emerging exhaustive anthropological accounts of urban infrastructures offer a radical critique to technocratic strategizing of sustainability and resilience as top-down designs. What sets this book apart is the fact that Bell perfectly blends the physical and the social, the technical and the institutional to make divergent and alternative options available to cities rather than creating another "blueprint for a new paradigm of water management" (p.174). She boldly asserts that "the physical possibilities of what technology can deliver, the material constraints of what natural systems can sustain and the social values of how we want to live are all important" (p.177), applying a composite thinking with urban water infrastructures.

Thinking about "sustainability as an interdisciplinary endeavour" (p.x), Bell combines technical know-how and social knowledge to define sustainable urban water systems – an outcome of her atypical transdisciplinary training and inclination that enable her to systematically integrate and complement engineering with social sciences. The many voices of the author – a young engineer optimistic on the possibilities of technology, a researcher cross-fertilizing hard and soft sciences, and a global citizen concerned about unjust urban water trajectories – speak in this book to unpack the contemporary complex relationships between cities, nature and water. Developed through the compilation of information for more than a decade, this book validates that navigating the plural is revolutionary in terms of facilitating interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral research and practice. Bell propounds and her book proclaims the value in and of the pluriverse.

My only concern is that concepts such as 'resilience' and its interconnection with 'sustainability' could have been better fleshed out with the use of first-hand case studies, conveying narratives of success and failures of water technologies, for example – water recycle/reuse, drainage and desalination. After going through the evocative preface and introduction of the book, where Bell places her commitment and long-term engagement in the domain of urban sustainability, the readers would certainly expect phenomenological accounts of the author and first-hand narratives from her own research projects, complementing secondary scholarship on the five frameworks. This expectation remains somewhat unmet. However, this unaccomplished reckoning and exposure to the frameworks infiltrates the much-needed energy, expertise and vision among urban ecological researchers to pursue empirical investigations within their specific (trans)local contexts of application. This book is highly relevant and significantly meaningful for researchers and practitioners exploring and working on cities, water, infrastructure, sustainability and their intersections.  It will contribute to inspiring cutting-edge future research on urban sustainability.

Additional Info

  • Authors: Sarah Bell
  • Year of publication: 2018
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Jenia Mukherjee
  • Subject: Urban water supply, Water and community
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English