Understanding water quality

A simple definition of water quality is easy: water quality refers to the biochemical properties of a given water. Improving water quality is the purpose of constructed wetlands – in the eyes of their designers and builders. 

Where the picture becomes complicated is in judging this water quality improvement. Which properties of water are most crucial? How do we judge the values of these properties as good or poor, adequate or sub-standard? I would argue there’s no final judgement possible on whether the constructed wetlands have improved water quality, only situated knowledges, reflecting different water uses and priorities.

We could start with local understandings of water quality, as I understand them after a series of interviews in both study villages. What emerges are judgments made primarily through sensory perception. Taste, smell and sight are key for judging good from poor water quality. However, these judgements are also mediated through the technologies/objects of cooking and water storage.  And the impact of water upon human and non-human bodies is also important: health impacts, impact upon crops, and the linking of mosquitoes and dirty water. Finally, knowledge of what is in the water (eg. sewage) feeds into water quality judgements, as well as the results from sporadic water quality testing. These water quality judgements are shared through complex social networks. As a result water quality knowledge is uncertain, and this uncertainty is recognised. 

Approaching water quality through literature, I’ve developed the framework in the table below.

… for people… for a more-than-human world
Harm based stand-ard Presence of pathogens, heavy metals and other toxic substances. Non-toxic levels of nutrients, heavy metals and other toxic substances. Temperature. 
Use based stand-ard

Requirements for irrigation reuse, drinking water supply downriver.Adequate quality and flow patterns for life-processes.

Harm based standards apply to any water that is being ‘wasted’ i.e. released back ‘into the environment’. They consider the impact that this water would have on people and other beings that might encounter this water as it continues to circulate. In the use-based case, good water quality indicates that the water is suitable for a particular purpose. In this case, the specific purpose intended for the water will determine how water quality is judged. For example, this approach covers drinking water standards, irrigation water, and water for aquaculture. Thinking through these two categories shows that they are not necessarily distinct. However, use-based standards pay more attention to the future of water.

The second axis is whether water quality standards focus on human use/impact only, or if they are responsible to a broader ecological community. For example, E. coli is a water quality parameter of concern because it indicates that fecal bacteria are being transmitted through water flows, this is a public health concern. On the other hand, biological oxygen demand (BOD) indicates how much organic matter is in water, and so how much oxygen would be depleted from the water as this organic matter is decomposed. This loss of oxygen has cascading ecological impacts. 

However, standards are not the only way that a scientific judgement of water quality improvement is made. Within my case study locations, efficiency is also a crucial discourse, and one that aligns with the scientific literature on constructed wetlands.

Whether judging standards or efficiency, water quality is measured by a whole range of technical equipment and standards: BOD bottles, Colilert trays, ion sensitive electrodes, Oxitop meters, Ion spectrometers, portable handheld meters, UV light box, American Public Health Association standard methods. These techniques have histories of development that link them to particular places. For example, the incubation time of the biological oxygen demand test (5 days), was decided in the early days of water quality testing based on the maximum length of English rivers. After five days, water in an English river will have reached the sea, and so no longer be a concern. This example suggests that results must be treated carefully to be relevant to the wastewaterscapes at my site. My approach here is strongly influenced by the work of scholars in STS (science and technology studies).

This introduction to water quality demonstrates why the definition of benefits is an important part of the research task. The complicated processes of meaning-making around a benefit must be folded into understanding how a benefit is produced.

waterscape benefits

A focus on benefits was nested in this research project from the initial proposal. This focus aligns with a discourse about multiple benefits; a key theme in the literature on Nature-Based Solutions. Benefits, in this context, are the positive outcomes that flow from socio-ecological processes. Benefits can accrue to both human and non-human beings. The argument is that, in contrast to more traditional grey infrastructure, infrastructure incorporating ecosystem processes can provide more than just one central function. I think that this is an interesting argument to interrogate. 

