Liquid Utility - Andrea Ballestero - Living with Aquifers

Living with Aquifers

Andrea Ballestero

Sonye Locksmith, Formless Edition 5, 2018.

Liquid Utility
July 2019

Inherently multiplicitous and predisposed to vary, water confounds attempts at fixity. Water’s defining traits are a tendency toward form-shifting, an obsession with gravity, and a material inclination to change. The French modernist poet Francis Ponge describes this condition by saying that “water collapses all the time, constantly sacrifices all form, tends only to humble itself, flattens itself onto ground.”1 This characteristic tendency toward morphological reinvention troubles the protocols used for the scientific exploration and political organization of water, and undergirds the consequences of its unequal use and distribution.2 This is particularly true for aquifers, formations whose morphological fluidity and inaccessibility to the senses create unstable relations between knowledge and matter.

The kinds of unstable relations that aquifers embody are familiar. Feminist scholars of science and technology studies (STS) explain those relations as material-semiotic entanglements whereby bodies, human or watery, are not preexisting entities. Instead, they “are effected in the interactions among material-semiotic actors, human and not.”3 These scholars ask how techno-scientific ideas shape the interactions that make up the worlds typically taken as given. They show how specific assumptions about society and nature determine what watery ecosystems can be exploited and which are protected, who holds the right to extract water and who bears the cost of conserving it, and whose bodies are permeated by heavy metals and whose are saved from pathological toxicities.

The implication of thinking with material-semiotic entanglements is that political analyses need to begin from the idea that matter “is itself culturally and historically specific and, as such, contested terrain.”4 From this point of view, water cannot be limited to the supposedly stable form of H2O. Thinking about the materiality of water entails querying, first of all, what its corporeality might be—how something becomes a water body in a particular time and place. It also requires tracing water beyond pipes and dams, and loosening the imagination to grasp its unfamiliar forms and visualize extended techno-scientific landscapes.

Anathasius Kircher, Systema Ideale Qvo Exprimitur, Aquarum per Canales hydragogos subterraneos ex mari et in montium hydrophylacia protrusio, aquarumq. subterrestrium per pyragogos canales concoctus, 1664.

Aquifers seem unremarkable until one stops to think carefully about their form. Their histories and futures are not always available for human sensing. As part of the subterranean, aquifers are sometimes taken as chthonic structures, constituting the world of deities and spirits that lies below the surface. Alternatively, aquifers are taken as nothing more than subterranean containers, tanks holding water until humans decide they want to extract it. And yet, regardless of how one makes sense of them, thinking about aquifers depends on a double movement. They require pushing the imagination downward and pulling hydro-lithic structures upward.

In Costa Rica, even if it goes unnoticed, most people drink water from underground sources. By law, water provision services cannot be managed for profit (all utilities are technically public). Nevertheless, people find themselves constantly fighting against a diffuse threat of privatization. Over the past two decades, many of the fights activists and scientists have led centered on underground water. As a result, different voices now ask the public to reach into the subsurface and make sense of the hydro-lithic formations beneath their feet. During the past ten years I have conducted primary research on water issues in Costa Rica. During that time, the town of Sardinal, in the province of Guanacaste, became a symbol of the country’s twenty-first-century environmental and economic struggles. Sardinal has experienced a water conflict that is embroiled in legacies of dispossession, new global flows of capitalist extraction, and the changing conditions that climate change creates for life on earth. As many people who follow water issues in Costa Rica told me during fieldwork, Sardinal is the country’s first “major water conflict,” and some even referred to it as the first of many “water wars” that loom in the future.

Map of Sardinal aquifer. Source: SENARA.

Sardinal’s aquifer

Sardinal is located near the coast in the province of Guanacaste, which is Costa Rica’s driest region. Following national independence, large haciendas dominated the region’s labor and ecological landscape and used rivers and streams in their territories as private resources. In the twentieth century, three state-led processes transformed the region. First, government programs disseminated agricultural innovations that pushed mono crops (sugar, rice, and later fruit for export) deep into farms and haciendas. In tandem, a variety of land-distribution programs increased the number of small landholdings. Later, by the end of the century, a new wave of state-sponsored projects sought to reinvent Guanacaste’s coast by promoting international tourism and branding its beaches as the perfect home for the growing number of expats coming to the country. Tax exemptions and special regulatory regimes incentivized the construction of large-scale hotels and condos, leading to the virtual disappearance of beachfront small holdings. A significant proportion of people in Guanacaste who before worked as peasants or farmers came to take low-waged, and mostly unspecialized, tourism jobs.

