A Future History of Water

A Future History of Water

by Andrea Ballestero

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Based on fieldwork among state officials, NGOs, politicians, and activists in Costa Rica and Brazil, A Future History of Water traces the unspectacular work necessary to make water access a human right and a human right something different from a commodity. Andrea Ballestero shows how these ephemeral distinctions are made through four technolegal devices—formula, index, list and pact. She argues that what is at stake in these devices is not the making of a distinct future but what counts as the future in the first place. A Future History of Water is an ethnographically rich and conceptually charged journey into ant-filled water meters, fantastical water taxonomies, promises captured on slips of paper, and statistical maneuvers that dissolve the human of human rights. Ultimately, Ballestero demonstrates what happens when instead of trying to fix its meaning, we make water’s changing form the precondition of our analyses.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478004516
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/17/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 12 MB
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About the Author

Andrea Ballestero is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rice University and Director of The Ethnography Studio.

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FORMULA After I arrived in Cocles, a small town on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, I spent my first three days shadowing Alvaro. At the time, Alvaro had worked for five years with the Asociación Administradora de Acueducto (community association for aqueduct management, ASADA), which is responsible for providing water to the nearly 150 households in and around Cocles. Community aqueduct organizations like this exist all throughout Costa Rica. They have been promoted by the state since the 1950s as a way to involve local residents in the management of development projects such as aqueducts, roads, and schools. The future of the Cocles ASADA, however, is uncertain. In 2016 the utility that is their legal umbrella confirmed they were going forward with plans to build a large-scale water line to connect Cocles and all the community aqueducts in this region into a single infrastructure. But until that happens, the ASADA continues to be responsible for supplying water to Cocles residents. Alvaro is the ASADA's fontanero. The word fontanero comes from fountain, the original source of water in Roman cities. Today the word names those professionals responsible for installing and maintaining the pipes, valves, and engines that move water from wells to mainlines to people's houses. On the first day I shadowed him, Alvaro wore jeans, rubber boots, a yellow T-shirt, and a white cloth hat, of the kind used by farmers in Costa Rica. He carried a black bag on his left shoulder. His right arm was free to grab his cutachilla, or "little knife," as he affectionately called the machete hanging from his hip. Alvaro uses his cutachilla to clear the plants that grow on top of the water meters he is responsible for reading.

Our circuit begins by checking a water meter about a kilometer from where we meet. After getting off our bikes, Alvaro kneels, and using a metal tool that looks like an old bottle opener, he pulls up a lid from the ground. Once the lid is out of the way, his hand goes into the hole and pulls up another lid, this time a smaller one. I lean over and see a mechanical meter tracking the flow of water. Its small numbers are rotating, just as they do in an odometer, increasing in magnitude until they reach zero and start over again. "Están consumiendo agua," Alvaro explains. They are consuming water. I immediately imagine women cooking, children brushing their teeth, teenagers washing their parent's motorcycle, grandparents watering plants, sisters washing clothes, nieces preparing el fresco (fruit drink). I know that my gendered speculations are most likely to be accurate.

"Each time you open the lid you are in for a surprise," Alvaro says. As he said this, I anticipated he was going to tell me that sometimes the numbers move very quickly or that meters often get stuck. But Alvaro talks about something else. "You never know what you will find in the little caves where the meters sit. Sometimes they are covered with mud just like this one." Alvaro glides his finger slowly over the transparent plastic protecting the mechanism that constitutes the meter. He has done this thousands of times; his body knows exactly how much pressure to exert and how slowly to slide his finger. He continues, "Other times they have turned into ant nests. But not all ants are the same. You can find a nest of hormigas locas [crazy ants], the ones that move a lot, like crazy, without a clear direction, but those don't bite you. The ones you need to be careful with are the long, red ants. Those jump to get you, just like these ones!" With his machete, Alvaro disrupts what is left of the nest on the bottom of the meter's little cave.

Alvaro carries a magnifying glass in his bag. His eyesight has become limited following a couple of bad accidents. The worst was when he was setting up a chlorination pump and a hose exploded, splashing chlorine all over his face and eyes. He was blind for a month. Now he can see again, but not very well. The magnifying glass helps him see the numbers he has to read. He could use the pair of reading glasses that la Caja, as Costa Rica's public health system is popularly called, gave him while he was in treatment. But Alvaro sweats a lot doing his job and this, combined with the heat and humidity of the Caribbean coast, ends up fogging his lenses. The magnifying glass is much more practical.

I offer to help and Alvaro lets me read the water meter as he prepares to write the numbers I will dictate. After feeling with his hand the contents of his bag, he grabs what used to be a transparent plastic bag that is now of a milky color and pulls from it a thick stack of index cards. Each card corresponds to a particular meter; he looks for the one belonging to the house we are visiting. Leaning over the ground, I read to him the numbers on the meter and he writes them on the last row of a column of numbers that expands monthly, one row at a time. Once I stand up he shows me how they use the numbers we have collected. They subtract the old number, the one on the previous line, from the new one he has just written. The difference between the two is the consumo de agua (water consumption). After his explanation, we continue with the rounds and check sixteen more meters. By 10:30 AM the sun is too high and the temperature too hot; Alvaro recommends we ride back to the ASADA.

