A Future History of Water: An Interview with Andrea Ballestero

A Future History of Water

By Andrea Ballestero, Rice University

248pp. Durham, NC: Duke University Press §

Colin Hoag spoke with Prof. Andrea Ballestero about her recent book on efforts to make water access a human right in Costa Rica and Brazil.

First, thank you so much for this beautiful and important book. For those who have not yet read the book, would you mind describing it for us?

Also, I’ll note quickly that the book is available as an open-access download! Here’s the link.

Thank you Colin so much! Yes, the book navigates what for me is a challenging question: how do people make a difference in the world? Although the question might seem straightforward, the answer is not. This is a fundamental preoccupation of feminist scholarship as well as anthropology and STS, and I decided to make it the orienting issue the book revolves around. How do people effect a difference in the political and economic character of water? I examine this question from what I felt was a relatively unexplored angle in ethnographic work: the deep politics of technical knowledges such as the law, economics, and organized political participation in Latin America. If I were to try to capture the book in a statement, I would say that it gets into the crevasses, textures, and density of decisions necessary to bring about fundamental differences; the differences that make water as a human right different form water as a commodity.

I explored this question as I conducted fieldwork in Costa Rica and Brazil among a group of fellow travelers of whom you do not hear often in Anglo Anthropology. Those actors are mid-level bureaucrats, experts, and technical NGO personnel who are committed to the idea of water as a human right while working within existing legal, economic, environmental and technical legacies. In other words, my interlocutors are not seeking radical alternatives, but are trying to make a difference within the constraints of the world they inhabit. They work in Costa Rica and in Northeast Brazil, particularly the State of Ceará. I spent time with them in regulatory agencies, local NGOs, Congress, community organizations, at international meetings, in fieldtrips, and at their homes.

As I followed their work and aspirations, I found that they channeled their commitments to world-making through a series of techno-legal devices—formula, index, list and pact. These very concrete technical forms not only formatted their energies but also promised to bring about the differences they wanted to see in the world. Each of those techno-legal devices became a microcosm where they crafted new possibilities, while also reproducing existing normative systems. It took me a long time to decide that these four devices were going to anchor the book. By learning their history, but also how people pour their energy and creativity into them, I trace how passions and expectations interweave with long-standing ideas within liberalism. Thus, the book in a way is a meditation on how social change is propelled, sometimes inadvertently.

Additionally, I lay out in the introduction arguments about feminist theorizing, the tyranny of predictive futures, and the importance of separations in the era of entanglements. Finally, I wrote the book as an invitation to join a peculiar analytic mood, that of wonder. Importantly, in my take, wonder is not a form of magical admiration or religious awe. Rather, I propose a form of wonder that expands analytic time, giving us the chance to entertain doubts, and wonder about things, without rushing to what we already know. As I say in the book, the urgency of what the world puts before us, and the privileged position from which we can engage it, demand nothing less than to open up that kind of space for engaged consideration.

One interesting point about your book is that, while it’s about water, it doesn’t actually focus on watery phenomena or landscapes. In fact, you argue for the importance of moving away from, “pipes, dams, rivers, and oceans” (pg. 15) in water studies. Can you say more about that decision and what motivated it?

This shift was the result of my conversations with my interlocutors and of our collective thinking around the water question, both materially but also politically. In the opening of the first two chapters, I include two ethnographic moments that capture the reasons behind this. As I was having conversations with community aqueduct managers, for example, they posed to me that they knew very well how pipes worked; how to expand or connect them; when to stop them because the water table was low; what political negotiations were necessary with local residents; etc. And yet, what they were curious about were the means by which people more than 200 kms away from them, at regulatory agencies, set the prices they charge their neighbors. That was a fundamental push for me. It was by taking on their intellectual puzzle that I set a research path for my own project. For me this makes an important difference in terms of politics and in terms of method. I don’t claim to be doing action research, or even what is called “engaged” anthropology. What I do claim is to share the intellectual curiosity of the people with whom I worked and to embrace that curiosity as a shared orientation to research and writing.

