Introduction: ‘watery’ Asian urbanisms?
In Mandalay, Myanmar in early 2018, a community-led city tour of the city’s historic riverbank downtown brought into focus for a group of visiting academics and activists a contentious water development scheme in progress: the World Bank-supported redevelopment of the riverbank area. The city’s riverfront was being redesigned as a ‘world class’ infrastructure development in pilot form, and this development would mean that the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River – the landscape upon which the city was built and depended for water, travel and trade – would need to be moved away, quite literally. The plans calling for the expansion of the city and the modernisation of its infrastructure required the ‘pushing away’ of the river in order to create more land for urban development by the practice of land reclamation (less poetically referred to as ‘fill’).
In the urban nation-state of Singapore, it is not the river but the sea that is being ‘pushed away’ to create more urban space (Jamieson, 2017, 399). Singapore has expanded its territory by this fill in astounding amounts: more than a fifth of its total landmass between 1965–2015 was ‘constructed’ (Lamb et al., forthcoming). While Singapore’s expansion is generally known and understood in terms of the city’s relationship with land development, the transformation of its connections with water remain uninterrogated.
The projects in progress in Mandalay and Singapore also represent the pushing away of local residents, their uses of the river and the sea, and their edges, as well as the clearing of their improvements and visions for these urban spaces. To the group of academics learning about Mandalay’s development on this tour, participants and community leaders voiced concerns about the contradictory visions for the area: concrete promenades and condo towers would replace a rather unruly riverbank where residents lived, worked and cultivated vegetables. These contradictions are linked with recent political and economic changes in Myanmar. In addition, concerns were raised about the functionality of such developments shifting the land-water interface, considering the region’s vulnerability to climate change impacts, and its complicated relationship to annual flooding and to the particular vulnerability of its suburbs and periphery.
These watery urban plans and developments in Mandalay and Singapore strike at the heart of the transformation taking place in Asia’s cities. The questions they raise about how (and by whom) cities are envisioned and reimagined are key, with concern for the associated links and questions between what water and climate mean for the transformation of urban space also central. Asian centres’ connections to water are explained historically through the familiar logics of location, in which founding communities and rulers selected the best sites for defence and trade. Today these cities are challenged to manage water not only in terms of travel and domestic access but in ways that require urban planners, residents, governments and scholars to grapple with a much more complicated web of physical flows and the economic, social and political connections which intimately link water access and power in the city (Swyngedouw, 2004; Kaika, 2005).
Concerns heighten in significance when considered in conjunction with the scope and scale of urbanisation in Asia, as linked with broader transformations in the global South. Growth of Asian cities, particularly secondary cities, is occurring at rates that exceed even those that occurred during the industrial revolution in Europe and North America (currently 1.5 per cent per annum according to the UN 2014). In addition to metrics of growth, processes of urbanisation are not limited to the neoliberalisation and ‘splintering’ of urban development (Graham and Martin, 2001). The shifting mobilities of urban residents, and the associated complex challenges of management and reliable provision of water that suits the needs of residents, businesses and factories, are also of paramount concern for cities across the global South.
Indeed, there is mounting evidence that cities have an enormous role to play now and in the future in dealing sustainably with the impacts of climate change, many of which revolve around water protection, access and justice (Bartlett and Satterthwaite, 2016). More equitable access to urban water is also crucial to achieving Millennial Development Goals as well as contributing to water justice.1 At the same time, scholars assert that ‘urban issues in the global south are distinctly and statistically different from those in the global north, but our current urban knowledge is predominantly shaped by research on and from the global north’ (Nagendra et al., 2018, 344). Thus, the importance of understanding these transformations in Asian cities is further heightened when contrasted against the emerging (but limited) critical, engaged research in these areas to inform urban studies and planning more broadly.
Thus, in this special issue, ‘Asia’s changing cities: water, climate and power in the transformation of urban spaces’, we bring together research across five Asian cities to illuminate insights into the challenges, transformations, and how water matters foundationally to the city. We consider the ways that urban water is shaping and will fundamentally shape our lives in the Anthropocene. Many of the scholars whose work is presented here use site specific fine-grained methods to focus on urban residents and urban spaces in the global South in a way which recognises that access, rights and equity dimensions of water control are a crucial concern for city builders and planners in Asia. These papers also provide compelling evidence that to comprehend fully the future of Asian cities, it is necessary to understand their related topographies, their water systems and, also, their practices and politics of water distribution.