When we arrive, the door of the ASADA is open, but no one is inside. We call Alex's name and he comes out from his home, next door. We talk a little, and then begin the procedure to turn the numbers we have collected into bills. Alex, a college student who also works as manager of the ASADA, opens an Excel file with a long list of names next to a column with a series of "user numbers." Alvaro passes the information he wrote on the index cards along to Alex, who enters it on the spreadsheet. Once all numbers are tabulated, Alex sends the file to an accounting firm that has supported the Cocles ASADA since they joined a regional federation of community aqueducts.

The firm takes the information people like Alvaro and Alex collect and multiplies it by the price of a cubic meter of water, a figure that is set by ARESEP (Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Públicos), Costa Rica's public services regulation authority. The accounting firm Alvaro's community aqueduct has hired then sends the results of their calculations back to Alex and also introduces them into a national electronic payment system that allows people to pay their bills at any bank, grocery store, or pharmacy. The sweaty act of monitoring water consumption, pushing ants away, moving index cards in and out of a bag, wiping the sweat off your magnifying glass, and dictating numbers travels back and forth through Excel spreadsheets, internet routes, accounting systems, and paper documents until it becomes a bill, the price people pay for having their human right to water delivered. This procedure takes place once a month, every month. The numbers that Alvaro and I collected are interlocked with the pricing formula regulators in ARESEP use to set the prices of water. Alvaro determines how many liters per month have been consumed. ARESEP determines how much each of those liters, at any second, cost. Laws, histories, and institutions connect those worlds; the monthly calculation of prices reenacts that connection cyclically. Worlds separated by 220 kilometers are entwined in largely invisible ways, through the calculations performed by an Excel sheet.

Because of their day-to-day experience at work, Alvaro and Alex are aware of the power ARESEP has, and for that reason they are also curious as to how that agency works and how they make their numbers. Even though ARESEP is a powerful force that shapes innumerable daily economic transactions — they set the prices of gas, public transportation, electricity, and water — the agency remains mostly unnoticed when everyday people think about water. To the contrary, ARESEP regulators constantly think about the relations between the "everyday people" whose rights as users of public services they must protect, the water providers that are in direct contact with those users, and the prices they produce. This is especially important in the case of water, which is, in the words of ARESEP personnel, the most fundamental public service the state can supply.

This chapter takes you to ARESEP's offices to explore the formula behind the key ingredient in the alchemy that turns Alex and Alvaro's numbers into a final number on a bill. I was captured by how, despite their apparent distance from places like Cocles, the decisions ARESEP makes have such direct power over the life of water among people in Cocles and elsewhere in Costa Rica. It is often in places like ARESEP, distant from particular pipes, wells, and chlorination procedures, that the life of water is crucially shaped. Alvaro and Alex are very aware of this since any deviation from what ARESEP determines is the legal price of water can get them in deep legal trouble, through either accusations of privatization or allegations of water corruption.

To trace these distant, yet intimate, connections I analyze the pricing formula regulators use in ARESEP to create a bifurcation between a bad price and a good price, a price that reproduces commodification and a price that affirms human rights. Such a distinction, as I learned, is produced with people like Alex, Alvaro, and the families they service in mind, even if no one in ARESEP knows them personally. Thinking of the Alvaros and Alexes of Costa Rica, regulators work to create a price that excludes any notion of profits. They do so to distinguish between a humanitarian treatment of water and a commodified one. From the point of view of regulators, and largely but not only for legal reasons, if a utility is generating profits out of its service delivery, it can be said to have commodified water. If it is not generating profits, knowingly or not, the utility is following a more humanitarian approach. What is interesting is how this distinction is made at the same time that people pay for water according to the cost of its purification, distribution, and management. Thus, though my interlocutors see themselves as drawing a distinction, at the end of the day, once that distinction is set, they realize that it affirms water as both a human right and a commodity, and creates the need for another way to make their desired contrast evident.

To show how this process unfolds, this chapter follows the work regulators do to shape the algebraic relations between water, citizens, humanitarian injunctions, and economic ideologies of profit. I say algebraic relations because these are relations mathematically expressed in a formula. ARESEP's pricing formula is a mathematical proposition that embodies metaphysical assumptions of balance, harmony, and equilibrium as enshrined in the law that regulators are charged with implementing. As I will show, for regulators the relations between the variables in the pricing formula have direct effects in the world. If the relations between variables are harmonious and equilibrated, regulators see that very same balance and equilibrium in the relations between citizens and utilities, and ultimately in society as a whole. All of this material-semiotic potential requires that we attend to the formula slowly, thinking carefully about what we might intuitively consider as technically ordinary. As a device that makes differences matter, we need to attend to this formula in its thick moral histories and world-making capabilities. To do so, I will first take you to ARESEP, its public hearings, and its political place in Costa Rica. Next, I trace the legal principles that inform the formula ARESEP regulators work with to show how, inspired by ideas of harmony and equilibrium, regulators calibrate their formula and its variables to enact larger social imaginaries that go beyond water. I then trace a controversy over a recent attempt to change the variable that deals with profit-making and show how the quasi-event of this shift threatens historical ways of allocating financial and humanitarian responsibility among water providers. I call this a quasi-event because its occurrence is not fully realized in the sense that the shift never officially happens. As we see in other chapters in this book, a quasi-event unleashes peculiar effects; in this case it generates an eventful and quotidian technical struggle about how profits determine the humanitarian nature of water.


