4. Rural-urban water flows: concepts and theoretical frameworks

Learning objectives

  • understand the relevance of specific theoretical and conceptual frameworks to study changing rural-urban water flows and their implications for water access, equity and justice.
  • understand concepts and frameworks such as the socio-technical approach to water management, the view of water as hydro-social systems, the perspective of political ecology, the concept of socio-ecological systems, the concept of legal pluralism.
  • understand aspects of changing rural-urban water flows and their implications for water access, justice and equity

Key Concepts

hydro-social system, socio-technical perspective, socio-ecological system

1. Conceptual and theoretical lenses for the periurban

This sub-module builds up on the previous sub-module to describe the implications of periurbanization processes for changing rural-urban water flows in response to emerging rural-urban links.  Participants are introduced to four theoretical frameworks: the socio-technical approach, hydro-social systems, political ecology and socio-ecological systems. They are also introduced to the concept of legal pluralism. They are then introduced to how these frameworks are employed to study changing rural-urban water flows with emerging rural-urban linkages and their implications for water access, equity and justice.

In this section, we review different conceptual and theoretical lenses that are relevant for the study of the periurban interface, especially the emerging rural-urban linkages and their implications for water governance. This section highlights elements of a theoretical/conceptual framework that can facilitate an analysis of periurban water use, in terms of the changing flows of water between rural and urban areas, and how rural-urban linkages shape water use and access in periurban contexts.

A conceptual lens for studying rural-urban linkages and water flows requires at the outset a departure from conventional approaches to understanding rural and urban water supply as distinct conceptual entities, looking instead at the relationship between them, but also using approaches or conceptual lenses that explicitly take cognizance of the role of power and politics in shaping water allocation, as well as addressing issues of rights and entitlements. Political ecology, a perspective of water as hydro-social systems and a conceptual lens of legal pluralism are particularly relevant in studying changing water use in periurban contexts, while looking at issues of rights, reallocation of water and addressing issues of equiy and justice.

2. A political ecology perspective using urbansheds as a unit

First, there is value in taking a political ecology perspective (Syngodeouw 1995; Bryant & Bailey, 1997; Escobar, 1998; Bryant, 1998; Allen, 2003; Moffat & Finnis, 2003) using a scale that cuts across conventional frontiers of ‘rural’ and ‘urban’. When we focus on urbansheds and take a political ecology perspective, we focus our attention on how unequal power relations between the village and the city  cause a reallocation of water from rural to urban purposes.

Local specificities and contexts may differ geographically; however, when we take ‘urbansheds’ as a unit, it makes the relationship between rural and urban water supply and sources more obvious, than a conventional focus on ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ water supply. This brings to the fore the observation that very often the expansion or augmentation of urban water supplies is at the expense of the rural. This remains concealed when, for instance, we only focus on expansion of urban water supply as targets worth pursuing in development. While conventionally we view rural and urban water supply as distinct conceptual and planning entities, taking urbansheds as  a unit forces us to look at the relationships between the two.

Taking urbansheds as a unit and approaching an analysis of these processes further from a political ecology perspective brings, in turn, to the fore, the political nature of water governance and urban planning processes and makes more explicit the inherent biases in urban planning and assumptions about who modern cities are meant for (see also Shatkin 2007).  The encroachment of local water bodies, the acquisition of village commons to build urban infrastructure, the diversion of water from rural to urban locations are processes that all raise similar questions about the need to “repoliticize” water governance and urban planning processes (Roth and Zwarteveen 2014).   A political ecology approach taking urbansheds as a unit makes a case for repoliticizing water governance and urban planning processes, recognising urban planning and water supply provision as inherently political processes. It also brings to the fore the processes and mechanisms through which the urban metabolism manifests itself and the ecological foot-print (Rees, 1992) of the city spills over into the peripheral areas.

Further, a political ecology perspective can also help us unpack the substantive differences that exist among periurban communities. Periurban populations differ in terms of their ability to take advantage of the new and emerging opportunities brought out by the forces of urbanization, as also their ability to cushion themselves against risks and vulnerabilities. The periurban elite are able to straddle the rural-urban divide while being able to diversify occupationally; they also benefit from the real estate boom and sell lands at very high prices. However, most negatively affected are tenants, sharecroppers and landless, who lose access to resources and opportunities for earning their livelihoods. They seldom receive compensation; this is more so because such land tenure arrangements are often not registered or formally recognized; so there is no basis for them to claim compensation.  This can contribute to a growing chasm between the periurban elite and the others, arousing both envy and dissent among the latter.