Conceptually, this approach also builds on my interest in events and histories that are related, but not proximate; happenings that appear to be disconnected geographically, politically or even temporally, and yet they crop up in unexpected locations. I wanted to produce a methodological answer to the question of how to make ethnographic sense of phenomena that are shaped by events taking place in distant locations and/or during different times. How do we fine tune our ethnographic technique to do so if what is at stake is not memorialization? What I propose in the book is that we can track these seemingly disconnected passions and ideas by focusing on technical realms—law, economics, political participation—and that we can do so ethnographically. This is a project that demands a situatedness and specificity that pushes one to excavate one’s assumptions carefully. In the book, each chapter proposes one possible articulation of non-proximate events and histories as they shape how people in Costa Rica and Brazil encounter water, without presuming that rivers, pipes, or oceans are the necessary starting points.

Your book goes head-on at the technological and legal questions that flow from efforts to make water a “human right.” That is, if the provision of water entails costs (which it does), what kinds of fees are acceptable and who should pay them? The book then examines the four “devices” you mentioned above—formula, index, list, pact—and how they resolve or complicate these techno-legal questions. I’m curious whether this phenomenon is particular to water, or whether you think all human rights discourses must grapple with similar questions?

Yes! This hits the nail on the head. These devices have massive consequences in so many dimensions of life: the very intimate ways in which we produce shopping lists on a website; how small shop owners decide how long they can extend credit to their neighbors; the aggregate work that macro-economists do to decide what is a moral national debt; among innumerable other situations. The human rights language became prevalent because it was the language that people were using to denote the role of water at the very foundation of collective life within a liberal framework. People I was working with kept talking about water as one of the few things that we are entitled to by being humans who exist in a political community. There is a long tradition in anthropology of interrogating this formulation. In Latin America the language of human rights continues to be a powerful way to claim a more equitable form of life within hegemonic political organization. But we could replace the term human rights with other categories such as sustainability, pious life, racial justice, etc. In each of those areas of human struggle, as people embark to create a difference in the world, you find techno-legal devices helping them mold and shape the concrete forms that those changes take. I find the techno-legal device a really powerful way to ground ethnographic work that aims to produce situated conceptual vocabularies. To put it differently, you could say that my commitment to the device enacts a form of theorizing that marvels on the conceptual richness of ethnographic modes of thinking. Finally, another reason why I found the technical a useful place to begin from is that it avoids the binary trap that gives value to anthropological knowledge because it either shows how the systemic affects the intimate, or how the intimate challenges the systemic. Starting ethnographically from the techno-legal device prevents any slippage that unwittingly reproduces stifling binaries.

You explain that these four devices represent, “intense node[s] of temporality” (pg. 25), requiring you to organize your book temporally rather than spatially within a geographic site. This informed the title your book, you say, because you are “thinking about nonlinear future histories of water” (pg. 25). I am hoping you might explain what you mean by that, and one reason I’m interested is because of the significance of your choice of field site. Your research is mostly anchored in Costa Rica, which has an interesting history in relation to public utilities like water. You explain that the country was affected by neoliberal restructuring in the 1990s, but was more resilient to those changes than other countries, meaning that more utilities there remain publicly held. Another research strategy could’ve been to focus on a country where water commodification was especially pronounced. Could you explain your choice of fieldsite, and how it relates to this question of the “future history of water”?

This is an excellent point. Costa Rica indeed traversed a distinct neoliberalization route which did not include massive privatizations (although today, amidst the pandemic, new discussions about selling public institutions are starting to emerge). In the aggregate, Costa Rica has a higher life expectancy than the United States and most other countries in the region. The country has invested in a universal public health system, retained state-control over strategic utilities, and yet, today it is among the top ten most unequal places in the world.  It is precisely this kind of contradiction that pushed me to think about how people channel their energy, ingenuity, and political commitments. The contrast with the state of Ceará in Northeast Brazil was crucial for my thinking about what relational logics can analytically bring together radically different places. Historically, Ceará was one of the poorest states in Brazil, characterized by a political system that depended on clientelism. Today, Ceará is recognized as a leader in education and water management, and has invested heavily in improving the economic conditions of its population. Across these radically different histories and political cultures, I found among my collaborators an orientation to history and action that did not privilege a linear instrumentalist approach. Or, to put it differently, the means-ends relations characteristic of bureaucratic rationalities were not their main orientation towards their work. Rather, they invested immense resources and efforts to take actions that one might easily classify as ineffectual. They organized programs that did not produce immediate results, took actions that failed, promoted interventions that seemed to lead nowhere. Diagnosing those as forms of indifference, cynicism, or outright maleficence seems deeply inaccurate. Instead, I argue that their work needs to be understood as a form of political temporality. But something really important here is that of course I do not claim a divorce between time and space. What I do in the book is propose putting pressure on temporality as a way to ask a question rather than taking place and the histories attached to that location as a self-evident starting point. This was an analytic gesture to create an emphasis, rather than an ontological assumption.