I am using the concept of a waterscape as this concept captures an important point about how social and ecological arrangements are shaped through water flows. The waterscape reflects the interplay of both material and representational processes. 

What does this mean for benefits? From my perspective, benefit creation can’t be understood as only a material process. Equally important are the processes of meaning making and the social imaginaries that decide which benefits are important and how these benefits are defined and measured. In other words, benefits don’t exist independently of the variety of social actors who create or recognise them. 

This perspective on benefits aligns with a social constructionist way of approaching environments, as is common in political ecology accounts. This approach suggests my research must be open to multiple ways that benefits can be understood. Rather than developing a definition of each benefit solely from literature, dictionaries or my own judgement (and then going out to measure these benefits), I believe these definitions need to be uncovered as part of the research process. Each benefit has its own champions and interested actors. Its own method, scientific practices, and relevant disciplines. Each benefit has its own discourses and entanglements with larger ideas.

In coming posts I will describe the benefits that I am focusing my research on, and how I have come to understand them. These descriptions are the result of several visits to each site, conversations with local people, and engagement with the documentation and discussions around each project. 

DIY waterscape

When I was growing up our family farm had a couple of springs, where water bubbled out of the hillside. One of these fed a pond. Another became a tiny stream.

At some point I decided to reshape this waterscape. I dug out a little basin at the spring, and used the mud I’d dug out to build a tiny dam, perhaps 20cm high, across the stream, keeping the water in my tiny pond. As a finishing touch, I planted the new dam with some reeds, hoping that their roots would stabilise my construction. My very first encounter with ecological engineering!

The photos above show that similar micro-scale adjustments also shape wastewater flows in one of my study villages.

Digging in the dirt is enough to send water off in another direction.

Baked earth bricks, cemented with mud try to convince the water to flow into the wetland

A handful of stones and some mud steer water off the road and into a vegetable garden

Priyanka Jamwal at ATREE taught me the concept of jugaad, a nice term for creative and frugal innovation. These waterscape adjustments seem like good examples. As the final image shows, such small changes can have important impacts.

How should we approach living infrastructures?

Following on from the previous post, I wanted to think a little more about what general conclusions are warranted. Some short points, keeping in mind Donna Haraway’s insistence on “grappling with, rather than generalising from, the ordinary” (Haraway, 2008: 3).

On a very abstract level, two possibilities stand out. 

From the perspective of Eric Swyngedouw, David Harvey etc perhaps constructed wetlands and their ilk are simply ‘fixes’ for certain unjust and unsustainable social arrangements. The ‘nature-based’ fix joins the spatial fix and the commons fix as ways that late-liberal capitalist orders are sustained, and (in the case of India) governmentalities of development are stabilised. This reading certainly aligns with the examples presented by Wakefield and Zhang. 

On the other hand, inspired by Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, we might ask hopefully how lively infrastructures could be part of landscapes of more-than-human flourishing.

We can see traces of both possibilities in the ways that ‘nature’ or other living beings are approached across the spectrum of water studies. 

Nature is being instrumentalised through the concept of ecosystem services, and all of the neoliberal abstraction that comes along with it. Catchment areas become tradeable/monetised for their flood control or water pollution services. 

Yet, within river politics, protecting the lively capacities of rivers is the motivating logic of environmental flows. In determining these flows the specificities of various kinds of aquatic life must be understood. And, as I saw during my masters research, such approaches are increasingly considering the importance of flow patterns not just on river ecology but the broader social ecology around rivers.

A river and an engineered water treatment infrastructure are not opposites, one natural and one social. Both are technonatures in which more-than-human relations require acknowledgement and negotiation. It’s my hope that the use of living infrastructures can be taken beyond safeguarding unsustainable modes of living, to instead be part of more flourishing arrangements for all species involved.

Bringing infrastructure to life

One of the fun parts of interdisciplinary research (and research in general) is pulling together different ideas and concepts. In thinking about constructed wetlands, the combination encapsulated by ‘living infrastructure’ is one I’ve found interesting.