Throughout these historical transformations, for generations water well drilling remained a secure business and an administrative challenge for the state. While some residents venture to calculate how many registered wells there are around Sardinal, what most everybody can tell you is that the number of unregistered ones is much higher, something that creates considerable difficulties for water use planning and management. From one point of view, water wells are key material structures that shape a broader political economy of water in Guanacaste. From another point of view, however, these wells are unique material-semiotic transitions that articulate surface and subsurface worlds.5 A well, registered or not, is an opening, a threshold through which the surface and the subsurface bleed into each other. As de Rijke et al. note, wells signal a “vertical third dimension” and create an assemblage of “relatively invisible subterranean water, technological developments and social dynamics.”6 With their verticality, the wells that reach into the subsurface challenge the aesthetic horizontality of more familiar water bodies such as rivers, creeks, and pipes. In areas where water is scarce, such as Guanacaste, wells embody infrastructural struggles, economic inequalities, and the historically asymmetric distribution of water sources. At the same time, wells pose questions about verticality, subterranean bodies, and the boundaries of aquifers. These questions were at the core of the issues that have made the Sardinal conflict infamous.

Sardinal aqueduct pipes waiting to be buried underground. Photo: Kioskos Ambientales, UCR.

The wells that open access to the aquifer underpinning Sardinal provide water to an aqueduct built decades earlier through a program that channels financial support from the state to rural communities. Today, 31% of Costa Rica’s population gets its drinking water through infrastructures built by this program.7 In addition to financing the original construction, the program promises supervision and technical support from the country’s largest water utility—a public entity that is obliged by law to provide water services without generating a profit. Since construction finished, the Sardinal aqueduct has been managed, maintained, and operated by community members, and, until very recently, little support from the public utility materialized. While the aqueduct system originally supplied sufficient water to Sardinal’s population, by the early 2000’s it began to fail as a result of changing rain patterns, expansion of tourism, and the town’s geographic growth. For years, local residents had to put up with water rationing during summer months as well as cyclical water pressure and pumping problems.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the global real estate bubble was fully inflated, and Guanacaste was no exception. Developers around Sardinal were also experiencing the consequences of water shortages. Most of them could not secure access to the existing aqueduct because it was already operating over capacity. Construction had to slow down, but developers mobilized to avoid any decrease in their return of investment. They raised $8 million to fund the expansion of the existing aqueduct, increase its water extraction capacity, and reach new areas towards the coast where most construction was occurring.8 Developers located the problem they wanted to solve in the infrastructure (old tanks, pipes, and pumps). The aquifer itself did not figure prominently in their plans.

Taking advantage of the access they had to central governmental authorities (including the president of the utility), and using a public-private partnership provision in the law, investors promised the $8 million in exchange for guarantees that they could access the new infrastructure their money would build. Authorities acquiesced, and the guarantees developers requested were to materialize in two ways. First, the utility promised it would grant developers the sought after “water availability letters.” These letters are a requirement in the permitting process. Because water is understood to be a fundamental right, neither large utilities nor local aqueduct organizations can deny these letters, but there is a caveat. Technically the letters can only be granted if the existing infrastructure has the capacity to service a new construction project. In Sardinal, given the aqueduct’s condition, the local entity managing the infrastructure had stopped granting such letters and thus effectively blocked any new construction. In exchange for the funds raised and the new infrastructure they would build, developers asked for these letters so they could continue with construction.

The second way the guarantee to access would materialize was through the water extraction rate that the technical plans for the new infrastructure adopted. An extraction rate is a figure that represents the amount of water that can be extracted from an aquifer within a particular unit of time. It is a number that informs a cascade of decisions such as pipe diameter, tank volume, pumping power, etc. The public utility and developers had adopted an extraction rate to satisfy not only existing developments, but also to cover an exponential growth in construction over the next decade. Adopting a high extraction rate would have effectively authorized even more dramatic growth in the area because the law requires that utilities grant water availability letters if there is enough water in the system.

