The Political Ecology of Drip Irrigation Infrastructure: Efficiency and Gendered Labor Dynamics in India

Sep 21, 2018
04:00 PM to 05:00 PM
112 Walker

Dr. Trevor Birkenholtz, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Abstract: In this paper, I draw on a case from northern India to examine the material politics of drip irrigation infrastructure. Drip irrigation delivers water directly to plant stems or roots and has been shown to double water-use efficiency, while raising productivity, compared to conventional irrigation. It is being promoted globally by scientists, state planners and development donor agencies as a way to reduce agricultural demand for groundwater. However, while drip irrigation may enhance irrigation efficiency, it may not lead to water savings. Relying on ethnographic research conducted in India from 2015-2018, I argue that the complex interaction of subsidy policies, farmer motivations for adopting drip irrigation, and gendered labor dynamics determine whether efficiency gains in drip irrigation result in water savings. Further, I posit that feminine labor provides a subsidy to drip irrigation that underwrites both water-use efficiency and productivity, while maintaining drip irrigations’ heterogeneous material and institutional infrastructure. I conclude with a discussion of the implications of these findings for water conservation in agriculture and for gendering drip irrigation policy.

Speaker Biography: Trevor Birkenholtz is Associate Professor of Geography and Geographic Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Professor Birkenholtz is a political ecologist and development geographer. In his research, he examines the political economy of water resources development in urban and rural settings, with particular interests in India. He is currently working on two projects. In the first, he examines the socioecology of drip irrigation infrastructure 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 their labor demands. In the second, he examines large-scale water infrastructure (i.e. the Indian River-Linking Project) that is transferring water from agrarian to urban spaces. In this book project, tentatively titled Infrastructures of Dispossession, 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 urban water supplies.

Co-sponsored by the Center for Global Studies.

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