In this post I want to (a) quickly lay out some of the theoretical currents that lead to this intersection, (b) investigate how this has been applied in recent papers by Sarah Wakefield, Amy Zhang and Robert Doherty, and (c) close with some thoughts on how this concept applies to my water research.

Infrastructure is a frame that has become very theoretically trendy in recent years (see [1–4]). As an analytical frame, a way of viewing the world, infrastructure points to the materials and processes that are usually in the background of everyday life (this is one of the common definitions of infrastructure). Being in the background doesn’t make infrastructures unimportant, on the contrary, the flows of matter and energy that infrastructures enable are crucial to social life. 

Social research has emphasised the politics of infrastructure, from the direct choices made through negotiation, to the underlying sociotechnical imaginaries [5] and social ideas that infrastructure can both reflect and reinforce. Massive dams are an excellent example of this, for newly decolonised states, dams were not only technologies of water control and electricity generation, but signals of modernity and progress [6]. Such an alignment pushed aside the social and ecological devastation that such dams have brought.

Secondly, paying attention to infrastructure reveals the ways that infrastructure is always being made and remade. This includes both tinkering that repurposes infrastructure [7], and the everyday fixes and repair that are needed to keep infrastructure going [4,8,9]. 

Hence, to study infrastructure is not just to map out concrete, bricks and pipelines, but to explore a complex muddle of technologies, ideas, people, governance regimes and flows of money and power.

(Urban political ecologies of water have been making these points for several decades [10]). 

On a parallel track, recent decades have also seen a burgeoning interest in including non-human living beings into social research. Under the headings of more-than-human geography/anthropology, animal/posthuman geography or multi-species studies, this approach realises that societies can only function through a web of relations that includes many other creatures. I’ll have more to say about this in another post. But for now, the question is, what does infrastructure look like from this perspective?

A good place to start is examining Stephanie Wakefield’s work on the living infrastructure of artificial oyster reefs around New York [11]. “Living Breakwaters” is a project designed to protect NY neighborhoods from storm surges. Wakefield’s account traces the discursive work required to produce the idea of oysters as infrastructure, and contrasts this with the difficulties of getting the oysters to perform as required. 

Wakefield locates this project within a broader interest in ‘nature as infrastructure’. 

“New York’s experiment exemplifies a broader shift toward the idea of nature as infrastructure in cities. While nature has been used to solve urban problems since the 19th century, when parks and green spaces were seen by planners as a solution to urban congestion and social conflict, the explicit idea of nature as infrastructure came into usage more recently.”

“Nature as infrastructure and attendant ideas of ecosystem services are celebrated…  as promising ecological solutions to modern nature/city binaries and new climate change risks. But as critical scholars have shown the governmental turn to social–ecological resilience designs is part of an historical shift in techniques of risk management in the Anthropocene, which, rather than departing from liberal capitalist business-as-usual, constitute new modes of governing and reproducing, not transforming, existing social–economic relations amidst ubiquitous ecological crisis” (references removed)

Stephanie Wakefield

In her analysis of the oyster reef design, what emerges is a double biopolitics — a term coined by Michael Foucault that, to oversimplify, describes regimes that attempt to control both living and dying. The oysters are supposed to safeguard social arrangements and populations that are under threat from storms (a human-focused biopolitical project). To do so, oysters are required to live and reproduce in a particular way (an oyster biopolitics). Their lives are regulated by this infrastructure project, but these are living beings, this regulation can’t be guaranteed.

Oystertecture rendering (Kate Orff, SCAPE studio)

Two other examples explore how living beings figure in waste infrastructure.

Amy Zhang looks at bluebottle flies used for waste processing in Guangzhou [12]. This is a story of insect lives being reshaped and enclosed, to fit within a model of ecological modernity – where waste can be safely excluded, and a circular economy created. This account also situates this approach to waste management within an increasing recognition of living infrastructure. 