Thus, the extraction rate was much more than a modest technical specification. It became a key component in the articulation of subterranean worlds, surface infrastructures, and the political economy of water. As a figure, the rate condenses historical struggles, capitalist investments in land, and the environmental worries that inform people’s decisions. Furthermore, the rate is a figure that indexes the aquifer itself, its volume and capacity to satisfy thirst for growth. It would be a mistake to take this number as a mere representation of a world that pre-exists the social struggles in which it comes to matter. As a number that describes what an aquifer is and how much water can be extracted from it, the extraction rate depends on a conceptual model that is designed on the basis of water flows, rain patterns, geologic structures, the temporality of the aquifer itself, and histories of water use. These elements are necessary to produce a rate that does not lead to overexploitation or outright depletion. As a figure, it embodies a history of life with water in a particular location, while also projecting that history into the future. Much more than a quantity of water to be pulled to the surface, the extraction rate and the conceptual model behind it helps elucidate the historical and political forces at play in Sardinal.

As expansion of the aqueduct progressed, people in Sardinal became increasingly worried about the extraction rate the utility and developers had adopted. Seeing construction advance swiftly toward the wells that connected the aqueduct and the aquifer, and despite an intense public relations effort by investors, activists and Sardinal residents unearthed a series of inconsistencies and illegalities in the project that prompted them to challenge the project publicly via street protests and in court. Most crucially, opponents found that the adopted water extraction rate had been calculated using a weak conceptual model of the aquifer—a model based on old data, considering a very restricted geologic context, and lacking variables related to climate change. At stake was more than the rate as an isolated figure or quantity. As more inconsistencies and knowledge gaps emerged, local residents focused on questions about the aquifer itself: what was its form, its flow dynamics, its specific characteristics in its particular geologic region?

Water Protests in Guanacaste. Photo: Cécile Béal, Instituto de Oceanografía de Costa Rica.

As questions about the extraction rate turned into questions about the materiality of the aquifer, people’s sense of the conflict also changed. It was no longer a struggle over infrastructure or water availability letters. It became a struggle over the very nature of subterranean water worlds, over the kind of entity the aquifer was, and its place in people’s everyday lives. In interviews with the media, in coordination meetings, and in legal documents, opponents to the project offered analyses that addressed questions of sovereignty and future-making. They repeatedly asked who was responsible for protecting aquifers. Was this a conflict over a number of liters, or the new form of an old struggle between investors and residents? Did the hydrogeologic model encompass the dense layers of sociality and materiality that organize everyday life in Sardinal? And ultimately, what kind of entity was the aquifer?

In one interview, for example, Eunice, one of the leaders of the movement, eloquently articulated their opposition. She explained that they rejected the exclusionary development scheme that dominated the Sardinal aqueduct because it privileged the well-off, those who become wealthy only because there is water in the region. As she explained, neither future generations nor the future health of the aquifer make it into tourism calculations or business plans. As she explained, they wanted to see a plan that addressed things like poverty, the taste of water, and the water exchange between aquifers and rivers polluted with chemicals. Their worry, as opponents to the project, entwined the aquifer, the uncertainty of the future, and their current livelihoods to explain why they did not trust institutional responses.9 As the concerns of opponents circulated in town, and more broadly through Costa Rica, the public’s understanding of the Sardinal conflict also expanded. The terms in which people spoke about Sardinal braided surface and subsurface worlds, making explicit the material and political forces behind the aqueduct. Sardinal became a symbol of how different senses of community, solidarity, and ultimately notions of legitimacy to control a public good such as water come into turbulent clash. The aquifer, no longer taken for granted as a mere reservoir of water, became a material configuration demanding ontological and political elucidation.

