Failed Infrastructures

“Failure to Build: Sewage and the Choppy Temporality of Infrastructure in Palestine,” Environment and Planning E (2020)

Drawing on fieldwork in the West Bank (2007–2016) with engineers building sewage infrastructures for the would-be Palestinian state, I make a three-pronged argument. First, I argue that “failure to build” is its own thick, disorienting, and molasses-like condition. It is also “choppy”: it has a disjointed, jerky, quality that is inconstant and unsettling as if one is at sea without a lifeboat. It is limited neither to short-term, tactical governance—a governmentality looking to survive in the short term—nor to strategically planning for the future. It combines the durability of the temporary with the fragility of the future. Second, I propose that the failure-to-build temporality is structured by and structures the intersection of two phenomena: nonsovereignty, for example but not only in settler colonialism or war, and particular environmentalist logics. Failure to build takes on its moral valence from the way those who rule Palestinian life—Israel, international donors, and the Palestinian Authority—determine the environmental standards for Palestinian infrastructures. For these actors, the environment is a singular entity “shared” across political borders. It requires expertise Palestinians are repeatedly suspected of lacking, partly because they lack a state and experience running their own infrastructures. Failure to build thus works circularly in relation to nonsovereignty. The more nonsovereign communities “fail to build,” the more those who govern them can claim the right to control what and how they build. Third, I argue that waste infrastructures such as landfills, incinerators, and sewage treatment plants are particularly susceptible to a failure-to-build temporality because of their association with environmental harm.

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