In making these assertions, we recognise that more conventionally water is bracketed as secondary to questions of institutional politics or hard infrastructures, or it is framed as something the city must ‘metabolise’ – just one arbitrary component among many moving parts of a fully integrated urban form. We contend that such an approach can obscure the ways that water is foundational to the city as a physical, social and political space. In this special issue, then, a key organising principle is to bring together contributors’ work on water as a critical feature of the city – whether the focus is on the riverbank, sea, underground aquifer or sewage system.
In focusing this special issue on Asia, the work overall considers Asia not as an ‘exception’ (Gandy, 2006, 374) but to render and critically assess, in a historical and regionally situated set of studies, the necessary work of multiple actors and multiple perspectives in understanding water and the city, and what that means for the form and function of the city itself. As such, the collection speaks to the heart of questions surrounding ‘Asian urbanism’ debates, such as those about urban form itself which are helping to redefine urban studies (Roy, 2009; Bunnell et al., 2012; Rademacher and Sivaramakrishnan, 2017; Bjorkman, 2015; Bunnell and Goh, 2018). In this, the special issue also contributes to better understanding of ‘global cities’, recognising that ‘the dominant theorisations of global city-regions are rooted in the Euro American experience and are thus unable to analyse multiple forms of metropolitan modernities’ (Roy, 2009, 819; Roy and Ong, 2011).
Contributions: urban political ecologies
Across this special issue, contributors consider a range of approaches and challenges for urban water management and how problems in urban water governance and development are not only related to proposing urban development interventions, but require a critique which considers multiple axes of marginalisation in water access and urban development across both primate and secondary cities in Asia. For instance, in two of the papers on Southeast Asian cities, the authors approach urban flooding as anything but a so-called ‘natural’ disaster. Contributors Danny Marks and Eli Elinoff show how conventional approaches which understand urban flooding as a ‘natural disaster’, or as a one-off event to be avoided, as evidenced in the paper by Vanessa Lamb, misunderstand the ways in which water shapes the city in monsoon Asia, and ways that residents have responded to floods. In Bangkok, Thailand, Marks and Elinoff contend that floods and flood protection projects proposed after the 2011 large-scale flood events ‘transformed water into a political resource’ which could then be used not only in the aftermath of that flood event, but for future management of urban space as linked to anticipated future floods. In Myanmar, Lamb, for instance, also explores how managing floods in the city of Hpa An for ‘crisis’ means something very different, both practically and conceptually, than managing for a range of diverse flood regimes which constitute the monsoon climate in Southeast Asia.
Both of these papers bring together insights from the field of political ecology to bear on the transformation of urban space, highlighting the unevenness of water and risk in the city, providing new insight into the significance of geography and the spatial (in)justice in terms of the ways that peripheries and poverty are in many cases, produced together. For instance, Lamb’s work in Hpa An, the provincial capital of Karen State, Myanmar, understands such unevenness by focusing on aspects of so-called ‘beneficial flooding’ through a combination of social and ecological perspectives – a ‘hydrosocial’ approach – which considers water as a key social and ecological facet of the urban. While engaging similar political ecology frameworks, Marks and Elinoff take a different, but complementary, approach. The authors show that vulnerability to past, present and future floods in Bangkok, Thailand is not uniform spatially nor politically by reference to data generated through GIS and interview-based work. They reveal a ‘splintered’ urban vulnerability, where so-called ‘natural’ flooding disasters impact marginalised communities in un-walled, ‘un-protected’ urban areas the most, thus reproducing the fragmentation of urban space.
Contributions: methodological insights into informality and development
Across this special issue, an important contribution is this engagement with Asian urbanism. Building on this established research, we also further interrogate this construct as seen in the papers’ presentations of difference within and among cities. This is particularly relevant in the papers’ consideration of informality and the production of space, contributing to what Roy highlights as potential area able to provide insight, especially considering that ‘“First World” urban and metropolitan theory is curiously silent on the issue of informality’ (Roy, 2009, 826; see also Dovey, 2012).
