Category: Living with Water

At the Edge of Land and Water: Navigating sea level change in Chennai

It was 8am in Ennore, a coastal region at the northern-most tip of the city of Chennai and home to artisanal fishers who have traditionally lived along the shores of the Bay of Bengal.  I had recently started my fieldwork on property relations at coastal spaces around Chennai there. The sun was out, the fishers were busy sorting through the catch of the day, and the smoke from the factories around made everything look hazy. My neighbor and long-time Ennore resident, Kumar uncle, decided to introduce me to fishers he knew at Periyakuppam, a fishing village in the area. We met the fishers and as we stood facing the sea, I asked them about the history of the village and changes in the landscape over time. In response, they pointed at the sea and said, “Look! Do you see the sand there, the sea water extended till that point until last week, but it has receded further now…come again next month and see what we’re talking about!” Just a few minutes later, they shifted their gaze to the left and asked, “Can you see those ships in the distance? That is where the port is. They built it for the ships bringing coal to the power plant. They put in sea-walls around there…” and once again, shifting their gaze towards the shore and the sea they said, “Look there, half the land in that village is now under water; it’s because of those stones from the sea-walls over there.” (read more...)

Producing the Anthropocene, Producing the Future/Water Futures

Editor’s note: Today we have the final installment of our “Anthropocene Melbourne Campus” series, featuring two related posts by Lauren Rickards and Ruth Morgan. Producing the Anthropocene, Producing the Future Lauren Rickards, RMIT University Images of the future are increasingly cast on the widescreen of the Anthropocene: the planetary-scale shift from the comfy Holocene to an unknown and threatening new ‘operating space’ for the Earth. How humanity inadvertently shifted the whole planet so radically and in such a self-damaging manner is now the subject of intense debate. Different narratives of blame locate relative responsibility with various sectors, activities and groups. Common candidates include farming, colonial plantations, industrialization and urbanisation, and the post-war acceleration in consumption and pollution. From a material perspective, there is a strong geological rationale for naming each as a major source of planetary-scale environmental and social impacts and “terraforming.” Indeed, this is how these various proposed starting dates for the Anthropocene have been identified: through the pursuit of widespread and sharp enough changes in the geological record to count as what geologists call a “Golden Spike”, the prerequisite for declaring  a new epoch. Yet this search for the physical origins of the Anthropocene in the historical record needs to extend far past physical signals and their proximate causes to the visions, goals and assumptions underlying the activities involved, including what Ian Hacking would call styles of reasoning. Reading the Anthropocene in this light reveals many limitations within the outlooks, ideas and values that informed the activities mentioned above, including an often willful ignorance of the immediate impacts on people, nonhumans and the abiotic environment, as well as the “unknown unknown” of the long-term, accumulative changes being wrought. (read more...)

Description/Classification/Threshold: Experiments with Renewable Energy Taxonomy

This is not renewable energy:   Nor is this some clever, Magritte-esque meta-commentary on how it is impossible represent or think about renewable energy separate from the technologies that harness it. No, it is simply an issue of taxonomy: hydropower is only counted as “renewable” some of the time. This is confusing, because if the term “renewable” has any meaning, after all, it is first and foremost a description of a process, one that specifically refers to the fact that the natural resource from which said energy is produced either does not significantly deplete upon use to begin with, or can be easily replenished within a human time scale. Hydropower, harnessed through the most abundant substance on our “blue planet”, seems to easily fit the description, which makes the exception worth exploring. (read more...)

Is Uncertainty a Useful Concept? Tracking Environmental Damage in the Lao Hydropower Industry

The collapse last week of a major hydropower dam in southern Laos, the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy, as a tropical storm dumped an unknown, but massive, volume of water into its reservoir, seems to have prompted at least a little soul-searching for a country that considers itself ‘the Battery of Southeast Asia.’ It’s not very often that large dams collapse, but it’s the second time it’s happened this year in Laos (the prior one was much smaller), and some readers may have been affected by the near-collapse of the Oroville Dam—the tallest dam in the United States—in central California in 2017, prompting the evacuation of 180,000 people. Laos has far lower population density—about 10,000 people have been affected by the still under-construction dam—and as of the time of writing there are perhaps a dozen dead and several hundred missing. But a dam doesn’t have to collapse for it to be a disaster. Even when dams work well, in the best case scenarios they produce a tremendous degree of uncertainty for the people they affect about what might happen and what comes next.  (read more...)

Living with Water Part II: A Tour of New Orleans’ Resilience District

This post is the second in a two-part series on water management in New Orleans. Read part one here. By adapting our city to our natural environment and the risks of climate change, we can create opportunities for all New Orleanians to thrive. – From Resilient New Orleans (2015: 4) “The Gentilly Resilience District will be a model for how other neighborhoods in New Orleans, across the region, and across the country, can adapt to thrive in a changing environment,” Derek reads aloud. A fellow with the Rockefeller Foundations 100 Resilient Cities, he explains to me the vital role the Urban Water Plan plays in the Resilient New Orleans initiative. Derek was trained in Urban Planning, and describes himself as an “ethnography sympathizer.” He had offered to take me on a tour of the Gentilly Resilience District, a model city space for the application of Urban Water Plan designs and community engagement. We hop in the city truck with New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) painted on the side and headed out. Our first stop was the London Avenue Canal memorial garden, where a local nonprofit,, had commemorated the site of the flood wall breach and levee failure during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A map of the U.S. Army Corps Federal Levee System breaches is captioned by an indictment of their planning and preparedness: “The London Avenue Canal was Destined to Fail.” The high walls blocking access and visibility to the canal seem to simultaneously serve as a way to hide the pending threat of the water, while also alluding to its inevitability. In 2016, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) National Disaster Resilience Competition awarded the city $141.3 million to implement the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan in the neighborhood district of Gentilly, requiring that 80 percent of the people impacted by the project fall under lower middle income levels (LMI). (read more...)

Living with Water in New Orleans

This post is the first in a two-part series on water management in New Orleans. In September 2013, just days after the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans officials unveiled a new approach to water management in the city: the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. After centuries engineering ways to exclude water from the city (through levees, flood walls, and drainage pumps), city officials now hoped to reintegrate water into the landscape. In building new ways of “living with water,” the authors of the plan hoped to create a more sustainable New Orleans—especially in the face of growing threats from climate change. But with many neighborhoods still rebounding from Hurricane Katrina, residents questioned what these restoration projects might mean for their communities. The story of water management in New Orleans is entangled with issues of race and class, infrastructure and development, and the politics of sustainability—issues that, as recent flooding in Baton Rouge remind us, are not going away. Mud, mud, mud… In 1819, Benjamin Latrobe, architect of New Orleans’s first waterworks, wrote in his journal: “mud, mud, mud… This is a floating city, floating below the surface of the water on a bed of mud.” (read more...)