My dissertation (University of Kentucky, 2016) focuses on efforts to remake the relationship between water and city in São Paulo, Brazil. Located in a metropolitan region of nearly twenty million people, São Paulo illustrates the challenges of managing water in a contemporary mega-city. This was made dramatically apparent as the city confronted a crisis of water scarcity in 2014 and 2015, one brought on by an extended drought in the region. While full-scale water rationing was narrowly avoided, the 2014-2015 crisis highlighted the complex and deeply political relationships between the urban landscape, its physical underpinning, and the infrastructural systems designed to manage water in the city. These relationships form the primary subject of my dissertation.
While touching on many aspects of the city’s water management regime, the specific focus of my dissertation is on the management of stormwater and efforts to deal with flooding in the city, both historically as well as in the contemporary moment. For over a century, hydrological engineers and urban planners have managed São Paulo’s water by encasing the nearly 300 rivers that flow through it in concrete and burying them beneath avenues. This modernizing logic posits urban water as problematic, and funnels it to dams outside of the city where it is used for hydroelectric power. The result is an approach to water management that exacerbates flooding and encourages overuse, and is intimately linked to the city’s broader social landscape of inequality and peripheral urbanization. The broader management of stormwater has been matched by an approach to water more generally, which has typically involved the development of large-scale infrastructural systems whose purpose is to separate water from the landscape that surrounds it. In lieu of a more relational approach to water that takes seriously the multiple functionalities of urban water, water management in São Paulo has largely remained in the hands of siloed state entities with little regard for transparency or creative, flexible approaches to water.
My dissertation subsequently focuses on the different ways in which water and watery landscapes are engaged with by actors working both inside and outside of the state, part of a broader interest in efforts to create new ways of seeing and managing water in the city. My dissertation focuses on a series of responses to the ongoing crisis of water management in São Paulo, paying specific attention to the relationship between state-level practice and grassroots or community level organization. The responses and projects highlighted in the text are multi-facted, and include artist engagements and creative projects focused on highlighting the city’s often marginalized rivers, state-led development projects designed to provide infrastructure against flooding and public space to urban residents, and grassroots attempts to make the city’s water management regime more transparent. All of them, though, begin from the foundational premise that São Paulo’s system of managing water is in need of change, even if the forms that those changes will take remains under debate.
These efforts to create a new relationship between river and city in São Paulo coexist uneasily with longer histories of infrastructural provisioning and unequal urban development, as well as a continued focus on large-scale hydrological infrastructure on the part of the state government. As such, efforts to reconsider the relationship between water and city in São Paulo are invariably complicated by the pre-existing interventions into the landscape and the ongoing realities of limited funding, the complex politics of land tenure, and the climatological dynamics of the region. Furthermore, efforts to create a more flexible or multifaceted understanding of water tend to come into conflict with existing state approaches that tend to emphasize large-scale infrastructural provisioning and a monofunctional approach to water.
This project subsequently considers the city’s water management through an approach that borrows from urban political ecology, social studies of science, and historical geography. With an epistemological grounding in those literatures, this project analyzes ongoing conversations about water management in São Paulo, and focuses on how water is encountered and engaged with in the landscape by engineers, artists, and activists. By considering urban infrastructure not as a technical system for managing water but rather a deeply political intervention that ties together the social and natural landscapes of the city, this project offers a textured, critical look at the forms in which water is made legible through diverse processes of representation and engagement.
Through an understanding of urbanization as a deeply political process of landscape change that folds together social and natural processes, I argue in my dissertation for an approach to water management that takes seriously the relationships between inequality, infrastructure, and urban development in considering how water is governed. More specifically, I argue that the city’s water crisis is fundamentally a crisis of urban inequality and inadequate housing provisioning, which is coupled with a propensity towards large-scale, monofunctional infrastructures. São Paulo makes clear how urban inequality influences the functioning of urban water management systems, complicating efforts to implant necessary infrastructure and equitably distribute drinking water. Water is intimately linked to the urban landscape and the broader histories of infrastructural provisioning that materialize there. As such, this project contributes to understanding the challenges of managing water in a metropolitan region of twenty million people. By focusing on diverse engagements with urban water, this project contributes to literatures on urban water management in unequal cities, theoretical understandings of the important role played by infrastructural systems in the development of urban life, and sensorial and everyday encounters with nature on the part of urban residents.
Key words: Brazil, landscape, urban political ecology, water, megacities, São Paulo, infrastructure.