CfP POLLEN18 – Diving into the ‘Water Towers’: studying the production, enactment and politicisation of an environmental narrative

*** Forwarded on behalf of the organizers ***

Diving into the ‘Water Towers’: studying the production, enactment and politicisation of an environmental narrative

What is a ‘Water Tower’? What is the origin of the concept? How is it spatially defined and by whom? Which institutions are involved? What does the ‘rehabilitation’ of montane forests entail in terms of conservation policies?

The term ‘Water Tower’ refers to high-elevation forested upstream areas and, in simple and symbolic words, refers to the geographical origin of water provision. It is based on orthodox explanations of environmental degradation that point at the positive influence of forests on water resources (Forsyth, 2003 : 40-41). In line with the ‘ecosystem services’ approach, which has gained in prominence in recent years (Arnauld de Sartre et al., 2014), the conceptualization of the ‘Water Towers’ emphasizes the services these forests provide, such as stabilization of soils, carbon sequestration and water flow regulation. These highly functionalist approaches have also given rise to attempts to calculate the value of the ‘Water Towers’, as well as the economic loss resulting from their destruction, in monetary terms.

The aim of this panel is to look at the ‘social life’ of this concept (Molle, 2009) and explore how it has been seized by different actors and interest groups. The initial ‘success’ of the discourse in Africa, and in Kenya in particular, calls for specific attention as public concern for these montane forests translated in the government agendas, resulting in the establishment of conservation programs and new institutional bodies.

In Kenya, the term ‘Water Tower’ first appeared at the turn of the 2000s in a series of reports that sought to illustrate and measure the rampant destruction of so-called ‘indigenous forests’ through aerial surveys and remote sensing (UNEP, 1999; UNEP, KWS, Rhino Ark, KFWG, 2003; KFWG, 2004, 2006). These reports defined the country’s biggest closed-canopy montane forest ecosystems (Mount Kenya, the Aberdare Range, the Mau Forest Complex, Mount Elgon and the Cherangani Hills) as ‘Water Towers’ because they form the upper catchments of all the country’s main rivers. The propagation of illegal and ecologically unsound practices (forest clearing, charcoal production, unlawful conversion of forest land to agricultural land etc.) was highlighted at that time and presented as the result of weak law enforcement. In 2012, the Kenya Water Towers Agency (KWTA), a parastatal agency, was established, with the mandate to coordinate ‘rehabilitation’ activities in these forests. The KWTA later published an amended list of five ‘major’ and 13 ‘minor’ ‘Water Towers’ in the country. Interestingly, UNEP and partners started using the terms ‘montane forest’ and ‘Water Tower’ interchangeably (UNEP, 2012).

Numerous ‘Water Towers’ were identified in Africa (see Africa Water Atlas: UNEP, 2010) and in the world (the Tibetan Plateau is usually described as ‘the Asian Water Tower’). We therefore invite abstracts based on empirical studies (in East Africa and elsewhere in the world) that explore the ‘Water Towers’ narrative, considering various aspects including environmental knowledge constructs, institutional engineering, as well as their social, environmental and economic impact.

The diversity of disciplinary approaches required for the study of the environmental discourse on ‘Water Towers’ is one of the most interesting features of this emerging research issue.

We are expecting contributions analyzing the ‘Water Towers’:

– as a research object for the production of science-based ‘environmental knowledge’ (Goldman et al., 2011), sometimes relying on new technologies (remote sensing, GIS) – these scientific findings being potentially used as guidelines for the implementation of ‘rehabilitation’ activities.

– as a testing ground for new policy instruments (e.g. so-called ‘market based instruments’ (Karsenty, Ezzine de Blas, 2014), such as ‘payments for environmental services’ or related institutional arrangements (Van Hecken et al., 2015).

– as a performative developmental discourse, a technicising and depoliticising narrative that may conceal eminent political stakes (Ferguson, 1990; Olivier de Sardan, 2001, 2007).

– as a justification for the assertion of public authority over national public forests in line with wider territorialization processes, notably through the materialization of boundaries (e.g. through the erection of electric fences) giving rise to several issues (respect for forest users’ rights; wildlife management) (Evans and Adams, 2016).

Other contributions might discern the impact of the ‘Water Towers’ narrative:

– on people’s practices and perceptions of their environment, ultimately examining environmental subjectivities (Agrawal, 2005);

– on land rights and on competing claims to sovereignty with the rise of ‘indigenous’ and minority groups claims of ‘forest ownership’ (Li, 2000; Igoe, 2006; Lynch, 2011).

Kindly send abstracts (of around 300 words) to and by 10 December 2017.


Agrawal, Arun. Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects. Duke University Press, 2005.

Arnaud de Sartre, Xavier, Castro, Monica, Dufour, Simon, and Oszwald Johan (dir.).  Political Ecology des Services Ecosystémiques. Peter Lang, 2014.

Evans, Lauren A., Adams William M. “Fencing elephants: The hidden politics of wildlife fencing in Laikipia, Kenya.” Land Use Policy 51, 215-228, 2016.

Ferguson, James. The Anti-Politics Machine: “development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Forsyth, Timothy J. Critical Political Ecology, the Politics of Environmental Science. Routledge, 2003.

Goldman, Mara, Nadasdy, Paul, Turner, Matthew D. (ed.), Knowing Nature, Conversations at the intersection of political ecology and science studies. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Igoe, Jim. “Becoming Indigenous Peoples: Difference, Inequality, and the Globalization of East African Identity Politics.” African Affairs 105, no. 420, July 1, 2006.

Karsenty Alain, Ezzine de Blas Driss, “Du mésusage des métaphores. Les paiements pour services environnementaux sont-ils des instruments de marchandisation de la nature ? ” in : Halpern Charlotte, Lascoumes Philippe, Le Galès Patrick (ed.), L’instrumentation de l’action publique – Controverses, résistances, effets, Presses de Sciences Po, 161-189, 2014.

Kenya Forests Working Group (KFWG), Changes in Forest Cover in Kenya’s Five “Water Towers” 2000-2003, 2004.

Kenya Forests Working Group (KFWG), Changes in Forest Cover in Kenya’s Five “Water Towers”, 2003-2005, 2006.

Li, Tania Murray. “Articulating Indigenous Identity in Indonesia: Resource Politics and the Tribal Slot.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 42, no. 1, 2000.

Lynch, Gabrielle. “Kenya’s New Indigenes: Negotiating Local Identities in a Global Context.” Nations and Nationalism 17, no. 1, 2011.

Molle, François. “River-basin planning and management : The social life of a concept.”, Geoforum 40, 484–494, 2009.

Olivier de Sardan, Jean-Pierre. “Les trois approches en anthropologie du développement.” Tiers-Monde 42, no. 168, 2001.

Olivier de Sardan, Jean-Pierre. “De la nouvelle anthropologie du développement à la socio-anthropologie des espaces publics africains.” Revue Tiers Monde 191, no. 3, 2007.

United Nations Environment Programme, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Rhino Ark, Kenya Forests Working Group (KFWG). Aerial Survey of the Destruction of the Aberdare Range Forests, 2003.

United Nations Environment Programme. Africa Water Atlas. Nairobi, Kenya, 2010.

United Nations Environment Programme. The Role and Contribution of Montane Forests and Related Ecosystem Services to the Kenyan Economy. Nairobi, Kenya, 2012.

Van Hecken Gert, Bastiaensen Johan, Huybrechs Frédéric. “What’s in a name? Epistemic perspectives and Payments for Ecosystem Services policies in Nicaragua.” Geoforum 63, 55-66, 2015.


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