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Visualizing aquifers: sustainable water use in the Atacama Desert and beyond

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - INVISIBLE WATERS (Visualizing aquifers: sustainable water use in the Atacama Desert and beyond)

Période du rapport: 2018-07-01 au 2019-06-30

Billions of people around the world rely for their everyday existence on aquifers, geological forms containing water sources deep underground. However, overexploitation and pollution of aquifer systems are threatening their sustainability, jeopardizing future water security, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions. The invisibility of these waters, in this context, poses formidable challenges for those who rely on them: locating, measuring and controlling aquifers is complex and precarious, yet of utmost importance for human survival in many parts of the world. By being both scientifically innovative and policy relevant, this project advances contemporary academic discussions on water-society connections. Through extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile, as well as a return phase at the host institution IHE DELFT, Institute for water education, this project developed an analytical framework to understand how social relations are affected by various groundwater practices, giving a special focus on the effects that the visualization of aquifers has on existing socio-economic and eco-political inequalities.

The overall aim of the proposed project was to explore the vital connections between humans and aquifers in everyday life. The objectives of this qualitative project were threefold:
1) To study the groundwater practices that connect humans to aquifers, and the (dis)connections and inequalities among different groundwater users that ensue (empirical goal).
2) To develop an original theoretical framework to understand how social relations are affected by various groundwater practices (analytical goal).
3) To draw lessons that contribute to a more sustainable use of aquifers (social goal).

In order to respond to these objectives, the project empirically assessed one of the pivotal premises currently shaping groundwater governance, namely, the conviction that the earth’s groundwater resources ‘are falling victim to a lack of effective governance’. Ethnographic, empirical research on groundwater as a local resource in Atacama Desert, critically questioned this premise and its foundational proposition stating that ‘effective governance should be built from realities on the ground’ and, thus, that understandings of local human connections with aquifers are prerequisites for the design of effective groundwater regulations. The project has contributed to develop such understandings of human connections with aquifers by revealing how ‘realities on the ground’ cannot be studied without attending to the geopolitics and the global connections in which groundwater is involved. In the case of Atacama, the project has concluded that, groundwater practices in particular, and groundwater depletion more generally, cannot be understood without considering the geopolitical reasons why aquifers are being over-exploded.
A long term fieldwork in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile, the most arid desert of the world, was carried out, place where the Chilean water market model has triggered equity problems, conflicts among water users, and a severe environmental crisis. Lessons stemming from this fieldwork were transferred into the host institution, where dissemination activities, lectures, and workshops, contributed to the development of the research agenda of the “Water Governance” chair group. Importantly, the project inspired the creation of the international consortium on groundwater governance ‘T2SGS: Transformations to Groundwater Sustainability’, which was strategically used as a key platform for disseminating results as well as for intervening on groundwater research agendas more broadly https://t2sresearch.org/project/t2sgs
Aiming at encouraging collaborations between grassroots communities and scientific collectives, and attempting to further disseminate the project’s findings, ‘Invisible Waters’ organized three transdisciplinary workshops and co-organized one international seminar that brought together grassroots communities with scientific collectives concerned with groundwater governance. Moreover, the project generated a fruitful collaboration with the Chilean Research Center for Integrated Disaster Risk Management (CIGIDEN), where ‘Invisible Waters’ findings were disseminated in a local level.
All these outcomes, research activities, and the building up of groundwater networks in a national and international level, not only encouraged the expansion of research on groundwater governance but it also contributed to craft an accurate understanding of how ‘groundwater practices’ relate to each other, reshaping socio-economic and eco-political inequalities in a planetary level.
International organizations of groundwater experts have recently established that the earth’s groundwater resources ‘are falling victim to a lack of effective governance’. Their reports have concluded that, as groundwater is essentially a local resource, effective governance should be built from ‘realities on the ground’ and, thus, that understandings of local human connections with aquifers are prerequisites for the design of effective groundwater regulations. Building upon long term anthropological ethnographic research, the project has critically questioned and problematized what really counts as ‘realities on the ground’. The project documented how processes concerning groundwater over-extraction in Atacama are all entangled with realities ‘somewhere else’, as this extraction is motivated by commodity chains that feeds with raw materials the building of ‘green futures’ in the global North. Moreover, the project analytically explored the contrasts and tensions between divergent social and material practices (of indigenous peoples, activists, scientists) on the definition of what groundwater is made to be, and how these different practices inform different kind of world-making projects with their associated and particular understanding of ‘sustainable life’. One of the explicit implications of this refers to the way ‘decisions’ on water governance are made: the project revealed how decisions are best made by drawing on a variety of social and material practices and knowledges distributed along different grounds. This realization put the project beyond the state of the art, as it demanded the (re)conceptualization of water not only as a connector of social and political life, but also as a tele-connector between different places and transformative natures. These insights opened up new questions and research opportunities that will be tackled through a multi-sited and transnational research. ‘Invisible Waters’ thus generated the main questions supporting a forthcoming ERC Starting Grant to be carried out by the Principal Investigator, and in which the strategic replacement of fossil fuels with electric transport powered by lithium-ion batteries will be examined in three different continents. The societal implications of the project therefore contributed to expand research efforts devoted to the design of non-destructive approaches to collaborative responsible actions to phase out fossil fuels—or decrease their utilization, thus creating explicit links between groundwater governance and climate action.
Pump well Atacama desert