Desali-nation: the co-production of state ontology and water technology in Singapore

Authors: Mark Usher*, University of Manchester
Topics: Political Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology, Water Resources and Hydrology
Keywords: Singapore, desalination, geopolitics, sovereignty, political ecology, socio-technical
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Bonaparte, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


A sea change has occurred in global water management over the last two decades as previously unconventional technologies such as reverse osmosis membranes have been integrated into national supply networks. State-led, highly politicized programmes of water resources development, characterized by large-scale hydraulic infrastructure, centralized monopoly control and diplomatic negotiations, have been transformed in many regions by integrated systems supported by private engineering companies and advanced treatment technologies. Desalination in particular has become an expedient solution not only to the chronic problem of water scarcity but protracted geopolitical disputes over shared infrastructure. Engaging with emerging literature on the material and ecological basis of geopolitics (Depledge 2015; Grundy-Warr et al 2015; Sneddon 2015; Benjaminsen et al 2017; Bigger and Neimark 2017; Elden 2017; Harris 2017), this paper will examine how desalination technology has been developed in Singapore to decentralize, corporatize and depoliticize the water supply network, bringing into relation a different constellation of actors, interests and expertise. In the 1990s, imported water from Malaysia became increasingly vulnerable due to a worsening of diplomatic relations, therefore Singapore would begin to leverage on reverse osmosis to technologically circumvent antagonistic, politically charged negotiations. This provided the means through which the water authority could be plugged into global industry networks, technologically and politically reconfiguring the state and its bilateral relations. By 2060, reverse osmosis technology is expected to supply 85 percent of the nation’s water, co-producing, it will be argued, an alternative state ontology.

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