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Water is a commons
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Author: Robert, Jean
01-01-1994

What is alternative?

The word comes from the Latin alter, meaning 'other', or 'second'. We can hardly escape the inherited ambiguity of words. The word 'alternative' supposes 'otherness', and is thus understood by most NGOs and 'alternative technologists'. However, technocrats attached to 'main-stream' water and sanitary practices understand it differently, as 'second-rankness' or, in the best of cases, as the replacement solution when the prerequisites for the standard technological package are not fulfilled: local water captation 'where there is no pump' (no official waterworks), or dry sanitation 'where there is no sewer'. The formula 'where there is no' can then be the magical formula that provides alternatives with a beginning legitimacy, a narrow door which must not be despised, as a famous 'alternative doctor' has shown (Wemer, 1975).

The concept is thus construed that an alternative is always an alternative to the mindless gigantism of water developments the reckless damming of rivers, the railroading of people's voices in the name of 'progress' or the unsustainability of basin-inconsistent projects Alternatives are defined in counterposition to the standard freshwater and sanitary package. History can explain why this is so, and why it hardly could be otherwise. Unfortunately it is a situation that leaves the initiative in the other camp. The NGO that implements 'alternative water projects' and the technologist who assists it are deemed to define their action in relation to what they pretend to propose an other way an alternative path, or in short: -an alternative'. Given the ideological dominance of the standard sanitary package and the fact that this package is a built-in part of most official water regulation projects (the dam is also built to offer flush toilets to autochthonous well-to-do households), it is not superfluous to give this package a name that sticks.

Against the - Pump and - Dump Mentality

The common denominator of tme alternatives is that they are alternatives to the pump-and-dump method, whose domestic counterparts are: the turn on the faucet and let flow, and the flush and forget mentality. With the unprecedented availability of piped water that they promise, water development projects foster the pump-and-dump mentality and its domestic aftermath even before completion It has repeatedly been observed that the simple announcement of such a project propagates 'tum-on-the-faucet-and-let-flow' and 'flush-and-forget' habits among future beneficiaries. Projects aiming to protect nature and culture from these 'progressive' attitudes must be welcomed. Nobody that we know, however proposes to artificially reinstate the hard - and generally feminine - chores of fetching and hauling water from miles away (Strasser, 1982) Alternatives to domestic waste of water must be sought in the cultural insertion of work-relieving water techniques (Mikkelsen et al., 1993).

Dis - Establishing Water Development

In general terms, the pump-and-dump method which dominates the scene must be disestablished. That does not mean that all water should stop being pumped and piped, but that the priority - in the philosophical sense of what sets the axiological hierarchy and is therefore prior - of free, gratuitous and flowing water should be recognized. In the realm of philosophical priorities, free water is first. In some way, and before any material pollution, piping degrades water, negates its dignity. We must allow water to recover the dignity of its sparkling flowing presence.

The acts of pumping, piping and dumping water, unavoidable as they may be, are palliatives for which a price must be paid, and this awareness should be the foundation for any pricing policy of pumped and piped water. Sanctioning water withdrawals from the commons with progressive tarrifs is a very different procedure than letting so-called price mechanisms 'reveal the real costs' of water. The first is a stem but legitimate political measure while the latter just translates a very anachronic belief in the market's 'regulating powers' (Polanyi, 1957).

But the struggle for an 'other way' must include a plea for another philosophy of water. In fact this is the condition for alternatives to cease to be 'second choice' and for the initiative to be in the camp of those who can say "we" because they have common horizons and recognize common watersheds.

The kind of 'philosophy of water' - or rather its lack - prevailing among westernized 'elites' paves the way for the mindless import of the Western water and sanitary package. Pump and dump are the actions which the type of water-perception spread by the esternization of mentalities literally calls for. When water is reduced to its chemical function - that is: has become H2O even in non-scientific minds - the only thing which seems to fit its undignified nature is to be pumped and piped and dumped after usage. Alternative practices will remain second rank as long as they remain under the philosophical shield of H20.

The advent of water practices founded on a philosophy of water that would take local perceptions seriously and pay honour without romanticism or nostalgia to genuine traditions would no longer be an alternative to bad ways of doing, but a source of action and inspiration spouting from its own soil like living water.


Institutional Aspects of Pump - and - Dump Practices

Some readers may remind me that the great 'problem' with the pump-and-dump mentality is that both exercises are performed by separate agencies, as if the pumping hand ignored what the dumping hand does. A general and legitimate critique of sectorization can be founded on that observation (Going and Henry, 1990). Water, whose flowing essence is to be elementary and ubiquitous, is institutionally channeled along tracks corresponding to disciplinary divisions in a society dominated by professionalism and its classificatory mentality. With respect to the 'wholeness' of water, this specialization is not only inappropriate, it is extremely dangerous. The ubiquity of water in all living bodies makes of it a 'whole phenomenon' in the light of which the divisions of sciences and techniques can only lead to its catastrophic atomization (Bohme, 1988).

We must criticize sectorization and establish, in the words of Going and Henry, transversal paths of action cutting though the professional division of tasks. Better yet, we must avoid importing this division together with the sanitary package (Going and Henry, 1990). Still better, we must re-establish the innate transversality of our inherited community patterns of action: is it not the 'transversality' of water itself?

This is, however, the moment to warn against the importation of 'transversal models' that implicitly presuppose a central place for the collection of information. Many so-called 'non-authoritarian organization models' are disguised ways of taxing local communities in a new
fashion, namely by collecting so much 'information' about them that they might be stratified in the 'networks' of their observed relations. For instance, "people have such and such water needs" is an 'information' that has a completely different meaning for the people themselves, on the one hand, and for the sanitarian with his manner of thinking on the other (Bradshaw, 1975).

Style of Alternative Water Technologies

Certain technologies work to momentarily curb the consequences of false action. Thus they can only be undertaken after the damages have been recognized, which too often means long after they have been perpetrated.

Furthermore, by relieving the constraints that reality imposes, they open new spaces for false actions that, since they can be 'corrected', have less reason to be changed.

Thus is raised the place of repair technology. While it must not always be proscribed, repair technology must never have priority lest the gap of generated scarcity be maintained open. Repair technologies feed the spiral which truly sustainable policies and technologies aim to close.

For instance, a sustainable policy in matter of sanitation would curb the production of sewage water by limiting the mingling of its ingredients. It would favour the local captation of water and its local absorption by the soil.

 
 
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