The idea of a future history threads together these two issues: (a) the seeming ineffectiveness of so many of the actions my interlocutors took, and (b) a form of temporality that doesn’t follow a linear path. A Future History of Water is made today, even if it can’t be recognized as such until a later moment has arrived. For that reason, it is an extremely powerful orientation for creating the conditions of the yet-to-come. Could this argument have emerged elsewhere? I am not sure, probably not. But, what I find interesting is that it can suggest an orientation towards things that don’t seem to work elsewhere. It can help us ask what pre-conditions are being put in place through social processes that do not accomplish what they set out to.

Chapter 1 focuses on a formula used to determine water pricing by ARESEP, the Costa Rican regulatory agency. The formula is as follows: X = O + A + D + R, where X = the cost of service delivery; O = operation costs; A = administration costs; D = devaluation; and R = development yield (or return on investment). You show that R is where the real action is with regard to the question of whether water can be understood as a human right. Can you explain why that is, how the agency resolves this issue, and the broader significance of that formula?

In CR people are not necessarily opposed to paying for water service provision. But what they find unacceptable is profits—that utilities profit out of water provision. When people in protests oppose profit-making, for example, they explain their position as being against the mercantilización (literally, mercantilization) of water. Mercantilización is a particular form of commodification that is morally rejected because it pushes profit-generation to what people consider an immoral limit. So, the question was, what is that immoral limit? And, more specifically, what are profits? How do we know and trace them? That is how I arrived at the regulatory agency and the mathematical formula they use to calculate and update the prices of all public services in Costa Rica (including oil, electricity, public transportation, and water services). I was lucky to have access to an amazing group of regulators, particularly to Sofia (pseudonym) and two directors of what was at the time the agency’s Water Department. After many hours of interviewing Sofia and her colleagues, attending public hearings, reading technical documents, and doing research on other water utilities around the world I arrived at the formula you mention and understood it as a device that channeled hugely important assumptions about society, balance, and ethics. I conceptualized this formula and its variables as an inscription of regulators’ theories of society.

Regulators activate this social theory through the mathematical relations between variables in the formula they use. Among those variables, R (what they call the development yield) is key because it stands for how much money a utility can generate without having to expend that money immediately. This is necessary because by law utilities can only charge users prices that guarantee enough resources to cover their costs. They cannot generate profits. The tricky part is that in their social theory R represents a socially acceptable difference between income and expenses at a given time. Thus, even if it is not called profits, the variable R effectively represents a form of profits—the resources left after all the costs to bring water to people’s households have been covered. The team of regulators are keenly aware of how much hangs on their calculation of this variable, both in terms of the financial well-being of a utility, but also in terms of the politics of collective life and social “balance” the law asks them to re-create. Regulators find themselves having to calculate this variable knowing that their decisions will “shape” the relations between members of society, specifically, the daily lives of more than 3 million people in Costa Rica who will have to pay the prices they set.

This is where I get to the core of the argument, that the formula is a techno-legal device through which regulators elucidate their political and moral commitments, channel their labor to create the conditions of the future, and face the limits of their own power. A variable like R can be the site where the difference between water as a human right and water as a commodity is elucidated. It is thus a space ripe for anthropological analysis and at the same time a profoundly important instrument that shapes the lives and well-being of millions of people. And this kind of formula is not a Costa Rican invention. It travels broadly. In the United States places like the city of Houston, where I live, or Detroit, work with variations of this formula.

