Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Water, Technology, and Development: Transformations of Development Technonatures in Changing Waterscapes

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Water, Technology, and Development: Transformations of Development Technonatures in Changing Waterscapes

Article excerpt

Introduction

On a hot afternoon, after having spent several hours under the blazing sun working outside with different groups of people in the southern part of the Bengal Delta, where the mighty Ganges River flows into the Bay of Bengal, I came upon a tubewell outside a public school. I was grateful to be able to refill my water bottle and quench my thirst, under the shade of the banyan tree. Just as I was about to use the tubewell, Mr Amin, (1) the school headmaster, came running up to me and alarmingly said that I shouldn't drink water from that tubewell and earnestly insisted that I get water from a tubewell about 20 yards away. The tubewell in front of me apparently used to have red paint on the spout, which had chipped away and was not visible anymore. The other tubewell, which looked exactly like this one, had the spout painted green, but that tubewell was only visible if one closely peered into the far end of the courtyard of the school (and was comfortable in attempting to use a tubewell that may not be public like the one on the roadside). I was told that I would be drinking kharap pani (bad water) from the tubewell here and could get bhalo pani (good water) over there. He repeated, "Ei kol kharap, oi koler pani bhalo"--the tubewell here was 'unsafe' and 'bad' but the other one was 'good' and produced 'safe' water. I complied and followed Mr Amin, who was shaking his head and lamenting that development in this village had been set back with the 'bad water' and 'bad tubewells'. Arsenic had been discovered in most of the tubewells' water in the village a couple of years earlier, and some tubewells were marked with red or green paint to signify which ones were unsafe or safe. I had made an honest mistake (like many people before me) in trying to obtain drinking water from a public tubewell that was no longer safe; yet, it had no visible paint on its spout to indicate its status. The same tubewell had been deemed safe only a few years ago, grieved Mr Amin, as he cursed the bad luck that had arrived at his school and his village. He repeated again that the water crisis that people were facing all around was because of these kharap kol (bad tubewells) and bishakto pani (poisoned water).

Mr Amin's thoughts echoed those of hundreds of people I had been working with across the Bengal Delta, where arsenic was found to exist in high concentrations in groundwater that was the primary source of drinking water for the majority of the people. Red-painted tubewells were the ones tested and identified to have high concentrations of arsenic, and green-painted ones were considered safe;(2) however, many newly installed tubewells were unmarked, and some of the older tubewells' paint had disappeared. While these tubewells dotted the landscape and had provided bacteria-free water to villages for the last few decades, an emerging crisis around the quality of the water had entered public consciousness and public life since the late 1990s. Tubewells and drinking water had come to figure highly in people's everyday conversations and daily practices revolving around water--quenching thirst, cooking food, bathing, washing, feeding livestock, watering the kitchen garden, irrigating the cropland. The roles of water and water-producing technologies were immense concerns as contaminated water affected life and livelihood in many ways. In thousands of villages tubewells were a blessing and a curse, the water was good and bad, and development had been set back as people started to get ill from what was expected to be safe water. What the water-technology-development nexus meant in the context of a water crisis, and how tubewells and water had come to be imbricated with social progress and public health, was increasingly of concern for development planners.(3)

The importance of safe potable water in the processes of development in much of the Global South has been celebrated in academic and policy literatures. Reducing mortality and morbidity from unsafe water, or inadequate water supplies, remains a top priority for many developing nation-states and international development institutions and organizations. …

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