A Future History of Water

Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 14 illustrations Published: June 2019

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Latin American Studies, Science and Technology Studies > Feminist Science Studies

Based on fieldwork among state officials, NGOs, politicians, and activists in Costa Rica and Brazil, A Future History of Water traces the unspectacular work necessary to make water access a human right and a human right something different from a commodity. Andrea Ballestero shows how these ephemeral distinctions are made through four technolegal devices—formula, index, list and pact. She argues that what is at stake in these devices is not the making of a distinct future but what counts as the future in the first place. A Future History of Water is an ethnographically rich and conceptually charged journey into ant-filled water meters, fantastical water taxonomies, promises captured on slips of paper, and statistical maneuvers that dissolve the human of human rights. Ultimately, Ballestero demonstrates what happens when instead of trying to fix its meaning, we make water’s changing form the precondition of our analyses.


"Through the brilliant selection of the devices to exhibit her ideas, the author invites readers to think deeply beyond courts or treaties establishing a human right to water and shows how many other factors also contribute to and shape this." — Gayathri D Naik, LSE Review of Books

"[Ballestero's] insightful analysis convinces the reader that such apparently mundane technical devices are indeed wonderful in their capacities to compose the water worlds of the future." — Veronica Strang, PoLAR

"The book holds profound insights on how the powerful—in this case, those who find that the fate of water rests in their hands—develop a philosophy of history and engineer the ways that their work will be remembered and built upon in the future. Ballestero also pushes fellow ethnographers to reflect on people’s vision not in terms of their effectiveness or how well they map onto one’s own desires. A Future History of Water rather convincingly presents ways to engage with how interlocutors manifest their visions into being in spite of the clouded visibilities of the present." — Kessie Alexandre, Current Anthropology

“Throughout her ethnography, Ballestero emphasizes the messiness and oftentimes mundane work it takes to make access to water a human right within capitalist society…. A Future History of Water showcases how everyday technolegal devices perform the essential work of creating a future in which water is accessible to all.” — Kelsey Kim, Catalyst

“Ballestero’s elegant formulation allows for an anthropology of water not found elsewhere. It is an account attentive to both ethnographic detail and to the insight that anthropology can bring to larger debates over water’s value, management, and meaning. A Future History of Water should be on shelves of water scholars interested in the intersections of politics, economics, and the material relations of water. It will make an excellent contribution to courses at undergraduate and graduate levels in anthropology and critical social sciences.” — Jeremy J. Schmidt, Anthropos

A Future History of Water is an important contribution to the literature on urban infrastructure, water policy and the urbanisation of the global south, as well as to environmental anthropology. The book reveals how widespread global water policy is; the policy of water pipes, the functioning of local policy and the unforeseen consequences of economic reforms…. Through a careful choice of devices, the author encourages the reader to think globally about the human right to water and shows how many factors, outside of laws and treaties, still contribute to supporting and shaping the recognition of water as a human right.” — Simona Zupanc, Anthropological Notebooks

“Dense and beautifully detailed, Ballestero’s story shows how government bureaucrats and regulators moved beyond the declarative to the actual performance of the exacting work that a commitment to rights demands. In the process, the book unravels a set of seemingly uncharismatic devices, such as the consumer price index. Ballestero makes these technical tools appear as exuberant microcosms of technopolitical craftiness, unexpected historical depth, and ethical future-making."

— Andrea Muehlebach, Public Works

“After many years of relative abandonment, the topic of water has flooded back into anthropology.... At the forefront of this renovated interest in the topic of water is Andrea Ballestero, and her excellent book A Future History of Water.” — Casey Walsh, Luso-Brazilian Review

“Andrea Ballestero masterfully brings analytic complexity to wide-ranging fields while simultaneously showing us that these fields are not as separate as they first seem. If this sounds like ethnographic magic, that's because it is: the magic of a most creative method carefully and brilliantly pursued to provide awareness of scholarly habits of thought, in the process, offering alter-inspiration.” — Marisol de la Cadena, author of Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds

“Andrea Ballestero is one of the most eloquent environmental ethnographers of her generation and one of the most important ethnographers of scientific practice that I have ever encountered. Her writing is beautiful, her theoretical and analytic ability are stunning, and the connections that she makes between her empirical evidence and larger conversations in the social sciences are breathtaking. While there are other anthropologists who write about the kinds of techniques that Ballestero dissects, historicizes, and theorizes, nobody does it while always grounding them in social relations and social reproduction.” — Paige West, author of Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Andrea Ballestero is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rice University and Director of The Ethnography Studio.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface  ix
Acknowledgments  xv
Introduction  1
1. Formula  36
2. Index  75
3. List  109
4. Pact  144
Conclusion  185
Notes  201
References  211
Index  225
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Named to the shortlist for the Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America, co-sponsored by the Duke University Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, the Human Rights Archive at the Rubenstein Library, and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0389-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0359-5
Publicity material

Funding Information

This title is freely available in an open access edition thanks to generous support from the Fondren Library at Rice University.