• The invisible price of water

    During communism, extensive irrigation systems turned the regions along the Romanian Plain into major producers of fruit and vegetables. But when the irrigation infrastructure collapsed, so did the ecosystems built around it. Today, farmers are digging wells to deal with desertification: a risky strategy.

    From the 1970s until 2000, the Sadova-Corabia irrigation system watered over 70,000 hectares of land in Romania’s Dolj and Olt counties. A set of pipelines that brought water from the Danube, the system turned the area from a sandy region predominantly used for vineyards into a fruit and vegetable paradise. Little by little, however, the system was abandoned; now only segments of it are still working.

    Agriculture in the area has changed, as has the environment. Today the Sadova-Corabia region is known not just as the homeland of Romania’s famous Dăbuleni watermelons, but also as the ‘Romanian Sahara’. Together with the south of Moldavia, Dobrogea and the Danubian Plain, it is one of the regions in Romania most affected by desertification.

    Anthropologist Bogdan Iancu has been researching the irrigation system in southern Romania for several years. Scena9 sat down with him to talk about drought, Romania’s communist-era irrigation systems, and the local reconstruction of agriculture after their decline. The interview has been edited for clarity.

    Oana Filip: How did your interest in drought arise?

    Bogdan Iancu: Rather by accident. Around seven years ago I was in the Danube port of Corabia for another research project, and at one point I heard a student talking at a table with a local, who was telling him about the 2005 floods and the irrigation systems in the area. The man also wanted to talk to me and show me the systems. It was an extremely hot summer and I thought it was very interesting to talk about irrigation and drought.

    I myself come from the area of Corabia-Dăbuleni. My grandparents lived in a village a bit north of the Danube floodplains, where there was an irrigation system with canals. This was where I learned to swim. The encounter somehow reactivated a personal story about the frequent droughts of that time and the summers I spent there. A lot of people in the area told us that the emergence of irrigation systems in the ’60s and ’70s led to more employment in agriculture. For them it was a kind of local miracle. As I realized that droughts were becoming more frequent and widespread, I became certain that this could be a research topic.

    The following year I started my own project. In the first two or three years, I was more interested in the infrastructure and its decline, the meanings it held for the locals and the people employed in the irrigation system, and how this involved their perceptions of changes in the local microclimate. Later, I became interested in the fact that people began to migrate out of the area because of the dismantling and privatization of the former collective or state-owned farms.

    I then started looking at how seasonal workers who had left for Italy, Spain, Germany or Great Britain had begun to come back to work in agriculture and start their own small vegetable farms. I was interested in how they started to develop the area, this time thanks to a few wells that have been drilled deep into the ground. So, somehow, the formerly horizontal water supply has now become vertical. This could have some rather unfortunate environmental implications in the future, because too many drilled wells that are not systematically planned can cause substances used in agriculture to spill into the ground water.

    How has the locals’ relationship with water changed with the disappearance of the irrigation system and the increasing frequency of droughts?

    The irrigation system had a hydro-social dimension. Water was primarily linked to agriculture and the planned socialist system. For a long time, the locals saw the system as the reason for the appearance and cultivation of fruits and vegetables they had never known before. For ten years after 1990, the irrigation network still worked and helped people farm on small plots of land, in subsistence agriculture, so that they could still sell vegetables in nearby towns. But after 2000 the state increased the price of water and cut subsidies. When the system collapsed, the ecosystem built around it collapsed along with it.

    At that time, something else was going on as well. The system was being fragmented through a form of – let’s say partial – privatization of the water pumping stations. The irrigators’ associations received loans via the World Bank. These associations did not work very well, especially since the people there had just emerged from the collective farming system, and political elites deliberately caused all forms of collective action to lose credibility after the ’90s.

    Because the irrigation system was no longer being used, or being used at much lower parameters than before, it no longer seemed functional. Bereft of resources, the local population saw the remaining infrastructure as a resource and sold it for scrap. It became even more difficult to use the irrigation system. This caused people to migrate abroad. The first waves of ‘strawberry pickers’ have only recently started coming back, perhaps in the past six or seven years, bringing in the money they have made in Italy or Spain.

    People have to be empowered in relation to the water they need. So these seasonal workers began digging their own wells. They have lost all hope that the state can still provide this water for them. They saw that in the Romanian Danubian Plain, thousands, tens of thousands of hectares of land were sold off cheaply to foreign companies that receive water for free, because they take it from the drainage canals. This caused even greater frustration for the locals, who not only look down on the new technologies that these companies use, but also resent their privilege of receiving free water from the Romanian state.