Courts soon ruled that without a robust conceptual model it was impossible to calculate a sustainable extraction rate, and that by extension, the rate promised to developers was unjustifiable.10 Courts also mandated a number of existing public agencies (the environment and health ministries, the underground water agency, and others) to put in place a comprehensive water monitoring system and determine not only the characteristics of the Sardinal aquifer but its capacity to supply water for multiple uses. Scientists from those agencies were called to generate an updated model and produce a new water extraction rate that could orient construction permitting, urban planning, and water conservation and management. Science and law coalesced to answer questions about the materiality of the aquifer in its specific geographic and historical context.

The whole process took close to ten years, and by 2017, after a comprehensive effort to monitor underground water in Sardinal, the expansion of the aqueduct was almost complete. When the conflict exploded back in 2008, developers wanted a water extraction rate of close to 170 liters per second. By 2018, after studies, protests, dozens of meetings, and a good amount of frustration, a more dynamic sense of the aquifer had been modeled and a new extraction rate was produced. The expanded aqueduct would begin operating with a rate of 70 liters per second. This new rate embodied a conceptual model that attended to salinization risks and incorporated preliminary information on climate change, but most importantly was contextualized with socio-economic histories of the region. Additionally, the infrastructure was expanded to reach some of the local residents that were not served before by the water lines. Feelings about the whole process remain contradictory. Some local residents that I have encountered during fieldwork still oppose the project, while others see the change in the rate as a success of their mobilizations. Public officials have launched new initiatives, including a Participatory Aquifer Management Plan in 2019, as a way to collectively return to examine questions about the multiple social and material layers that make the aquifer what it is. Tourism development in the area, however, never returned to the pre-2008 levels, and a series of extended droughts have created deeper doubts about the water future of the region.

From Tanks to Sponges

There is over a thousand times more water in the subsurface of the earth than there is in rivers, lakes, and swamps combined.11 The age of that underground water ranges from a few days to thousands of years, making aquifers water bodies with wide ranging temporalities and dynamics. Their geopolitical significance has reached outer space, where instruments used in NASA’s GRACE mission, for instance, have yielded a map of the world’s largest and most endangered aquifers.12 The global attention to underground water resources, combined with the intensification of water conflicts, requires scientists, particularly those working in public agencies, to generate information that has an active social life. In the case of Sardinal, the court-mandated scientific studies were constantly circulated among activists and reported upon in the media. Here science led a thoroughly public life.

In researching the Sardinal case, I met with Fernando, a hydrogeologist who works for a state agency and was one of the leading scientists in charge of producing the conceptual model mandated by the courts. During our exchanges, he suggested that I imagine subterranean water differently. In my unspecialized imagination, underground formations were more like fixed stratigraphies, sedentary architectures, settled configurations. Instead of replicating that form of stratigraphic thinking, he instructed me to think of aquifers as sponges. Initially this surprised me; it seemed like he was taking incredible poetic license. But spongy aquifers are powerful conceptual models to challenge the comfort with which extraction rate figures are uncritically relied upon.13 Sponges are extremely dynamic entities: they suck liquids in and leak their excess into their surrounding environment; they expand and contract. With the sponge as a conceptual model, Fernando was asking me to see aquifers as structures where water migrates, “seeping into variegated openings, occupying available space, colonizing possible nooks, and pushing against impermeable walls.”14 Aquifers are far from static tanks lodged in orderly stratigraphic layers.

A kitchen sponge. Photo: Johan.

The habit of seeing water under the surface as sitting in tank-like spaces partially explains how easy it is to reduce aquifers to an extraction rate, a seemingly straightforward measure of water quantity. But the spatial and volumetric existence of aquifers entails much more, both materially and historically. Instead of neatly delimited, pocket-like units, aquifers are irregular and unwieldy structures. Technically, they are extensions of rock that hold water in their pores and cracks. They are saturated substrates where figure and ground are difficult to dissect and where movement is constant. They are dense formations with blurred borders between rock, water, and air. This moving hydro-lithic architecture challenges the separation between content and container that is intrinsic to a tank-like model.

