Reframing Systems for Viable Water Futures
Spring 2019—Independent Project
Exhibited in Miller Institute for Contemporary Art from April 18-24, 2019
What do you think of when you think of water? Is it a water bottle, or tap water? Perhaps rain, or the ocean? Our cultural understandings of water have been crystallized into distinct categories, yet water that is bottled is the same water that flows through pipes, falls in rain, and fills bodies of water. These complex systems can no longer be distinguished between artificial or natural because they are deeply interrelated.
In human efforts to use water, discard waste, or sell water, we have radically altered water quality and water access, putting the world on a dangerous trajectory. Historic infrastructural decisions and currently growing demands are revealing the widespread implications of water manipulation, from empty aquifers and dried lakes to lead poisoning and chemical contamination. Water is both a hyper-local issue and a global one, and as such requires a radical rethinking.
Using a modified framework for complex systems analysis developed by environmental scientist Donella Meadows, Water Imperatives proposes a methodology for assessing water systems and identifying leverage points within them. Systems can generally be broken down into three areas: the material organization (how the physical pieces act together), informational flows (how information and feedback inform the acting of the pieces), and structural organization (how the entire system functions). Thinking of our concepts about water as a spectrum, our attitudes towards water can be mapped from complete disregard for water to the opposite, respecting water or even worshipping water. By plotting components onto the system structure along one axis and the corresponding paradigm on the other axis, a constellation of points reveal the tensions, overlaps, and contradictions of existing water systems.
Through a contextual and systemic analysis of five case studies, this project highlights different points in water systems that are problematic: Management in the Flint Water Crisis, 2) Drought in Los Angeles, 3) Profit in Nestlé Waters, 4) Pollution in the Ganges River, and 5) Manipulation in Teotihuacán. For example, in Flint, Michigan, the failure of the sociopolitical management systems of regulation, testing, and accountability resulted in tens of thousands of people being exposed to lead over a period of multiple years. Meanwhile, the Ganges River is both ritually bathed in and filled with three billion liters of human and toxic waste each day. Similar stories can be found all around the world.
Beyond highlighting different points of the system that are problematic, this process also serves as a method for identifying opportunities for engendering change. This project makes five proposals that could flip the narrative of the previous five case studies to 1) Collective, 2) Decentralization, 3) Equity, 4) Longevity, and 5) Synthesis. Beyond proposals, this project is a demand to reframe our paradigms around water for the future of our water systems.