    How do you see the future of the area?

    It’s difficult to say. In the short term, I think the area will partially develop. But, at the same time, I think problems could arise from too many exploitations.

    The number of private wells will probably increase. Some very large companies in Romania are lobbying Brussels to accept the inclusion of wells drilled into underground aquifers (geological formations that store groundwater) into the irrigation strategy being developed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. This would mean ten years of semi-subsistence, or slightly above semi-subsistence agriculture, where the former ‘strawberry pickers’ turn into successful small farmers. We’ve already seen this in the villages on the Sadova-Corabia system. But we have no way of knowing how long this will last, and how much pressure these aquifers would be subjected to. There is a risk that they might get contaminated, because they function like pores, and the water resulting from agricultural activities, which contains nitrites and nitrates, could get in there and cause problems.

    In Spain, for instance, they are very cautious about drilling wells. Arrests have been made. It’s a political issue that contributed to the defeat of Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist party in the last elections. Many farmers in Spain privileged to have access to water could dig a well wherever they wanted, but now found themselves faced with this rather drastic law. And the People’s Party promised them that they would be able to continue digging wells.

    At the Dăbuleni Agricultural Research Station, for example, they are experimenting with exotic crops better adapted to desertification, such as dates, kiwis and a certain type of banana. Do you think people could adopt new cultures in Sadova-Corabia too?

    This already happened decades ago. With the advent of the irrigation system, people were forced to be open to cultivating vegetables and fruits they had never seen before. Someone told me how, when they ate the first eggplants, they didn’t know what to do with them, they seemed bitter. Even tomatoes, which to us seem always to have been eaten there, were only introduced in the ’60s. One person told me that when he first tried a tomato he thought it tasted like soap. But if their grandparents or parents could adapt, so will people today. Besides, most have worked in agriculture abroad with this kind of fruit.

    Have you seen any irrigation best practices that you think would be suitable for the situation in the Sadova-Corabia area?

    I think one such example is micro-agriculture, which is employed on smaller plots in Italy, for instance. There are also micro farms in Sadova-Corabia that produce organic, ecological, sustainable products and so on. And there are a few cooperatives that work quite well, some of them supply tomatoes for the Belgian-owned supermarket chain Mega Image, for example.

    Spain, on the other hand, is not a best practice model. Spain is a devourer of water resources in an absolutely unsustainable way. We’re already seeing that the Tagus (the longest river in the Iberian peninsula and an important source for irrigation) is endangered by large-scale agriculture. In the 1990s, there was small and medium-sized farming there, and I think there should be a return to that. Obviously, the economists say it’s not profitable, but it’s time to think about a decrease and not an increase, which is always cannibalistic. This kind of farming, on a medium or small scale, should also bring this irrigation system back into focus.

    Unfortunately, it’s unclear for how much longer the Sadova-Corabia system will be able to function. It has an outlet in the Danube, which dries up in the summer and is not permanently supplied with water, as it was during the socialist period. Last year, for example, irrigation electricians and mechanics working on the Danube encountered problems, because the main canal poured water into the Danube, instead of collecting from it. If the Danube is no longer a sustainable source for irrigation canals (and not just in Romania), the alternative lies in the different management of water resources.

    In the multimedia exhibition based on the project that you organized last year, there was a notion of how grand socialist projects obfuscated life narratives, and how human stories were lost to anonymity. What life narratives are being lost or hidden now, in this larger discussion of drought and desertification in the area?

    I met a woman who during communism had managed a farm where they grew peaches that were then exported to Germany and Czechoslovakia. She told me that local vegetables were exported to Great Britain; and that this export was even stipulated by the two countries. Over 200 British technicians and experts lived in Sadova-Corabia for about four years. The story of these people, these British experts, not just the Romanian ones, and how they collaborated is completely lost to history.

    In the ’70s, these people were a sort of agricultural vanguard. They were trying to propose a productive model of agriculture, a break from the post-feudal, post-war past. There were people who worked at the pipe factory and built those gigantic pipes through which water was collected from the Danube. Today, there are still people who continue to make enormous efforts to do what needs to be done. The mayor of Urzica, for example, encourages locals to sell or give away plots of land for afforestation, and the town hall is even trying to deploy its own afforestation projects.

    I have seen journalists travel to the area for two days, come back and report that socialism destroyed everything. Obviously, lakes were drained and the environmental toll was very high. At the same time, that era brought unlimited water to many areas where it was previously lacking. Acacia forests were planted. Biologists say they’re no good, as they actually consume water from the soil; but foresters everywhere defend them and say they provide moisture.

