Tapping the Oceans
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Tapping the Oceans

Seawater Desalination and the Political Ecology of Water

Edited by Joe Williams and Erik Swyngedouw

Increasingly, water-stressed cities are looking to the oceans to fix unreliable, contested and over-burdened water supply systems. Desalination technologies are, however, also becoming the focus of intense political disagreements about the sustainable and just provision of urban water. Through a series of cutting-edge case studies and multi-subject approaches, this book explores the political and ecological debates facing water desalination on a broad geographical scale.
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Chapter 7: Worlding via water: desalination, cluster development and the ‘stickiness’ of commodities

Mark Usher


While it may no longer be particularly controversial to highlight water as a matter of politics, to describe water’s matter as political still challenges mainstream understandings of natural resource management. Indeed, water provides a sticky medium for the formation and consolidation of broader social, economic and discursive relations, which are enabled or constrained by the production history or ‘cultural biography’ of the commodity. This has been widely demonstrated in relation to capitalist urbanization and neoliberal accumulation in the field of political ecology, with both processes shown to be dependent on the prior commodification of water. This chapter will provide an original perspective on water commodification by demonstrating how desalination technology has allowed for the commercialization and ‘worlding’ of the water sector in Singapore, elucidating the close linkage between economic clustering and resource management. Before the 2000s, when desalination and recycled water were introduced, Singapore was dependent on imported water from Malaysia, requiring ongoing and contentious diplomatic negotiations. The politicized character of the supply network prevented the restructuring and commercialization of the sector, but with the fourfold increase in privately manufactured desalinated water, the Singapore government could apply its cluster development policy to the embryonic industry. The sector, now home to 180 water companies and 26 research centres, has been designated a key growth frontier, with water acting as an agent of worlding in the global knowledge economy.

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