A political ecology perspective may also help us unpack issues of changing gender relations around water and more broadly around tasks of natural resource usage and management in the wake of rural-urban transformations. Past research in Gurgaon has demonstrated that in upper caste households, the tasks of water collection were traditionally done by men. Now, with the increase of daily movement of men to the city for jobs, the task is increasingly performed by women (Ranjan and Narain 2012). Village CPRs (Common Property Resources) such as grazing lands have been acquired to build urban infrastructure .Village households have  thus switched from freegrazing to stall-feeding of cattle. Moreover, while taking the cattle to graze was the domain of the man of the household, collecting fodder is the domain of women (Vij and Narain 2016). Thus, rural-urban transformations in periurban contexts have wide ranging impacts on gender relations around water and natural resource collection. They can increase the work load of women who are left behind with increased responsibilities around natural resource collection caused by growing competition over or acquisitionof common property resources, in addition to managing and providing agricultural labour, as men spend more time in the city. Studies of how rural-urban linkages and the periurban interface can thus also makes contributions towards a feminist political ecology of water.

Water Security in Kathmandu

3. Dominant narratives and questions of framing

Taking a political ecology perspective at the level of an urbanshed turns our attention further to the way that urban water issues are framed; to the dominant narratives underlying policies for urban expansion that seem to provide an implicit justification for the appropriation of resources from the periurban populations. The projection of emerging cities as millennium cities and centres of growth, presents a picture of these cities that seems to justify the appropriation of land and water and the consequent marginalization of those at the periphery.  The ‘urban shadow’ so to say, remains under the veil. Little attention gets paid to how the ecological footprint of urbanization is borne, or, rather, by whom (for the concept of ecological foot-print, see Rees 1992). A periurban conceptual lens forces us to think about how emerging rural-urban linkages impact the flows of water between rural and urban areas.

Hydro-social systems. Another approach relevant to studying rural-urban linkages and periurban water use is to look at water systems in periurban contexts as hydro-social systems (Bakker, 2003; Mollinga, 2003), exploring, for instance, the relationship between the flows of water and social relations and institutions. Social relations shape the flows of water. The view of water as hydro-social systems presents an inter-disciplinary perspective on water use and allocation, looking at relationship between the flows of water and social relations. More broadly, it helps us study the relationships between water use and the institutions that shape access to it.

In this context, it  is useful to explore how the physical conditions/attributes of the resource (water) interact with social and institutional conditions (e.g. definitions of rights) to shape the possibilities of conflict around water. For instance, competition over groundwater may intensify in periurban locations, and water tables may fall and may get out of reach for local inhabitants, but because of the invisible nature of the resource and the absence of specific definable or defendable property rights, conflicts may not surface (Kulkarni 2014).  On the other hand, even minor breaches in canals get noticed and visible very quickly and blow up into arguments or confrontations. Hence, the interaction between the physical characteristics of the resource and the institutional dimensions (e.g. how property rights are defined or understood) can be  important factors that shape the evolution of conflicts in periurban contexts. This could also be part of a  larger research agenda for inter-disciplinary studies around periurban water resource allocation and use.

4. Perspective of legal pluralism

Legal pluralism is an umbrella concept that helps us understand the relationship between different institutional and normative systems surrounding  a particular activity.  It focuses on an individual as confronted with different normative systems. Statutory and non-statutory law may co-exist with different and competing bases of legitimacy. For instance, water rights may be granted by the state, but realised through normative systems outside the state (Narain, 2003).

A conceptual lens of legal pluralism (Merry 1988); (Teubner 1997); (Tamanaha 2008)helps in understanding the varying bases of legitimacy through which water users defend their claims to water, as also the differing forums to which they turn to resolve conflicts. A legal pluralism perspective can also help understand the bases of mutual cooperation in the use of and access to water. It can be a pointer towards the difference between water allocation and distribution. A legal pluralistic lens is particularly relevant to studying water access in periurban contexts as both statutory and non-statutory systems of water governance could co-exist.

Conflicts over water are often over the rights to water, rather than the acquisition of water (Pradhan & Pradhan 2000). While acquisition can be through both legitimate and illegitimate means, rights involve questions of legitimacy. Researching conflicts over water in periurban contexts, where bases of regulation and authority can be both fluid and open to different interpretations in essence requires looking at different bases of legitimacy over the rights to water.

Water & Justice: Periurban Pathways in Delhi


Key Readings

Key Readings

  • Key concepts used in periurban issue framing

Further Readings

Further Readings

  • Dupont, V. (2005), “Peri – Urban Dynamics: Population, Habitat and Environment on the peripheries of large Indian Metropolises. A review of concepts and general issues”, Publication of the French Research Institutes in India, Vol 14.
  • Narain, V. 2009. Gone land, gone water: crossing fluid boundaries in periurban Gurgaon and Faridabad, India. South Asian Water Studies. 1(2):  143-158
  • F. Molle, P. P. Mollinga and P. Wester (2009), ‘Hydraulic bureaucracies and hydraulic mission: flows of water, flows of power’, Water Alternatives, 2 (3), 328-49.
  • Narain, V. 2014. Whose land ? Whose water ? Water rights, equity and justice in a periurban context. Local Environment: the International Journal of Justice and Sustainability. 19(9): 974-989.

Other related International Waters Lessons and Submodules


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