“Animals  and  plants  are  increasingly  regarded  as  effective  ecological “workers,”  their  natural  proclivities a  salve  to  climate  change  and  ecological  crisis…. [N]ature’s  capacity  to  facilitate  decay  or  decomposition  has  increasingly  become  viewed  as  fundamental,  inevitable,  and  (therefore)  good.”

Amy Zhang
Tray system for larvae cultivation. (Amy Zhang [12])

Jacob Doherty tracks Marabou storks in Kampala, who trouble tidy waste flows, as they forage in dumps and stroll across manicured lawns [13]. Lively beings are not always a welcome part of infrastructural assemblages, even as they perform work. 

“In addition to being accumulations of capital, dead labor in the Marxist sense, infrastructures are also vitally constituted by living human and more-than-human labor. The aim here is to understand urban infrastructures as multispecies workplaces, constituted through the dynamics of simplification and proliferation.”

Jacob Doherty
Salvagers and Marabou Storks at the Kampala Dump. (Todd Shapera, https://socialdocumentary.net/exhibit/Todd_Shapera/2117)

Across these papers, the focus on multispecies infrastructures is a response to the increased interest in using such infrastructures to sustain social arrangements. Another common theme is the way of theorising the work that non-humans do, whether through the concept of ‘metabolic labour’, workplaces, or an oyster’s refusal to work as requested. Concepts of more-than-human labour are a potential route to cross-species solidarity [14–17]. 

Ultimately, what lies beneath these efforts to think about infrastructure differently is the critical social theorist’s (and anthropologists and political ecologists) conviction that there are better ways of relating in the world than those of late-liberalism. This is why ‘solutions’ that stabilise existing arrangements of people and infrastructure deserve critical attention (in both senses of the word).

Turning to water research, my starting point is that water infrastructures are always lively. 

Some life and life processes are essential to human uses of water, for example, the vast majority of water treatment occurs with the assistance of microbial life. 

Some liveliness is unwelcome – hence, once the microbes have done their work to purify water, chlorine is added to kill off other life that may intrude into potable water distribution networks. Similarly, efforts to eliminate malarial mosquitoes lead to the drainage of wetlands, a drastic change to many European waterscapes. 

And a whole lot of liveliness is just simply there, interacting within its own world, without being much of a concern to human projects. For example, canals built to transport water or goods are often full of fish, aquatic plants, plankton. 

The obviousness of life in water infrastructure makes it clear that recent talk of ‘nature-based solutions’ is a reframing or reinforcement rather than a novel idea. The long history of managing the catchment of the Panama Canal, as presented by Ashley Carse illustrates this point well [18].

Through observation and conversation with local people, it is clear that constructed wetlands are a particularly lively infrastructure, and that this liveliness goes far beyond the microbes and plants that perform the work of water quality transformation. A decent proportion of constructed wetland literature acknowledges this, with abstract references to habitat or biodiversity. But such abstractions aren’t very useful for thinking through attacks by wild boar, attracted to the wetland as a spot to cool down. 

Besides living beings in themselves, a focus on living infrastructure also needs to explore the discourses and representations of particular beings, or of ‘nature’ in general. Possibilities of ecosystem maturation and stabilisation figure in constructed wetland design and planning. Such discourses can give the impression of infrastructures that are self-sustaining. This has not been the case.

It’s nothing new to say that infrastructures require maintenance. But in living infrastructures maintenance is more than a fight against entropy and breakdown. A lot of more-than-human literature refers to the unruliness or ability to resist of non-human agents, but what’s going on in living systems is much more than just resistance. Much like ecosystems in general, living infrastructures are not self-regulating machines but ever-developing assemblages with myriad possibilities for development. These possibilities are conditioned by their histories but not constrained by them. Hence maintenance is the work of identifying and reacting to changes, whether these are new plants growing, changes in wetland hydraulics. To work with these infrastructures requires responsiveness (The skill here is something like James Scott’s concept of metis).

This wetland is not going to look after itself

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