What matters when moving away from tank-like imaginaries and toward sponges is not where external boundaries sit, but the fact that in its constant movement, water transgresses those very boundaries. The timeframes and speed of those transgressions vary widely, from a few months to thousands of years. Nevertheless, that movement across subsurface geologic space and sometimes up onto the surface of the earth determines aquifers’ hydrogeologic existence. Their overflowing borders challenge any seamless infrastructuralization. They trouble the habit of analogizing them with tanks and in consequence reducing them to extraction rates. The sponge, a powerful figure, disallows forgetting the constant seepage, oozing, or soaking necessary for subterranean water to be what it is.

From Quantity to Movement

What would happen if, rather than thinking about aquifers through extraction rates, subterranean water was thought of as a force-filled sponge in constant push and pull? This entails sticking to the idea that aquifers are movement, and recognizing that this push and pull is not always benign. To the contrary, it can be pernicious, even violent. Aquifers are a choreography of forces that can push people away from their territories and pull speculative capital in.

Molecularly, aquifers are the push of water through porous rock in response to the pull of gravity or pumps. Karen Barad notes that what in classical ontologies counts as matter—such as water and rock—at a molecular level is actually the pull of forces away from each other.15 Touch is never touch, it is always the push and pull of separation; movement in tension. What is interesting here is not the bottom line definition of what is, or is not, matter. Rather, what is helpful is that asking the question of what an aquifer as a form of matter is requires paying attention to these dynamic relations. This is particularly important when accepting Barad’s contention that “matter is never a settled matter,” something that was evident in the Sardinal case where the question of what the aquifer was in the first place became the idiom in which a long, historical conflict could be spoken. Also at play in troubling the received understandings of aquifers is what Kathryn Yusoff describes as a formation that sits “between—as agitator, contagion, and never as presence as such—only as force or motivation oscillating between the material and virtual, inhuman and human, organic and nonorganic, time and the untimely.”16

Attuning to this sense of what aquifers are changes the type of stories that can be told about what transpires in the subterranean world and how those accounts are acted upon. What if rather than settling on extraction rates, storytellers considered hydro-lithic choreographies? What if aquifers were described as fields where subjects and substances are constantly pushed and pulled in different directions? What if instead of bracketing those histories by focusing on an extraction rate, our analyses attended to the necessary coordination of “technical, scientific, kinship, gender, emotional, legal, political, and financial aspects” necessary to bring entities such as aquifers into sociomaterial presence?17 Aquifers might then no longer be reduced to reservoirs for extraction, but rather understood as things to be lived in relation to as force-filled, and ongoing, choreographies of spongy push and pull.


Simulation of water flow through the pore network of a 4mm soil fragment. Tim Burykin, “Water distribution in high carbon soil,” YouTube, September 28, 2011.

Towards a Future History of Water

At stake in the conflict between extraction rates, tanks, and sponges in Sardinal is what I describe as the making of a future history: a process of creating the preconditions of history that does not merely reproduce dominant tropes such as the extractivist paradigm.18 The habit of thinking of the future as a distinct configuration that extends the extractivist matrix—the extraction of oil, minerals, water, and ultimately value—is a cinematic version of the future; a sequence of events whose broad contours can be anticipated. But there are many other ways to engage the yet-to-come. For almost ten years, scientists and activists in Costa Rica went about their daily work without rushing into an extraction rate to appease certain powerful stakeholders. They worked with an understanding that their decisions and tactics were shaping a world to come, even if they were far from providing a cinematic sense of closure. In other words, their view of the future was not predictive—not in the speculative form of science fiction, or in the empiricist form of science. In place of a predictive imagery, they sought to create preconditions, forms of structuring future collective responsibility; ways in which subterranean worlds could be imagined through science, law, and beyond.

Aware that the conditions they were setting up were not enough to allocate responsibility in a juridical manner—by identifying responsible bodies and establishing causal connections—they nevertheless worked to choreograph those conditions with the belief that they are the necessary precedents for the emergence of new responsibilities. This form of political action is deeply situated in the techno-scientific and legal worlds where everyday decisions about life and death are made. It is not a radical political intervention that seeks to create a new world, but an immanent one, tied to the limits of the structures people live in, unfolding within already determined conditions of possibility. In those interstices, people explore new arrangements, working with the tools at hand, complementing calls for radical otherness.