    One way or another, all these stories should be told. As should the stories of the people who went abroad for work and are coming back. These so-called ‘strawberry pickers’ or ‘seasonals’, whose lives we know nothing about, because the Romanian state doesn’t believe that five million Romanians who went to work abroad deserve the attention.

    When I went to the Dăbuleni research station, many of the researchers had grown up there and had a personal connection to the area and a notion that they were working for the place where they grew up. How does the connection between the locals and the environment change, when so many choose to work abroad?

    This is where things intersect. These people have parents who tell us that for them the emergence of the irrigation system was similar to what happened in Israel, a country that has problems with its soil and that managed to make it better with the aid of water improvement systems. They saw that desert repopulated, greened, diversified, and they saw a greater complexity in the kinds of crops they can grow. They got predictability, i.e. permanent jobs at state agricultural enterprises, or jobs that allowed them to work at home, at the agricultural production cooperative (CAP).

    One thing I didn’t know before this research was that peasants who met their agricultural production quota were given 22 acres of land that they could work within the CAPs, with fertilizer from the CAPs, and irrigated with water from CAPs. One person I talked to even drove a truck contracted by the state and sold watermelons in Cluj, Sibiu, Râmnicu Vâlcea, and Bucharest in the 1980s and 1990s. And he wasn’t the only one.

    For them, the irrigation system was not only associated with farms, but also the related industries – pipeline factories, factories making tiles that lined the irrigation channels. It was a flourishing new ecosystem. But once this system collapsed, they also came to associate it with the degradation of the environment. I spoke to a local who said that when the system worked, he didn’t feel the summer heat, even though the temperatures were just as high, because of the water in the canal network.

    The absence of water is like the absence of blood – without it, an organism can no longer metabolize. And then, naturally, the young people decided to leave. But this was not a permanent departure. They went to Spain, for example, they saw vertical water there, and they said, ‘Look, we can make our own wells, we don’t need to wait around for horizontal water.’

    Why, as a state, have we failed to come up with an irrigation project today as ambitious as Sadova-Corabia in its time?

    There’s more to it than just this one system. There are about a hundred or so chain irrigation systems that start in this area, from south of Resita all the way to Dobrogea. The problem is that these irrigation systems were in full boom before the 1990s. Now, don’t think I believe that only irrigation systems can ensure good crops. I think they should be seen as part of a mixed bag of solutions. The problem is not that no more irrigation systems have been built, but that the old ones have not been preserved, optimized or modernized. Private interests were prioritized, especially those of a very large class of landowners, and land-grabbing was prioritized to the detriment of working on smaller plots of land. And so, such infrastructures were abandoned, because the big players can afford super-performant extractive technologies.

    How do you see urban dwellers relate to droughts and irrigation?

    I have seen many of them ridiculing people in the countryside and finding it unacceptable that they use municipal water handed to them for irrigation; but, at the same time, none of them disclose the amount of water they use on their lawns, which are worthless grass. Obviously, it’s easier to laugh from inside an office and to think that people are being irrational than to understand that they’re selling tomatoes that they would have otherwise been unable to grow.

    As climate change intensifies, droughts will become more frequent. Will we see better cooperation in the face of this new reality, or more division?

    In the next five to six years I think we will see more competition for water and the criminalization of our fellow water-users. But I think that this is where the role of the media comes in. It should abandon the logic of only showing us the big, scary monster called climate change. Rather, it should detail how these climate changes are occurring at the grassroots level. I think both the press and the state should work on research and popularization, on disseminating information that talks about these effects.

    I don’t think that anything can be done without pedagogies. Yes, during the socialist period these pedagogies were abused, sometimes enforced with actual machine guns, and that was tragic. But today we don’t see any kind of pedagogy, any kind of relating. None of the measures that need to be implemented are socialized. People are not being called to their village cultural center to be told: ‘Here’s what we want to do.’ The cultural center is now only used for weddings. Some radical forms of pedagogy should be devised and disseminated locally, so that people understand the invisible price of water.

    #eau #histoire #communisme #Roumanie #irrigation #infrastructure #agriculture #puits #Dolj #Olt #acqueduc #Danube #maraîchage #vignobles #fruits #Sadova-Corabia #melons #Dăbuleni #désert #désertification #sécheresse #privatisation #banque_mondiale #émigration #saisonniers #fraises #micro-agriculture #Urzica #Bogdan_Iancu
    via @freakonometrics

  • The most important issue about water is not supply, but how it is used

    The world faces a series of deep and worsening crises that demand radical changes in how we understand, manage and use fresh water.

