James Merron: Travelling technologies of the environment: Knowledges of water management and the transformation of land in South Africa
PhD project (Doctoral Program North-South), Centre for African Studies, University of Basel and University of Stellenbosch
This research seeks to understand the nature of social and institutional arrangements within which groups and organisations make use of “green technologies” in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Going beyond what the literature can provide, the project is based empirically on interpreting how “trust” is used to mediate social relationships with science and technology.
While global in its extent and consequences, water management practices are emplaced, applied differently across regions and legitimized through distinctive cultural meanings and sociological circumstances. Once the providence of governments and inter-governmental organisations, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are taking the lead in water management emerging ostensibly to test, monitor and provide feedback on government and corporate tools aimed at managing water. Socially, scientifically and technologically concentrated around centres of knowledge production, experts and specialists systematically articulate innovative approaches in order to become progressively institutionalized. The techno-scientific practices of water management and its artefacts travel from urban locations to the countryside; the north to the south; the south to the south; and the south to the north.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (NMBM)—the industrial hub of the Eastern Cape, South Africa—was recently declared a water disaster area. With reference to the risk and uncertainty around water resources, the NMBM is faced with a variety of scientific and technological options, which will affect the nature of social and institutional arrangements. With reference to the picture above, the “invasive alien plants” (IAP) located behind the billboard are being blamed for decreasing the seasonal availability of water and their eradication supports South Africa’s “most successful public works programmes”, Working for Water (WfW), which since 1995 has provided jobs for “the poorest of the poor” in the labour intensive activity of chopping down IAPs.
A new “green technology” based on the WfW model—but privately funded—is currently being promoted as a more socially and environmentally sustainable alternative water management option, seen as “win-win” in terms of offering poverty relief and water management in tandem. In an effort to reconstitute the meaning of IAPs, NGOs that base their expertise on the scientific field of invasion ecology are communicating a market based approach that will transform the “invasion” from a liability to an economic opportunity for private landowners. Operationalising technological artefacts including remote sensing devices and geographic information systems, experts and specialists quantify the impacts of IAPs on water resources. This information supports a “payment for ecosystem services” approach through the trade in virtual “water credits”. Funds for this mitigation banking scheme are currently being negotiated between the NMBM and corporate investors.
Because the results of experiments in new “green technologies” are largely unknown, and due to the risk and complexity associated with implementing new scientific and technical work, experts engage with the concept of “trust building” in their communication of this land-use option to landowners. This research is thus based on interpreting the ways in which trust is used at access points between experts and locals. Data will be collected through the method of ethnography, which involves prolonged fieldwork, with long-term participant observation and personal interviews with key social actors.