Saving (on) water

Saving (on) Water: Living in EcoSan Communities

Wolfgang Dickhaut & Birke Otto

Germany has a well-functioning centralised water infrastructure system that covers the large majority of the population for relatively cheap prices. Despite its many benefits, the conventional water system is increasingly exposed to criticism. The so-called end-of-pipe technology mixes various kinds of waste water (rainwater, household water, etc) in the same pipe system and transports it for miles underneath the city to the purification plant. Some scientists, technicians and ecological activists argue that the system must adapt to tackle new urban challenges such as urban austerity, demographic change, climate change, and scarce water resources. Against this background, the maintenance of the conventional centralised system is costly, laborious and ecologically unsustainable (cf. Lange/Otterpohl 2000, Hoyer/Dickhaut 2011). Thus, several research and grassroots initiatives located in various cities in Germany have developed and tested alternative water infrastructure systems that allow for smaller water cycles through decentralised wastewater disposal, recycling and reuse. Here, sewage that is usually understood as waste matter gains a new value as it is recycled locally into clean water or reused as fertilizer or energy. These technical innovations differ in the kind of technology deployed, actors involved, territory occupied, water saved and money spent; they range from ecological communities experimenting with low-tech solutions such as constructed wetlands and composting toilets to costly, research intensive and complex high-tech solutions such as vacuum toilets, greywater recycling units and bio-gas plants installed in new ecological housing estates.

This interdisciplinary project (engineering science and cultural anthropology) takes  decentralised water infrastructure technologies (i.e. Ecosan – Ecological Sanitation, NASS – Neuartige Sanitärsysteme) as a starting point to explore how new innovations assemble obdurate water infrastructure systems, technological artefacts, old traditions, ecological communities, engineers, sustainable planning, water saving, cost-saving, water, sewage, pipes, behavioural patterns, small water cycles, recycling and reuse, subsistence living and so on in complex socio-material networks. The project asks how such assemblages enact urban formations and imaginations as an alternative to the centralised water infrastructure system in Germany and how dominant notions of (costly) sustainable living and the necessity of cost-saving are negotiated through these water-saving technologies?