Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Power, Nature, and the City

“Power, Nature, and the City” discusses the urbanization of Guayaquil, Ecuador, amidst the social struggle for control over and access to water. As of 1992, almost half of the city’s residents do not have access to potable water. Those with no connections to the water distribution system purchase their water from private water vendors for exorbitant prices; for this reason, they can only afford about 20 liters of (unclean) water a day. Swyngedouw reports that this situation is not unusual in Third World countries around the globe.
The author describes the growth of a city in relation to water supply. In order for the city to expand, its inhabitants must master the flow of water for their own use. This process requires significant wealth to be accomplished; therefore, those who master the flow of water are powerful as well. Thus when a water shortage exists, those with less power are often excluded from access to water. In Guayaquil’s case, as the city grew, selling water became a profitable business due to water shortages. Water vending created stratification between water vendors, who increasingly tended to be white people or those from mixed descent, and water buyers. With the commodification of water, access to water was determined by one’s ability to pay, creating further social stratification.

The author includes a brief history of water in Guayaquil. In 1884, a reservoir filled with water piped from the nearby Agua Clara River was created by a French company. Lavatory businesses moved in, and as a result, social stratification increased, as indoor plumbing came to be a sign of high social class, and “status, gender, and power became reflected by the odors of the body” (p. 4). Thus exclusionary water practices centralized power and demarcated social stratification, with the wealthy white people using fancy toilets and the poor people continuing to use the streets as their toilet. Occurring in parallel to the seizing of control over water, Ecuador became an agroexport country for cocoa, placing it squarely in the global economy. Seventy percent of the land was controlled by twenty families, and the need for wage labor greatly increased. A wealthy merchant class centered around cocoa formed as well. This bourgeoisie class extracted rent from immigrating wage workers and assumed considerable control over the city’s institutions, including newspapers and even schools. The city grew, as “a process of rapid urban development through the accumulation, investment, and consumption of the rents and riches from cocoa production was initiated” (p. 7) Sanitation and wages declined. In 1900, urban water projects were deemed to be of national importance and received funding from the national government, along with sanitation, so conditions improved. This went well at first, but when the city outgrew its water network, private water vendors moved in.

After struggling with ways to bring more water to the city, inhabitants of Guayaquil received a plentiful supply of clean water through a new water system, La Lolita, around the clock from 1928 to 1932, during which yellow fever disappeared, likely due to the clean water. However, as the cocoa economy crumbled, the powerful merchants and bourgeoisie desperately searched for other ways to uphold their wealth. With shifting powers, the water urbanization process floundered. Money from the national state that was promised to the water system ultimately was spent on other things or did not even reach the city. The water flow fell from 20 hours a day in 1932 to 6-7 hours a day in 1946, and contamination became more common. While the flow of water dwindled, the city continued to grow. Soon only the inner city containing 45% of the city’s inhabitants had a domestic water supply.

During the 1950s, U.S. banana corporations moved into Ecuador, revitalizing Guayaquil and other coastal cities. As a result, the city grew rapidly, more than quadrupling its population between 1950 and 1976. At the beginning of the banana boom, a new potabilization plant was built in Guayaquil. However, within its first decade, the population had already expanded to the plant’s anticipated full operating capacity, and water shortages once again ensued.

With the creation of the bioengineered “Chiquita” banana in the 1950s, the U.S. banana business moved back to South America. While large producers in Ecuador managed to stay afloat, thousands of small- and medium-sized producers were forced to join the urban lower classes, causing the city to expand further. Living conditions grew worse, and violent riots and protests followed in the late 1950s and early 1960s; the urban water crisis took a backseat to the political turmoil. However in 1959, in an attempt to prevent such social unrest, the national government created an organization whose official goal was to “keep on insisting for a supply system that provided every household with unlimited quantities of water” (p. 15). The organization blamed water shortages on “technical and natural constraints” (p. 16), using nature as a scapegoat for the government’s failure to provide the city with water.

In the 1960s and 1970s, control over the city’s water system changed hands several times, but any alterations they made to the water system were outpaced by the city’s rapid population growth. The rise of the oil business in Ecuador in 1972 again altered Guayaquil’s water structure. The La Lolita pipe was closed, but money made from oil was used to capture more water for the city. In 1974, the World Bank granted a $24 million loan to water projects in the area, but few projects were actually put into place. With the collapse of the oil business in Ecuador in the 1980s, people flocked to urban areas even as funding for cities dwindled. An earthquake in 1987 and El Nino exacerbated the situation. In the midst of its worst water crisis yet in 1987, $51 million in loans was allocated to the city from worldwide organizations, which was promptly suspended two years later when the organization in charge of the water system did not honor the terms of the contract. Since then, structural changes have been made such as expanding water pumping, but nothing has solved the dire distribution problem.

Currently (as of 1997), another potabilization plant is being built on a $75 million loan from the Spanish government. This will improve the services for those already receiving water, but inhabitants without domestic water access will have to continue to rely on private water venders. The author concludes that the urban water system in Guayaquil has always been embedded within and influenced by the social and political environment of the city. It seems ridiculous to me, yet unsurprising, that water, which I consider a basic human right, is not available to everyone. I recently read Blue Covenant by Maude Barlow for another class, which is about the global water justice movement. The book is filled with (briefer) histories such as these from around the world, including how people fought against water shortage. Thus, the situation in Guayaquil is, unfortunately, not unique, as both Swyngedouw and Barlow would agree.


  1. This article, as the others have noted, is about water and its relation to power and urbanization and whatnot. The problems discussed in this article happen all over the world, but he gives the history of Guayaquil, Ecuador. This article is similar to the last one in respect to that fast spreading urbanization leads to problems like disease, poverty and slum villages. These things happened during the times of economic hardship, like when cocoa started doing poorly. At the start of mass coca production, the merchant class was able to transform "nature" into political power. The merchants gained power from the money they were getting from coca production and they were able to pay for water services. I think this is what he was saying, I may have read it wrong. And at the time when people were able to get clean water, yellow fever went away. Who'd a thunk it? But this didnt last for long.The economy turned sour and the urban population was growing faster than they could restructure public services to provide for these people. As a result, many people could not get good clean water, and yellow fever came back. How about that.

    An interesting thing to note was that people's position in society (class wise) mirrored that of their location on the water pipeline. The rich were right near the water plant and they got all the clean water they could ever want. The poor were further away from the plant and may not get much water and it may be shitty brown water. It is rather interesting how they just happens to be.
    Another interesting thing from the article, as mentioned by the other reviewer, is the hygiene issue. People came to view toilettes and plumbing as a symbol of culture. To shit on a toilet, in this culture at least, is seen as natural, and to do otherwise is natural. If you think about, it isn't natural. Doing your business by a tree in the woods is the real deal. This is a separation of humans from nature, which is what we have been talking about for a good deal of the class.

  2. With a rise in population throughout Guayaquil, water supplies decreased because there wasn't enough to support the population. This conflict greatly affects society and the economy. A very large percentage of the city can't even afford potable water?! This is something I can't even grasp. We take water for granted and can be wasteful. What's even worse is what people can afford is in small amounts and is not clean or sanitary. This is an everyday necessity for life and to not be able to access it would be terrible. If you have money, you could buy water, if not, then the social gap grew larger. Wealthy white people succeeded while the poor lived off the streets.

    As the city exported cocoa, it became part of the global economy. However, it didn't last. Government funding only helped temporarily. Water flow continued to dwindle as the city grew. The banana corporations in Ecuador also caused rapid population growth and more water shortages. Once again, people thought technology would be the answer. Although some improvements have been made, the problem is still not solved...