Climate Adaptation for Whom? Paradoxes, Practices, Politics Surrounding Desalination in the American West and Beyond (5 février, 10h)

Brian O’Neill, chercheur invité au LATTS, présentera ses travaux le lundi 5 février (10h-11h30, salle B235 du LATTS)

Climate Adaptation for Whom? Paradoxes, Practices, Politics Surrounding Desalination in the American West and Beyond

Brian F. O’Neill, Ocean Nexus Fellow at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy & Governance (Seattle, USA)

Desalination (producing potable water from saline sources) is now a multi-billion industry, gaining notoriety globally as climate change threatens water supplies, especially for arid, urban regions. Desalting facilities are also increasingly “high-profile,” attracting tens of millions of dollars in public and private investment for any “large-scale” project, which has further brought water supply questions to the attention of national and international policymakers. After all, who doesn’t want more water? While survey data shows wide-ranging public support for this climate change adaptation technology, local conflicts have arisen regarding not only its ecological impact, but social concerns around inequitable regulatory procedures, unequal representation in decision-making, cost, and the unequal distribution of the water produced. This presentation builds off recent research, providing a synthetic treatment of the problems and politics that have emerged around this “new,” “unconventional” water supply, asking: for whom is this climate adaptation? Mobilizing ethnographic, interview, historical, and news-media archive data collected since 2019 that extends into the early days of the Cold War, the presentation reveals the transnational character of desalting. Working through the claims and policy narratives from sites across the U.S.-Mexico border, Arizona, and California reveals how policy coalitions (private sector, public sector, NGOs, and everyday people) are responding to this growing global industry. While some residents in California have rejected the practice, they do so based, not on “green thinking,” but a truly liberal environmentalism that mixes idealized notions of a market economy and environmental justice. In neighboring Arizona, policymakers attempt to resuscitate decades old plans for piping water from Mexico to metropolitan centers, an idea rooted in institutional path dependencies that, so far, have not solved the water supply question, but transform it into one about economic growth serving peri-urbanization. Finally, both cases also reveal transnational dynamics such that comparisons with other global localities are brought into the desalination discourse as a means of legitimating the industry that, as yet fail to address inequalities in use and access to water. The recent history of desalting suggests that even when it is “just another tool in the toolbox,” we must begin to ask about the extent to which it is taking an outsized place in water planning discussions to the detriment of more equitable, progressive options.

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