Trevor Birkenholtz – Recentralizing groundwater governmentality: rendering groundwater and its users visible and governable

A very good review of issues in groundwater governance now available (for free!) from WIREs Water. PDF is here.

Recentralizing groundwater governmentality: rendering groundwater and its users visible and governable
Trevor L. Birkenholtz

ABSTRACT: Groundwater use, particularly for agricultural purposes, has exploded globally. This was driven by the advent of deep tubewell groundwater lifting technology, state-led incentives for its adoption and de facto groundwater regulatory regimes around the world that by and large gave landowners the right to pump unlimited amounts of groundwater. As a result, many parts of the world are now facing severe groundwater overdraft. This has prompted calls for new forms of decentralized governance specific to groundwater, which has been dominated historically by institutions and policies created to manage surface water. This article makes three interrelated arguments about this regulatory shift. First, the rapid growth of energized groundwater extraction has created an unstable configuration of state actors, groundwater users, abstraction technologies, and flows of water and power. Second, given this heterogeneous assemblage, the dispersed character of groundwater extraction, and its rapid decline, attempts to craft groundwater specific governance are leading to innovations in rendering groundwater and hence its users visible and governable. In turn, this is setting in motion new kinds of groundwater governmentalities as state and civil society institutions attempt to rein in this system. So that third, rather than this leading to truly decentralized groundwater governance, we instead are witnessing a resurgence of the ‘resource-state’ and the recentralization of policies and institutions that attempt to control decentralized groundwater users and ecologies. These are working to dispossess existing users rather than engage them in the policy-making process. The article concludes with avenues for future research on understanding specific ‘groundwater governmentalities’.


  1. no illustrations/visualizations in the making visible?

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