One of the most fascinating passages in the book was in Chapter 2 (Index), where you show how regulators act as “surrogates” for the market, even as they try to remove their handiwork from view. One of the ways they act as surrogates is by ensuring that water pricing accounts for intimate household-level decisions. They do this partly by reference to the inflation rate, itself a function of the consumer price index (CPI), which distills household spending but based on European assumptions. Two things are striking for me here. First, it was just fascinating to see how histories and social practices are being collapsed into these composite figures—and how these composites are mobilized for human rights but obscure their political content. Could you say more about the impact of these collapsings and erasures?

Second, it strikes me that you must’ve required some training or deep reading in economics to do this work properly. Did you have prior training in economics, or did you simply pick it up in the field from your research subjects?

You put it so clearly. I was also struck by the same thing. And maybe this comes back to what I was saying before about how to study ethnographically the collapsing or intertwining of such disconnected historical events (a calculation of the needs of a College fellow in the 1700, the ingenuity of a statistician in the 1800s, and the 21st century struggle over a human right). I was completely fascinated by these connections and felt it was important to try to bring them together ethnographically in a way that did not flatten their links into a linear history. This is why I propose thinking about the techno-legal device, in this case the Consumer Price Index (CPI), as an intense node of temporalities. For me, understanding the capaciousness of these devices has a liberating potential. If all of these unexpected historical strands are collapsed through this device why couldn’t we develop new strands that bring in histories that are less violent, unequal, or exploitative. Anthropology, STS, and sociolegal studies are incredibly well-equipped to do this, and it is very interesting and empowering to think about what kind of politics and activist engagements are possible in this realm.

The question of studying economics is a fantastic one. When I started college in Costa Rica, I was required to take breadth requirements and one of the ones I took was macro-economics. Then during my Master’s degree I took micro-economics. To be honest, what I remember from both courses was how tight the logical assumptions and cause-effect mechanisms were. If x happens, y will go up, which will have the effect of making z go down, and making a and b stagnate. Thinking back, I think I was already taking those classes as something of an intuitive ethnographer trying to make sense of the world of economics more than trying to solve the mathematical problem in front of me (which took a lot of effort on my part). As I started doing extended fieldwork, it became clear that I needed to take this field more seriously as its detailed power to shape the lives of people and beings I cared for was inescapable. I then became very interested in economic sociology, economic history, and social studies of finance. In addition to the scholarly literature on these areas, I also spent a lot of time on the internet reading explanations of economic theory.

Besides the fact that economic knowledge was useful for answering some of the questions that my interlocutors and I shared, there were also two more general issues that led me in this direction. First, Marx. Chapter 1 of Capital is such a beautiful entry point to making sense of the massive historic and operational complexities of capitalism. This was huge inspiration for me. Second, my politics. I am originally from Costa Rica, so as all immigrants I am constantly pondering who is my work for. As I was writing the book, I wanted to find answers to some of the questions that I shared with the people that opened their lives to me. That meant that it wasn’t necessary for me to narrate the hardships of their everyday lives, or the environmental challenges they were facing, or the ways in which the state failed them. They already knew and understood those things very well. Instead, what was interesting to them, and to me, was how was it that those decisions, policies, laws, programs that were shaping their lives came into being. Who were the people behind them, and what were their approaches? How did they intervene in the world, and with what instruments? To answer those questions, I needed to engage seriously with economics, and also with law, taking seriously, for instance, the working logics and transgressions of regulators, NGO directors, congressional representatives, and technocrats. This is how understanding the intricacies of “actually existing” legal and economic practices became a deeply political and fascinating intellectual project for me.

Interestingly, in the following chapter (List), you describe an effort by members of the Costa Rican Libertarian Party to disaggregate a category—in this case, “water” itself—for the purpose of circumscribing how water-as-a-human-right could be enacted. I was struck by the ways that this disaggregation aligns in strange ways with discourses from water-rights advocates elsewhere. That is, advocates often resist the commodification of water on the grounds that the commodity reduces the many meanings and modalities of water into a single, alienated object. Could you say more about the Libertarian interests and how they were received by human rights discourses?

