The Abstraction of Water

Quenching the Global Thirst for Water Justice

Brent Cooper
Feb 18, 2018 · 9 min read

‘Water abstraction’ refers to the process of taking or extracting water from a natural source (rivers, lakes, groundwater aquifers, etc.) for various uses, from drinking to irrigation, treatment, and industrial applications. Illegal abstraction constitutes the theft of water, and it accounts for a staggering proportion of water flows;

“According to the World Bank, some 48.6 million cubic meters of drinkable water escape daily from official supply networks, enough to provide water for 200 million people. In developing countries, such water loss amounts to some 30 to 50 percent of all treated water.” — Water Theft and Water Smuggling: Growing Problem or Tempest in a Teapot? (Brookings Report)

Futhermore, the article “The impacts of groundwater over-abstraction on the environment” (2009) states that “The essential first step for making water use sustainable is awareness and knowledge of human impacts on the environment.” The problem is “abstraction,” and yet the word is not mentioned in the Brookings Report, nor is it in a National Geographic article cited below. It’s as if there is a conspiracy of silence around even the word ‘abstraction’; not intentionally but because the subject matter is just ‘too abstract.’

“Abstraction” generally is the act of ‘taking away’ something, which is why we use it to describe simplifying or modelling things by removing extraneous details. In the case of abstracting water, it is often just taken, and no schematic or explanation is left in its place, except the formal ones used to take the water legally. However, these types of abstractions (like below) don’t account for the wider crisis of abstraction.

“Indeed, the regulation of groundwater is even more complex and exhibits more frequent regulatory failure than the regulation of surface water. Since groundwater is less visible, and credible estimates of aquifer size, replenishment, and depletion are frequently lacking, problems of free-riding, buck-passing, overuse, and water theft and smuggling only increase in intensity.” — Water Theft and Water Smuggling: Growing Problem or Tempest in a Teapot? (Brookings Report)

South Africa’s water crisis is largely one of illegal abstraction; the stealing of this precious resource.

“In the South African city of Durban, some 35 percent of water is stolen or provided through illegal or unpaid connections. At a country-wide level, such water loss is estimated to be 37 percent.” — Water Theft and Water Smuggling: Growing Problem or Tempest in a Teapot? (Brookings Report)

Similarly, a report from Indonesia on their problems with illegal abstraction looks rather thorough, notwithstanding the poor English is poor, or poor translation. One company in the UK has developed an app to track water abstraction that “greatly reduces the risk of illegal water abstraction” among other improvements and reductions in costs. This is only in the UK, but certainly would have a global impact if effective.

Concurrent with the problem of theft itself, the empty space left behind from abstracting groundwater weakens the ground above it. This is why cities like Beijing, and parts of Shanghai and Mexico City are just sinking into the ground, according to the report. Europe only abstracts 10% of its water resources and the impacts due to over-abstraction are relatively mundane compared to the rest of the world.

“Underground water is being pumped so aggressively around the globe that land is sinking, civil wars are being waged, and agriculture is being transformed.” — What You Need to Know About the World’s Water Wars, July 14, 2016, National Geographic

The root of the problem of water is abstraction, any way you slice it. This is exactly why the intersectionality of abstraction is so important, and why The Abs-Tract Organization reports on these matters. Abstraction has so many different meanings and applications across disciplines, and most people don’t know of any of them, let alone several.

Value is being abstracted right under our noses. We should add to the critical study of water abstraction lessons from other problematic abstractions, such as the violence of abstraction (Sayer), abstraction of racial politics, the way in which society is abstract, and the reproach of abstraction, just to name a few. Abstraction is not a simple process, and as the data shows the problem of water abstraction has crept up on us to be one of greatest threats.

The Oxford Handbook of Water Politics and Policy notes that 20% of the world’s aquifers are “over-exploited” and the global rate of groundwater abstraction is increasing by 1–2% per year (p. 144, citing UN World Water Develop Report (2014)). One chapter notes that the influence of increasing groundwater abstraction on interstate relations is “underexamined,” but what we do know at least is that increased pressures to meet demand are likely to intensify conflicts.

Water Wars

Water justice refers to the access of individuals to clean water as a human right. Water is stolen precisely because it is so priceless, but privatization is not the answer. The Cochabamba Water War was between a consortium trying to privatize Bolivia’s water resources, and the citizen’s protesting for their human right to that water. The conflict was viscerally portrayed in the brilliant Spanish film Even the Rain. The title, from a line in the movie, refers to the fact the greedy corporations take everything… even the rain;

“They sell our rivers against our will.
They sell our wells, our lakes… and even the rain that falls on our heads! By law!
Friends, it’s incredible!
They don’t allow us to collect the water that falls from the rain, by law!
And who takes even the rain?
A company whose owners are in London and California.
Friends, what are they going to steal next?
The vapor from our breath?
The sweat from our brow?
All they’ll get from me is piss!”
[Source]

To this point of the evil propensities of corporations, the Cochabamba protests were also referenced in the documentary The Corporation, which identified the corporate profile as generally psychopathic. Corporations are not the only guilty player, as the government failed catastrophically in the Flint water crisis. There are also the California Water Wars. National Geographic also produced a documentary titled Parched — Global Water Wars, focusing on India and Syria.