    Floods, droughts, pollution, water scarcity and conflict — humanity’s relationship with water is deteriorating, and it is threatening our health and well-being, as well as that of the environment that sustains us. The good news is that a transition from the water policies and technologies of past centuries to more effective and equitable ways of using and preserving this vital resource is not only possible, but under way. The challenge is to accelerate and broaden the transition.

    Water policies have typically fostered a reliance on centralized, often massive infrastructure, such as big dams for flood and drought protection, and aqueducts and pipelines to move water long distances. Governments have also created narrow institutions focused on water, to the detriment of the interconnected issues of food security, climate, energy and ecosystem health. The key assumption of these ‘hard path’ strategies is that society must find more and more supply to meet what was assumed to be never-ending increases in demand.

    That focus on supply has brought great benefits to many people, but it has also had unintended and increasingly negative consequences. Among these are the failure to provide safe water and sanitation to all; unsustainable overdraft of ground water to produce the food and fibre that the world’s 8 billion people need; inadequate regulation of water pollutants; massive ecological disruption of aquatic ecosystems; political and violent conflict over water resources; and now, accelerating climate disruption to water systems1.

    A shift away from the supply-oriented hard path is possible — and necessary. Central to this change will be a transition to a focus on demand, efficiency and reuse, and on protecting and restoring ecosystems harmed by centuries of abuse. Society must move away from thinking about how to take more water from already over-tapped rivers, lakes and aquifers, and instead find ways to do the things we want with less water. These include, water technologies to transform industries and allow people to grow more food; appliances to reduce the amount of water used to flush toilets, and wash clothes and dishes; finding and plugging leaks in water-distribution systems and homes; and collecting, treating and reusing waste water.

    Remarkably, and unbeknown to most people, the transition to a more efficient and sustainable future is already under way.

    Singapore and Israel, two highly water-stressed regions, use much less water per person than do other high-income countries, and they recycle, treat and reuse more than 80% of their waste water2. New technologies, including precision irrigation, real-time soil-moisture monitoring and highly localized weather-forecasting models, allow farmers to boost yields and crop quality while cutting water use. Damaging, costly and dangerous dams are being removed, helping to restore rivers and fisheries.

    In the United States, total water use is decreasing even though the population and the economy are expanding. Water withdrawals are much less today than they were 50 years ago (see ‘A dip in use’) — evidence that an efficiency revolution is under way. And the United States is indeed doing more with less, because during this time, there has been a marked increase in the economic productivity of water use, measured as units of gross domestic product per unit of water used (see ‘Doing more with less’). Similar trends are evident in many other countries.

    Overcoming barriers

    The challenge is how to accelerate this transition and overcome barriers to more sustainable and equitable water systems. One important obstacle is the lack of adequate financing and investment in expanding, upgrading and maintaining water systems. Others are institutional resistance in the form of weak or misdirected regulations, antiquated water-rights laws, and inadequate training of water managers with outdated ideas and tools. Another is blind adherence by authorities to old-fashioned ideas or simple ignorance about both the risks of the hard path and the potential of alternatives.

    Funding for the modernization of water systems must be increased. In the United States, President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides US$82.5 billion for water-related programmes, including removing toxic lead pipes and providing water services to long-neglected front-line communities. These communities include those dependent on unregulated rural water systems, farm-worker communities in California’s Central Valley, Indigenous populations and those in low-income urban centres with deteriorating infrastructure. That’s a good start. But more public- and private-investments are needed, especially to provide modern water and sanitation systems globally for those who still lack them, and to improve efficiency and reuse.

    Regulations have been helpful in setting standards to cut waste and improve water quality, but further standards — and stronger enforcement — are needed to protect against new pollutants. Providing information on how to cut food waste on farms and in food processing, and how to shift diets to less water-intensive food choices can help producers and consumers to reduce their water footprints3. Corporations must expand water stewardship efforts in their operations and supply chains. Water institutions must be reformed and integrated with those that deal with energy and climate challenges. And we must return water to the environment to restore ecological systems that, in turn, protect human health and well-being.

    In short, the status quo is not acceptable. Efforts must be made at all levels to accelerate the shift from simply supplying more water to meeting human and ecological water needs as carefully and efficiently as possible. No new technologies need to be invented for this to happen, and the economic costs of the transition are much less than the costs of failing to do so. Individuals, communities, corporations and governments all have a part to play. A sustainable water future is possible if we choose the right path.

    #eau #disponibilité #efficacité #transition #infrastructure #sécheresse #inondations #barrages #acqueduc #réusage #technologie #pertes #Israël #Singapour #recyclage #agriculture