Think & Drink Colloquium: Colin McFarlane on sanitation, water and waste management

ImatgeBy Marcela Arrieta Narváez & Marc Pradel Miquel

The Think & Drink Colloquium is an initiative from Humboldt University and Georg Simmel Centre for Metropolitan Studies that takes place on a weekly basis at the Humboldt Universität in Berlin.  As the website explains:

The colloquium offers an informal atmosphere for discussion and exchange between students and faculty of the department, as well as all others interested in urban issues. The impulse for discussion is the weekly guest speaker of German or international urban sociology or a speaker of notoriety in a related field. After the talk– i.e. the “Think” – participants are welcome to continue the discussion with a drink. 

As frequent participants of the Colloquim, on 26 november we joined the session with Collin McFarlane, from Durham University, who presented a comparative reesarch between two informal settlements in Mumbai. Collin McFarlane is urban geographer and works in theorising the intersections between urban inequality, materiality and knowledge.  Interested in the construction of knowledge and alternative forms of developing management of resources as we are, we consider that the presentation brought some interesting points. Here we present a summary and some points appeared in the debate


Urban politics, learning and inequality: informal sanitation in Mumbai

The objective of the project he exposed at the Think and drink Colloquium was to understand the relation between inequalities and sanitation in informal settlements of Mumbai, and how the residents of informal settlements face these inequalities and transform it into a political question. Thus, his presentation faced three main questions:

  • What gives rise to sanitation inequality?
  • How do residents cope with sanitation poverty?
  • How is urban sanitation learning being politicized?

The project compares two informal settlements in north-east and north-west Mumbai: Khotwadi and Ratinagar. Khotwadi is an established and authorized settlement, with hindu majority and  aprox. 2000 households, 24 toilets, 80 seats. Ratinagar is the poorest unauthorized, informal settlement of the city, mainly of muslim population and for that reason, suffering strong inequalities from local authorities. It has 6 toilets with 76 seats for 4000 households and doubling the population of Khotwadi. It has two areas, labeled 1 and 2, with different degrees of santiation access.

1. What gives rise to sanitation inequality?
Local management of water is basic to understand inequalities. 40% of the mortality in informal settlements is attributed to infections, whereas 47% people lack access to toilets. 2,000, 000 people must use open defecation. The attempts to transform Mumbai in a world city like Shangai ends with the modernist idea of citizenship rights to water. The emphasis in the management of water is on the demand and in market solutions, which bring that only well organaised communities are able to obtain resources. Urban elites have delinked basic services from their imaginaries of the city, as they are not provided anymore by public administration. Thus,, there is an emphasis on entrepreneurialism and self-development of market-oriented solutions in slums, that in the other hand are far from being regularized or improved. There are increasingly punitive forms of urbanism, with the demolition and destruction of slums and an emphasis on real state speculative urbanism. In this regard, slums don’t have a place in the new image of cities. This situation brings us to the concept of Malevolent urbanism, based on moral, discipline and punishment that generates sanitaion inequalities.

As a response to their lack of resources, inhabitants of slums develop informal solutions to water provision and sanitation such as the illegal acquisition of water from pipelines. The push against the slums to transform the city into a first rank world city has brought to the so-called ‘water wars’, that is, the repression and punishment of illegal ways to obtain water, and new forms of water acquisitions by the inhabitants.  Besides, there is the question about the responsibility: the state tends to blame and discipline the the poorest for its lack of responsibility.

2. How do residents cope with sanitation poverty?
To understand how residents face the situation of sanitation poverty, McFarlane puts emphasis on the role of learning through different mechanisms in which learning can happen:

  • Translation: knowledge from a form to another form, for instance the proliferation of self-built infrastructures and its improvement with better materials once they are not demolished by the authorities.
  • Coordination: Systems that link different forms of knowledge, for instance coordination mechanisms to celan the drains within the neighbourhood avoids floodings, or the creation of separate spaces for defecating for children, women and men that are not officially defined but based on tacit agreements.
  • Learning political possibilities: It includes learning how to protest for instance using their own bodies to protest in front of an increase of prices of toilet blocs

3.How is urban sanitation learning being politicized?
Sanitation implies a social domination, and for that reason, is always politisized, but there are  three different forms of politization.

  • Destruction- When the state feels that their regulations are challenged, it cuts pipes and avoids informal solutions. Only when the solutions are not perceived by the state are still possible: the quiet encroachment of the ordinary
  • Political society- negotiating with the state: how is it done when the inhabitants are not seen as proper citizens? There are different forms to link with politics. – Portha Chatterje. Soft political society- you become sanitation- vote for us. The networks that the people themselves build ( how is it in Bogotá)
  • Civil society movements-Based on radical incrementalism, a concept introduced by Edgar Pieter. Radical incrementalism refers to processes of empowerment linked to political support: for instance learning to build ecological toilets, having new learning as a form of empowerment or creating knowledge about the situation. Some examples of these experiences in Mumbai slums are:
    • Slum shake dwellers international and radical incrementalism: draws on people´s model houses and model toilets. Ecosanitation block
    • Survey based movements- learning conditions: Right to pee- Mumbai created  a survey on the situation and sanitation inequalities showing women more exposed to rising prices of toilet use.

In order to understand how sanitation takes place in Mumbai slums we must focus on the following issues and questions

  • How incremental forms of poltisation translate into a radical political platform?
  • Attempts to attain or sustain sanitation conditions, or push negotiations with an often hostile state?
  • How is the process of Urban learning
  • These forms of urban learning are politicized. Incrementalism and radical change?

The presentation of the results gave place to the following questions and debates:

  • About methods: interviews and focus group.
  • The possibility to train the habitants as researchers?
  • How important is the historical perspective
  • Alternative Views
  • Which is the significance of Nature and public space for the habitants
  • Do the social movements propose an alternative development of their immediate environment,  settlements, or the city?

We consider that the elements presented in the Colloquium and the debate are useful to understand the emergence of alternative views and forms of managing waste, water and other resources and social movements following these views. In this regard, the approach can be useful for the analysis of  Bogotá and its communal water systems movements, being researched by Marcela Arrieta, that respresent an alternative model for water management in the city, facing the logic of centralised systems.

Marcela Arrieta Narváez is Associate Fellow in Center for Metropolitan Studies, TU, Berlin

Marc Pradel Miquel, is these months a visitng Researcher in Center for Metropolitan Studies, TU, Berlin

(To know more about McFralane: Colin McFarlane has recently published the book: Learning the City: Translocal Assemblage and Urban Politics, where he critically examines the relationship between knowledge, learning, and urban politics, arguing both for the centrality of learning for political strategies and developing a progressive international urbanism)


One Comment

  1. […] With the development of these neighbourhoods, the city is not only expanding phisically in an unplanned manner, but also new economic activities, forms of local organisation and networks of solidarity are developed. In some of these neighbourhoods there is a complex system of workshops and small factories that are embedded in the textile production of the country. This sort of industrial districts are strongly aprreciated as elements of economic growth, up to the point that some autors with neoliberal perspective, like Eduardo De Soto,  show them as the result of the social forces able to create economic activity when the state is not present. Other authors have emphasized the role of the communities living in this places and their conflictual relation with local authorities for the improvement of their living conditions. Colin MacFarlane, for instance, has worked extensively on informal practices in Mumbai, as was reported in a previous post in this blog. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s