Generally, scholars write of two broad brush understandings of ‘informality’, either as linked to informally settled slums and overcrowding, or, on the other hand, the innovation associated with less formalised space and process. We concur with Bunnell and Harris (2012, 341–42) that to attend to the nuance or in-between of these two understandings of informality, we need a study of informality ‘from below’ of the ‘informal urbanisms and associated ways of life – [which] clearly necessitates a wider range of methodological tools and approaches than have conventionally been used in research on the informal sector or informal economies’. Across this special issue, the research papers also engage the study of informality, urban life, and water through a range of methodologies and engagements, drawing on rich, nuanced primary data from long-term contemporary fieldwork.
This challenge of methodological innovation is taken up, for instance, by contributor Asavari Devadiga’s paper. In her work on water delivery in urban India, she contends that while it is likely that most cities will continue to aspire to deliver piped and metered water twenty-four hours per day, this is unlikely to be a realistic alternative for many cities of the global South, for a number of reasons. One of these is that such an approach overlooks the informal work of residents to manage water at multiple scales. Her analysis of evidence from Hubli-Dharwad, India, shows that cities need to design systems in collaboration with citizens who envision a variety of formal and informal ways to deliver different types of water, both formal and informal (and in-between). She presents the ‘enhanced hybrid approach’ which aims to address the very straightforward problem of ‘water when you need it’ in a practical and conceptual sense. Moreover, water needs, she demonstrates through explication of existing water delivery systems in Hubli-Dharwad, are not homogenous, and recognising this heterogeneity is an essential component of the approach developed. While we recognise, as Kacker and Joshi (2016, 255) highlight in their recent work that, ‘[t]he poor residing in urban informal settlements in developing countries are often caught in a vicious cycle’, change requires scholarship that recognises difference and context. In the context of informality, then, her work also considers how addressing ‘real-world’ problems, such as the fact the linkages between water delivery and urban under-development is related to proposing urban development interventions. The recognised need for improved interventions is indeed a goal that many of the authors aspire to, as seen in the focus of most of the contributors’ work on complex issues around water access, sanitation and livelihood security.
Thus, in addition to proposing development solutions, the study of development solutions themselves are worthy of interrogation as well. As academics, we aspire to produce scholarship that contributes (at least in a small part) to addressing water governance challenges, a changing climate, and creating a better world. At the same time, we emphasise the need to recognise that there are implications of improvement other than ‘world saving’ (Li, 2007; Mosse, 2003). In fact, the crux of the climate debate and the implications for urban water could be redrawn as an expression of anxiety about the future city where not everyone is included or envisions themselves as part of that urban future. Research also reveals how addressing the ‘real-world’ problems in urban water governance and development are not only related to proposing urban development interventions, but to the creation of new urban forms and problems (see papers by Danny Marks and Eli Elinoff; Indrawan Prabaharyaka; Vanessa Lamb). This is most clearly laid out in Prabaharyaka’s insightful analysis of water and sanitation in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Prabaharyaka’s interrogation of water and sanitation in Jakarta centres on the introduction of a ‘special rapporteur on human waste’. This field-based account reveals how ‘big’ solutions to pressing development problems, such as the struggles around the provision of toilets for residents of water-adjacent neighbourhoods in Jakarta can result in problematic and untenable situations, invoking concerns about ‘whose future’ is being imagined in urban water infrastructure development. This is a key question at the centre of improving and governing urban futures in Asia. Creatively, through the use of a call-and-response narrative structure, their paper raises questions of who can speak in and of the development sphere in its introduction and portrayal of the special rapporteur on human waste and her assessment of ‘the last helicopter’ (the colloquial name for a floating toilet). The forthright and honest discussion of excrement and how modern Asian cities manage this most intractable and enormously important aspect of urbanisation and growth highlights the need to include diverse perspectives and rely on sustainable solutions in every aspect of water use in the city.
An additional facet of development challenges, solutions and water governance is revealed in the study of Hanoi, Vietnam’s urban periphery. In a context where water and industry are centrally managed and decided upon, the contribution of Le and Drummond into the intersection of water access, gender and poverty in an increasingly urbanised periphery of the nation’s capital of Hanoi is also useful in understanding water injustice. Their study across methodological differences over three years with multi-method investigation shows that in addition to uneven water access, the city’s periphery is re-produced along gendered as well as social and economic boundaries as well.
