Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Swyngedouw's "Power, nature, and the city."

Swyngedouw’s article “Power, nature, and the city; the conquest of urbanization in Guayaquil, Ecuador: 1880-1990” does not only discuss Guayaquil but rather the largest city and the areas that survive off of it. Within the abstract of the article he makes the situation he is dealing with very clear in the pithy phrase (which is much more dramatic in Spanish) “ Agua, drama sin final,” or “Water, a never ending tragedy.”

The circulation of water is not only an issue of sustaining life, but rather it is deeply “embedded in the political ecology of power, through which the urbanization process unfolds.” The control of water reflects the issues of politics, society, and the economy – or more accurately reflects Ecuadorian dependence on cocoa, bananas, and oil and the implications of each these dependencies.
Simply put, when the number of people in Guayaquil began to rise, the amount of available water went down. Swyngedouw states, “The ecological conquest of water is a necessary component for the expansion and growth of the city,” which requires “considerable capital.” It is the duty for man to engineer the flow of water for himself, but before he can accomplish this he must have the money and power to accomplish anything.
The article goes on to talk about the Guayaquil from the eighteenth century onwards; the city begins with modest roots of 5,000 people using water from wells to the population and the need for water skyrocketing and having to create an intricate system of water politics. In this same section, “The origins of commodified water,” he strikes a blow at the white rich. This mentioning of the rich white folks being able to “defecate in the sometimes silver bowl of the toilet, comforted by the privacy of their custom-made decorated lavatories…the poor continued to use the streets as a public toilet.” This reminds me of the “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema Tribe” article (http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/gerstg/Naciremapg3.htm) that many early Anthropology students are required to read. The article similarly describes how people are obsessed with the use of the bathrooms. Swyngedouw’s article does not mention any sort of shame on the part of the poor in Ecuador which I think is interesting because of the cultural difference. While (most) American’s would never dream of bathing in a river it is what the people in third world countries do because they do not have access to domesticated water and the “necessities” that people take for granted.
Swyngedouw also addresses the issues of cocoa, bananas, and oil. From the 1850s Ecuador’s economy became centered on agricultural exports and by 1890 cocoa accounted for 90 per cent of total exports. The structure of the urban and rural life changed and power and distribution of money were geared towards promoting the interests of the city. As the city expanded though, the supply of water began to slow down. The city would only receive water for a few hours a day. As the cocoa economy crumbled the amount of water began to stagnate. When money began to run short the water supply suffered. The period when cocoa failed is “characterized by political instability.” After more bad political workings, the sanitation works went unfinished. The city was no longer able to invest in itself.
My favorite line of Swyngedouw’s comes when he discusses the “banana bonanza decade of the 1950s.” It sounds like a seventies show with a location change to the equator, but sadly it is not. The situation of Ecuador depending on the banana makes me hate eating Chiquita bananas. The city for a time had the financial ability to promote urban development and housing projects.
Then oil became the source of money once Ecuador lost the banana market. The city would again depend on a new market. Of course the oil prices would fall and the city would face another water crisis.
The overall effect of the article makes a person feel guilty the next time they go to the sink and fill up a glass of water and only drink half of it. Or the next time they’re in a swimming pool. Or any number of things. The focus on “social production of nature and the city is essential if issues of sustainability are to be combined.” Water explores how nature and society are mixed in with political and economic fights. Unfortunately, we can’t just give our extra half glass of water to the Ecuadorians, just like we cannot give the food we don’t eat to the starving people in India. Also bad, the situation in Guayaquil is not a single incidence in the market of water. All over this Earth covered in water people do not have water.
For fun information about what American’s are doing during a drought check out an article from the Wall Street Journal, “Drought turns water into cash crop.” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123785079745319125.html

1 comment:

  1. "the poor continued to use the streets as a public toilet."

    And that is why issues like water scarcity are so important to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. If the well-to-do don't restrain their water usage - or at least support the means to get more clean water to others - then they too will be paying the price at some point. After all, who wants to live in a place where people take their filth to the streets because they do not have the plumbing that others have?