Most of the continent of Africa is water-stressed and at war at various flashpoints because of it. And with climate change, it is very likely that the worst is yet to come. Next to Africa, much of the Middle-East is also water stressed and in conflict because of it. As the NatGeo article suggests, the problem is also largely one of the abstraction (of groundwater) specifically:

“Unrest in Yemen, which heavily taps into groundwater and which experienced water riots in 2009, is rooted in a water crisis. Experts say water scarcity also helped destabilize Syria and launch its civil war. Jordan, which relies on aquifers as its only source of water, is even more water-stressed now that more than a half-million Syrian refugees arrived.” — What You Need to Know About the World’s Water Wars, July 14, 2016, National Geographic

To put into context how precious water really is, this infographic shows how lakes and rivers account for less than 1% of freshwater sources alone. It’s true abundance is “locked” in various places or forms.

The Concept of Water

Another way to conceptualize the abstraction of water is to look at how the concept (as an abstraction) itself is constructed and conceived. This approach taken by James Linton, in his book What is Water? The History and Crisis of a Modern Abstraction. As the title suggests, Linton tells the history of water (as we know and use the concept of it) and how its meaning has changed over time.

He focuses on the discourse around what he calls “modern water,” of which extraction is the first main feature. In the 20th century, water withdrawal increased 7x while population increased 3x. The second feature is the large-scale engineering solutions that arose to meet demand. Third, modern water is characterized by centralization and state control.

“Recently, water has been plunged into a critical state of affairs. Widespread talk of the worldwide water “crisis” reflects growing anxiety about the adequacy of water resources to sustain human populations and the adequacy of human institutions to sustain hydrological integrity… In this thesis, I apply a relational-dialectical approach to investigate this relationship and to analyse the particular kind of water that this relationship produces. “Modern water”, as I call it, is an abstraction proliferated in discursive and material practices that have the effect of concealing water’s essential social nature. Key moments in the history of this abstraction are drawn from the hydrological sciences and their association with the modern state, to show how modern water internalizes the simultaneous eradication and presence of people. Such a contradiction, I argue, has made it inevitable that there should be a water crisis. Deliberately reinvesting water with social content — providing a means by which people may get (back) into the water — is suggested as a means of addressing this crisis.” — Jamie Linton, What is Water? The History and Crisis of a Modern Abstraction, PhD Dissertation, 2006

The disenchantment of the world affected the conception of water, just as it did other natural phenomenon. Scientists ignored the socio-cultural meanings that water held, just as they had learned to do with meteors. There grew a chasm between empirical observations of the world and symbol interpretations of it, at our own expense.

Linton only explicitly mentions the term abstraction as ‘water removal’ once or twice, although he does cite the problem of “enormous increases in water withdrawals.” At any rate, the concept and the process are intimately tied up with each other, as the theft of water is enabled by its weak conception. Bad abstractions begets bad abstraction. Linton also coins a very interesting term, which is “hydreification”:

“As a concise way of describing the act as well as the thing by which water gets abstracted and fixed, I will use the term “hydreification”. Accordingly, water gets hydreified as an “element”, a “resource”, a “commodity”, a “chemical compound”, a “gift of God”, a “source of life” or indeed as any-thing that imbues water with an essential, intrinsic quality, or ascribes to it a particular nature.” — Jamie Linton, What is Water? The History and Crisis of a Modern Abstraction, PhD Dissertation, 2006

It is of course a portmanteau of “hydro” and “reification”; the latter term being used “to describe the way abstractions can be misconstrued as fixed, stable things in themselves.” With hydreification, Linton develops a way to understand how the conceptual abstraction of water is used to appropriate it’s meaning and material from other contexts, without consideration of the deeper implications or negative externalities. Water becomes commodified and at the same time dissociated from it’s global presence and the human right to it.

Another glaring problem with discourses is the desire to increasingly ‘add nuance’ to our understandings, when we may in fact just need greater general truths. This was the thrust of Healy’s article — Fuck Nuance — which we covered. I hope that this brief post has made clear the very ‘abstract’ problem of water abstraction, while also deconstructing the ‘abstraction’ of water itself.

We need to make what water we have abundant and sustainable through technology and meta-governance. Nevermind that ‘this is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius,’ because if we can’t save our most essential resource, how can we save anything at all? If you care about water, you must also care about its abstraction and the concept of abstraction here and in other disciplines.

See also: The Ripple Effect: The Major Consequences of Minor Actions


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The Abs-Tract Organization

A Metamodern Think Tank for Global Civil Society and Absolute Social Philosophy, based on new insights in "abstraction."

Brent Cooper

Written by

Political sociologist by training, mystic by nature, rebel by choice. Executive Director of The Abs-Tract Organization. #pointbeing #abstract

The Abs-Tract Organization

A Metamodern Think Tank for Global Civil Society and Absolute Social Philosophy, based on new insights in "abstraction."