Interestingly, Le and Drummond find that Vietnam’s move towards ‘market socialism’, which might have been expected to result in the loss of tradition may actually have reinvigorated the imposition of traditional patriarchal systems. This is particularly visible in their analysis of peri-urban villages around Hanoi where they find that women face social pressures that require them to deal with the changing water-stresses or to manage the ‘water-work’, such as providing the household with adequate water, despite increasing and intensifying floods and drastically more polluted sources of water. While access to water in urbanising areas used to be more or less equal across gender and social/economic lines, shortages of clean and affordable water now reflects growing inequalities and, perversely, the more conservative values of the past as they re-emerge in Vietnam. The lack of public action to resolve the water issue in these urbanising spaces has resulted in the private market dictating problematic resolutions that privilege households with resources, and men over women. While unequal access to water mirrors the situation that Devadiga finds in Hubli-Dharwad, the coordination of private and public action seems able to address some of the most pressing concerns, which also shape the city and residents’ relationships to it.
Considering these distinct methodologies, an important thread across the methodologies employed is also a commitment to presenting conventionally overlooked perspectives and voices, as also linked to our contributors’ commitments to place. While many of the contributors are early career researchers in the academic sense, they have also worked as development and conservation practitioners in Asia for significant periods of time. This means that the research presented is not only based on primary research over substantial periods of time, but reflects the perspective of scholars who have a commitment to places and peoples. Related to this, the work also shows the range of actors involved in urban water governance and that the need for their active participation in shaping their environments is growing as urbanisation proliferates and access to services, such as water, has become increasingly heterogeneous. The work of these expanding actor-networks is also imperative to understanding water relationships in the city. We have seen community members engage with NGOs, politicians, civil servants, academics, engineers, development practitioners and other communities in the attempt to obtain water access, treatment and flood protection. This emerges across all the studies in the collection, from cities in India to Indonesia.
The ‘Viewpoint’ by Michelle Kooy et al. completes our special issue on water and the city. Focusing on both practice and critique, the authors argue for ‘rethinking’ vulnerability in urban water solutions and management. Kooy et al. consider how the focus on low-cost, locally adapted technologies might do more for sustainability than a focus on sustainable infrastructure and ecosystem services, which are unevenly accessible to urban residents. In particular, their discussion highlights that planners in cities of the global South work in very different contexts than those in the West; the historical legacies of colonialism and diverse urban forms are linked to a wide range of water supply means and methods that extend far beyond those found elsewhere. This range of supply alternatives needs to be included in future planning for adequate and sustainable water access and make up solutions to water access, which, as they note, help to promote, ‘“alternative” water sources, decentralized systems and a diversity of providers’. Kooy et al.’s perspective resonates across most of the papers included in this issue, but most especially with Devadiga’s work, in that she emphasises the role that traditional and modern alternative methods plan adaptive urban water delivery. They also assess approaches, developed in Australia and elsewhere, in the ways they are uncritically applied to global South contexts, both to raise questions for practitioners, government officials and residents. As Kooy et al. argue, ideas for alternative water supply must go beyond improving infrastructure for sustainability, to also include limiting the impacts of infrastructure inequalities on vulnerable residents and to providing low-cost innovations that can work to protect and stabilise the ‘non-networked’ ecological services on which millions of urban residents already depend.
This collection of original scholarship contributes to several important contemporary urban issues in the global South, including splintering urban development, Asian urbanism, urban water access and marginalisation, and the complex governance of cities in the Anthropocene. In particular, the five research papers and Viewpoint in this issue present work that speaks to a number of important debates in development, planning, environmental change and social justice, and which engages multidisciplinary readership through a range of multi-disciplinary approaches. As Xiao (2016, 3367) argues, work on water urbanisms in Asia has the potential to ‘rethink the way in which cities operate’ with attention to the central paradigms of water justice, as well as the social, ecological and economic values.
Our research in Bangkok (Thailand), Hubli-Dharwad (India), Hpa An (Myanmar), Bac Ninh (Vietnam) and Jakarta (Indonesia) make clear that urban residents, governments, planners and development practitioners are working across spatial divides, asking ‘for whom’, and in their ‘water work’ are shaping the ways the city functions. Taken together, the original and provoking work that makes up this issue argues for incorporating a diversity of voices, historical and modern patterns of urbanisation as well as cultural values in the design and implementation of water access, supply and management in all Asian cities. While the response of cities in the global South to climate change and changing availability of water will differ dramatically, all cities will need to address issues of social justice and draw deeply on creativity to provide their citizens with water in the city.