Rather than discuss "the economy" as a coherent entity unto itself, most Costa Ricans primarily talk about prices, routinely commenting on how expensive things are and how high el costo de la vida (the cost of life) is. Comparing prices against their available income, against each other, and against what they are willing to pay, people are often frustrated about their limited resources. But beyond the immediacy of everyday consumption, prices are also collective objects of concern. Newspapers, politicians, and activists refer to them as entities that affect social relations. Through their intimate and public lives, prices draw attention to fundamental questions about the nature and role of the state, the meaning of the notion of an economic community, and the limits of financial tools for quantifying the value of substances as fundamental to life as water.

As is the case elsewhere, the prices people in Costa Rica encounter in their monthly bills are nonnegotiable (see figure 1.2). The formalization of large parts of the economy has reduced the wiggle room people have when they visit pharmacies (many of which are chains headquartered in other Latin American countries), buy from large grocery stores (most of which are now subsidiaries of Walmart), or pay for public services, all of which are regulated by ARESEP.

Regulators at ARESEP cherish the prices they produce, in large part because they see them as having important capabilities that people lack. Prices have the ability to rank, order, and connect across scales and domains of social life (Guyer 2004). It would be impossible to imagine a person who could simultaneously affect how cash-flow projections are made in a water company, influence the decision about whether or not to replace a broken water meter in a poor neighborhood, foster conversations within families on how to maximize their monthly budget, allow credit card companies to add automatic payments to people's accounts, and an infinite quantity of other daily practices and strategizing exercises. The prominence prices have in everyday life conceals the fact that, despite their solid image as a cohesive entity, they are constituted by myriad elements that tend to remain out of sight (Guyer 2009: 205). The patterns by which those elements are brought together and put in relation with each other tell us a lot about what is a political community, how the state intervenes in it, and what is a shared resource. As compositional entities, prices allow people to communicate the unsaid and they open spaces for unexpected reinvention.

I began my journey to learn the elements that constitute the prices that Alex and Alvaro pass on to people in Cocles by physically going to ARESEP. In 2008 I attended my first audiencia pública (public hearing) there. After meandering around the streets of San José to avoid traffic and make it to the 5:00 PM hearing, I finally arrived at the agency's headquarters, located in the western part of the city. A security guard showed me the entryway to an auditorium that had been added to the building many years after its initial construction during one of the many remodels it had gone through. From its creation in the 1990s until shortly after 2010, ARESEP occupied that same apartment building. Over that period, its administrators performed all sorts of architectural modifications, not only to make space for the growing number of employees but also to match changing ideas of what a public office should look like.

In the auditorium, the hearing was about to start. With a capacity of about one hundred people, that afternoon there were no more than forty attendees between ARESEP employees, public servants, and utility personnel. Public meetings like this are a central piece of modernist state-making. They allow public officials to assemble symbols of authority and citizens to perform their assigned roles (Li 2007). They are also strategic and carefully crafted displays of knowledge and ignorance about technical issues (Mathews 2008). But these meetings can also turn into tournaments of political skill where people challenge their expected roles as they convene for information, consultation, or organization purposes (Alexander 2017). The lawmakers who created ARESEP imagined these meetings as a means to increase transparency and bring citizens closer to the state. This particular audiencia pública was held to collect public feedback on the latest petition by the largest water utility in the country, AyA, to increase the price they charge for water services by an alarming 40 percent.


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Table of Contents

Preface  ix
Acknowledgments  xv
Introduction  1
1. Formula  36
2. Index  75
3. List  109
4. Pact  144
Conclusion  185
Notes  201
References  211
Index  225

What People are Saying About This

Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea - Paige West

“Andrea Ballestero is one of the most eloquent environmental ethnographers of her generation and one of the most important ethnographers of scientific practice that I have ever encountered. Her writing is beautiful, her theoretical and analytic ability are stunning, and the connections that she makes between her empirical evidence and larger conversations in the social sciences are breathtaking. While there are other anthropologists who write about the kinds of techniques that Ballestero dissects, historicizes, and theorizes, nobody does it while always grounding them in social relations and social reproduction.”

Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds - Marisol de la Cadena

“Andrea Ballestero masterfully brings analytic complexity to wide-ranging fields while simultaneously showing us that these fields are not as separate as they first seem. If this sounds like ethnographic magic, that's because it is: the magic of a most creative method carefully and brilliantly pursued to provide awareness of scholarly habits of thought, in the process, offering alter-inspiration.”

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