Water futures are constantly being produced out of mundane, non-cinematic actions. Wells are drilled, construction blocks are laid, water availability letters circulate. Hence, seemingly minuscule actions such as expanding the meaning of a water extraction rate are crucial to the creation of new conditions under which to answer the fundamental political and moral questions of our time, in Costa Rica and elsewhere. The seemingly minor shift of taking an extraction rate as more than a quantity of water and thinking of it as a choreography of push and pull helps recast the assumption that maximum extraction, of water or of value, is the natural condition of human endeavors.

Many voices call for opposing the ethos of maximum extraction by invoking water’s uniqueness. That claim to uniqueness, however, can generate something of a watery mystique, inspiring awe at the sublime overflows of its affective and material meanings. That uniqueness is also used to justify inaction in the face of the overly complex challenge of making water use, distribution, and treatment more sustainable and democratic for all forms of life, human and not. And yet, uniqueness is not the only option: there are also the supposedly disenchanting technical concepts—extraction rates and sponges—that organize water’s availability.

When encountered in the everyday tangles of collecting, moving, and cleaning, water is thoroughly embedded in long traditions of law, economy, religion, science, technology, and politics. There one can see how broad, transversal, and not necessarily exceptional its politics are. Water politics require a kind of everyday commitments that do not depend on cinematic views of the yet-to-come. Water politics hinge on creative and serious engagements with the quotidian interstices where forms of life and the meanings of justice are being elucidated, constantly, everyday, relentlessly.


Francis Ponge and Beth Archer Brombert, The voice of things (McGraw-Hill Book Co, 1972), 50.


Andrea Ballestero, “Underground as Infrastructure? Figure/Ground Reversals and Dissolution in Sardinal,” in Environment, Infrastructure and Life in the Anthropocene, ed. Kregg Hetherington (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 17–44.


Donna Haraway, “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others,” in Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cory Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), 295–337, 298.


Angela Willey, “A World of Materialisms: Postcolonial Feminist Science Studies and the New Natural,” Science, Technology & Human Values 41, vol. 6 (2016): 991–1014.


María Alejandra Pérez, “Exploring the vertical: science and sociality in the field among cavers in Venezuela,” Social & Cultural Geography 16, vol. 2 (2015): 226–247.


Kim de Rijke, Paul Munro, and Maria de Lourdes Melo Zurita, “The Great Artesian Basin: A contested resource environment of subterranean water and coal seam gas in Australia,” Society & Natural Resources (2016): 1–15, 3.


Jorge Herrera Murillo, “Uso y Estado De Los Recursos Hídricos,” in Estado De La Nación en Desarrollo Humano Sostenible (San José, Costa Rica: Defensoría de los Habitantes, Consejo Nacional de Rectores, 2017).


Vinicio Chacón, “Acueducto de Sardinal: Empresarios del fideicomiso donaron a campaña de Arias,” Seminario Universidad, June 25, 2008, ; Ángela Ávalos, “Desarrolladores defienden fideicomiso para financiar acueducto de Sardinal,” La Nación, July 19, 2008, .


“Demandan a defensora del agua en Costa Rica,” Radio Mundo Real, October 11, 2013, .


Sentencia 2009-00262, Recurso de Amparo 08-005154-0007-CO, Sala Constitucional de Costa Rica.


United States Geological Survey, “Groundwater: What is Groundwater?” .




Andrea Ballestero, “Spongiform,” Society for Cultural Anthropology, June 27, 2018, .




Karen Barad, “On touching—The inhuman that therefore I am,” differences 23, vol. 3 (2012): 206–223.


Kathryn Yusoff, “Insensible worlds: postrelational ethics, indeterminacy and the (k)nots of relating,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31, vol. 2 (2013): 208–226.


Charis Thompson, Making parents: The ontological choreography of reproductive technologies (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 8.


Andrea Ballestero, A Future History of Water (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

Liquid Utility is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University as part of their project “Power: Infrastructure in America.”

Nature & Ecology, Latin America
Water & The Sea, Infrastructure, Extractivism
Return to Liquid Utility

Andrea Ballestero is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rice University, where she also runs the Ethnography Studio. Her work looks at the unexpected ethical and technical entanglements through which experts understand water in Latin America.


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