My friends in NGOs and local organizations were disgusted by what the Libertarians did. And to be honest, this was a very tricky part of my fieldwork where I had to think very carefully about how, as an anthropologist, I was going to make sense of the Libertarian episode. For readers who haven’t gotten to the book, I’ll briefly say that the Libertarian party was filibustering a constitutional amendment to recognize water as a human right and a public good. But their tactic was to be hyper-concrete about the category of water, giving one example after another of forms of water that, they argued, would become state property (see their typology below). For the most part, doing fieldwork for this project was exciting and nurturing. But this part of the work was difficult politically and emotionally. Just like my NGO friends and human rights activists, I was also troubled by what the Libertarians were doing. Honestly, that is putting it mildly, I was very angry because it went against my own political orientations. But I had to find ways to conduct those interviews and think openly about what they were sharing with me. Ultimately, I find this chapter really important both for what I was able to explore and also for how it forced me to think more carefully and slowly.

A Libertarian typology of water (pg. 136).

One of the disorienting issues here was the coincidence between what the Libertarians were saying and the creative language that activists and scholars elsewhere were using. I was doing this work at the time that new materialism was becoming a trendy field. It was completely confusing, in a generative intellectual way, to see how the Libertarian tactics of literalizing the multiplicity of water in Congressional speeches through the typology you see above, mirrored some of the invitations scholars were making to think about the multiplicity of water through its materiality. It was all very odd. So this chapter became an opportunity to think, on the one hand, how the Libertarian taxonomy operated as something of a time machine, and second, to ponder how the relation between materiality, specificity, and ontological openness is not limited to progressive projects but is a broader tactic that can align with all sorts of political objectives. One update, though. With a new Congress in place in Costa Rica, and amidst the pandemic, in May of 2020 forty-nine congressional representatives, out of the fifty-seven, approved the constitutional reform and now water is a human right and a constitutionally recognized public good!

Wow, that’s amazing! I’m curious to hear what you’re working on next? Any new projects in the pipelines?

I am working on a project about imaginaries of the underground that is centered on aquifers as distinct spatial formations. In this project I am looking at how ideas of property are pushed to their limits with aquifers if we move past thinking of them as water quantities pending extraction. In this project I am thinking about aquifers as dynamic spatial formations. I am again combining STS (by focusing on hydrogeology as a scientific discipline), legal anthropology (through the notion of property), and economic anthropology (through the notion of assetization). I am, however, taking a more spatial approach as one of the central conceptual conundrums of my interlocutors is that the spatial uniqueness of aquifers has concrete implications for questions of property and justice. So, I am getting into remote sensing and mapping, and plan to experiment with “data” visualization techniques.  I have already put some thoughts on paper(screen) about how aquifers push us to think in terms of figure ground reversals, hydrolithic choreographies, and spongy formations.

Just to give you a taste of some of the ideas that have inspired me, I want to share this image. It is from Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar, deemed something of a controversial scientist because many of his ideas did not end up “matching” with the world. It is said, however, that he was ahead of his time in explaining that the plague was caused by small infectious organisms that traveled between bodies. In Kircher you see a creative mind reproducing the imperial and colonial logics of his time and trying to push against their limits. His visuals are striking (see image below). I am really interested in thinking how our notions of property and responsibility change when the underground becomes a watery and dynamic space, rather than a stratigraphic structure that changes at a speed too slow for humans to grasp.  Again, I am interested on how this change is possible, or not, within dominant liberal, capitalist systems that are predicated upon extractivist logics. Costa Rica is a really interesting case that both reproduces and challenges that logic. I will be working with local residents and hydrogeologists to see what transformative sparks are possible in our current world.

Athanasius Kircher, “Mundus Subterraneus.” Public domain.

Andrea, thanks again for this book! And, thanks for taking the time for this interview.

Andrea Ballestero is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rice University. She is also the founder and director of the Ethnography Studio. https://ethnographystudio.org/. Her research examines spaces where the law, economics and techno-science are so fused that they appear as one another. Her areas of interest include the politics of knowledge production, economic, legal and political anthropology, water politics, subterranean space, and liberalism. She is the author of A Future History of Water (Duke, 2019) and co-editor of the forthcoming book Experimenting with Ethnography: A Companion to Analysis (Duke, 2021).

This post is part of our thematic series: Interviews.