Drip Irrigation Infrastructure

Political ecology of drip irrigation infrastructure


The political ecology of drip irrigation infrastructure: efficiency and gendered labour dynamics in India

Wednesday 21 October, 2020 – Wednesday 21 October, 2020
3:00 PM – 5:00 PM


Part of the Hazard, Risk and Disaster (HRD) Research Seminar Series 2020-21.

This paper draws on a case from northwestern India to examine the relationship between the diffusion of drip irrigation, state support programs and gendered labour dynamics in assembling and maintaining drip irrigation infrastructure.

Drip irrigation is promoted globally as a water conserving technology that enhances water-use efficiency by increasing yields with less water, while freeing up "saved" water for other uses. India leads the world in the rate of expansion of drip irrigation and total area. Relying on policy analysis and interviews with farmers, female labourers, drip irrigation dealers and government officials between 2015 and 2020, the paper has three main findings:

  • First, drip irrigation infrastructure takes on a form of "big water infrastructure" that is not only the result of state action but is realized through the aggregation of decentralized individual farmer adoption decisions, which hinge on a series of actors including female laborers.
  • Second, on-demand female labourers provide critical labour inputs, which are the origin of efficiency gains and lend the infrastructure its durability. The success of drip irrigation is due to a feminine labour subsidy, which becomes apparent by viewing drip irrigation not as a dis-embedded technology but as an infrastructure.
  • Third, the material politics of drip irrigation infrastructure are an emergent property of the gendered assembly of drip irrigation as infrastructure, which is not leading to major benefits for female labourers.

The conclusion discusses prospects for reassembling drip irrigation infrastructure in more materially just ways and its implications for the political ecology of water infrastructure.

About the speaker

Trevor Birkenholtz (PhD, The Ohio State University) is Associate Professor of Geography at The Pennsylvania State University, USA, and is a political ecologist and development geographer. In his research, he studies the political economy of access to and control over water resources, and the politics of science and technology, particularly around water conserving technologies and water infrastructure.

He currently has two main research projects that focus on the social, political and ecological dynamics of water scarcity and water infrastructure in India. In the first, he examines the socioecology of drip irrigation systems as a water conservation technology. In doing so, he attempts to understand the political ecological conditions under which these systems may or may not lead to water savings in agriculture, as well as the gendered dynamics of its labour demands. The second is a book project, titled Infrastructures of Dispossession, where he examines large-scale water infrastructure (i.e. the Indian River-Linking Project) that is transferring water from agrarian to urban spaces. Here he focuses on the international dimensions of financing these projects, the consequences of rural to urban transfers of water for irrigated agriculture and agrarian change, and the implications of these transformations for struggles over water.

Prior to joining Penn State, he was Associate Professor of Geography at both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Rutgers University. Professor Birkenholtz has published in several leading journals, including the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Geoforum, and Progress in Human Geography, among others. He is former editor of Geography Compass and former Chair of the AAG’s Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group. In 2017, he was awarded the AAG’s Robert Netting Award for his contributions to scholarship at the intersection of Anthropology and Geography.

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