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A Letter to Kosovo’s Water Warriors

By - 13.08.2021

In the mountains or deserts, the struggle for water rights is the same.

Water animates relations. Whether it moves through the landscape or sits below the ground, it is a movable shared space that offers an opportunity for violent disputes or visionary peace-building. In the 21st century, water protection and environmental diplomacy will be the cornerstones of any sane, data-oriented and climate-change-sensitive politics. Basically, there is socially and environmentally mindful politics or there is no politics, or, rather, only brutal necropolitics. 

To what extent are citizen-led struggles over water in the villages of Biti or Štrpce in Kosovo and the Bedouin villages in Jordan symptomatic of a failure of the nation state and the impending doom of rural life? Where did the administrations get it all wrong with climate change adaptation and mitigation? And what can documentary films do about it?

Jordan: Under the setting sun

Since 2016 I have been doing a PhD on the anthropology of water management for which I was researching water scarcity and the role of infrastructure in “delivering stability” under increasingly volatile conditions. I ended up working in Jordan, which, despite being a desert country, has some surprising similarities to Kosovo in terms of water management issues. 

The water must flow.

One thing became clear from early on: the citizens of this moderately authoritative regime live under the threat of intensified securitization of the water discourse. Since providing to its subjects is the fundamental role of the state, people should let the patriarchal rulers do their job. In other words, the water must flow. If needed, they must take radical technological solutions to avert socio-political tensions.

The Jordanian Kingdom completed the Disi Water Conveyance in 2014, a water carrier system connecting their southern borderlands with the fast-growing urbanized north. Knowing that the government is unlikely to stop excessive extraction of water from the northern aquifers (due to unsound agricultural practices, large-scale water theft and tribal relations), the project was a long time in the making. 

Since almost 1.4 million Syrians happen to find their refuge near their relatives in the northern territories, the biggest infrastructural undertaking in the country’s modern history ultimately aligns fundamental needs and humanitarian values of pan-Arab solidarity. 

Down south in Wadi Rum desert, far away from the overcrowded cities, hidden aquifers under the low rocky sandstone mountains save the day. The catch is that this “Disi water” is a non-renewable fossil resource, a prophetic “blue gold,” one of the most precious aquifers in the region with a limited lifespan. Unfortunately, full knowledge of this “mining operation” reached the local indigenous population only now, when their livelihood is already threatened with slow disappearance.

Killing a river

Does this dramatic exposition, which sets the scene for my documentary film, sound familiar? Preparing for my August trip to Prizren’s DokuFest where I am sharing my documentary Living Water, I was wondering about the Balkan context and decided to read up on the water situation in Kosovo and the broader area.

Looking into the case of the Sharr Mountains’ streams and the construction of small hydropower plants, I was moved by the perseverance of the population in Biti and Štrpce, which reminded me of scenes of fierce demonstrations for water rights in Jordan portrayed in my documentary. 

Protecting their internationally guaranteed rights to safe and secure water, ordinary citizens are fighting for something far greater than individual prosperity. They are fighting for the ecological integrity of the national park and the principles of community-oriented good governance. 

The paradox of the Sharr mountains' trouble is the initial motivation: the transition to "green energy."

Judging by my limited knowledge, the mother of all problems seems to be an imprecise definition of renewability, poor strategic planning and even poorer execution on the ground with no oversight. The common thread seems to be a willful disregard for the social and environmental costs of small hydropower development. 

The paradox of the Sharr mountains’ trouble is the initial motivation: the transition from environmentally harmful non-renewables to “green energy.” The European Energy Community Treaty bound Kosovo to produce 25% of the energy consumed by its citizens from renewable sources, including hydro, wind, solar or biomass, by 2020. 

But why would an extremely water-poor country decide to solve the equation with hydropower, which, on top of everything, relies on rain cycles and snowmelt? Furthermore, why were the majority of the 77 locations for potential construction located in areas of a special natural value? Why did the Ministry of Environment not consult the Sharr National Park, whose rivers are to feed many of those supposedly small, green and beautiful stations?

Follow the money, says an old proverb. As some investigations rightly point out, it is the very systemic promotion of the EU’s quick “green transition” and the resulting guaranteed income to private operators that can be so seductive. It blinds governmental officials and, eventually, leads to the secret privatization of the plants.

Is this the reason locals were not properly consulted on issues that affect their future? A special governmental commission was later established to investigate the projects. However, the overall plan has not been halted. I will be thus traveling to the festival with a single thought in mind: will environmental and social justice be served?

The lesson from the anthropology of infrastructures

To whom will resources be distributed and from whom will they be taken? What will be public goods and what will be private commodities, and for whom? Which communities will have to fight for the infrastructures necessary for physical and social reproduction? These are some of the pressing questions of “The Promise of Infrastructure,” the influential book on austerity and vulnerability by Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta and Hannah Appel. 

Material infrastructures are used for the reproduction of power.

If there is something I wish to highlight, it is the understanding that infrastructure is not a neutral nothing-to-see space. Instead, borrowing from them: “infrastructures are critical locations through which sociality, governance and politics, accumulation and dispossession, and institutions and aspirations are formed, reformed, and performed.” 

Showing how material infrastructures, including roads and pipes, electricity lines and sewage systems, and alike, are used as the terrain for the reproduction of power, it can lead one to a profound exposition of everyday racism, colonialism and inequality.

Bringing it back to the frontline, when we see Stanko and Elizabeta standing near an emptied Lepenc river, or Ali and Hussein kneeling in reddish sands high above the Disi aquifer, one is prone to ask: is the nation state silently giving up on these communities? Is it happening by mismanagement, or by the “design of state-sanctioned infrastructural abandonment”, as Ruth Gilmore put it in her “Golden gulag”, referring to the Californian prison policy? 

Likely both Southern Europe and the Middle East will get drier and warmer.

There are all too many examples in history when democratic states executed their biopower and rendered certain lives less valuable than others. Unfortunately, unless the biggest polluters shift up a gear, it is likely that both Southern Europe and the Middle East will get drier and warmer in the upcoming years and decades. 

Unfolding extreme weather events will create even more pressure on states to sacrifice the values of human rights and democratic deliberation for expediency’s sake. The stories of people living at the frontier of accelerating changes can turn into your own predicament literally overnight. This is the reason why a focus on water politics, environmental diplomacy and new types of storytelling must become more central today.

Be it in the mountains of Kosovo or in the Jordanian desert, a simple pipe is the interplay of cultural, social, technological and economic forces. Without a doubt, these cases are complex and it is not always easy to identify what should have been done better, or how to fix the plans now. One thing is clear though. Even if we build for all the right reasons, half-baked solutions constructed on wrong numbers by wrong actors can easily dismantle the very thing they were to reinforce: socio-environmental resilience. 

Only with educated, committed and morally strong professionals, with robust integrated (bottom-up meets top-down) planning and with ecologically-attuned media reporting, will it be possible to avoid unproductive clashes and continue economic development in the most sustainable manner.

Living Water is screening at DokuFest on Saturday, August 14 at 12:00.


Feature image: Still from Living Water.