Desali-nation: Techno-diplomacy and hydraulic state restructuring through reverse osmosis membranes in Singapore

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A sea change has occurred in global water management over the last two
decades as previously unconventional technologies such as reverse
osmosis (RO) membranes have been integrated into national supply
networks. State-led, highly politicised programmes of water resources
development, characterised by large-scale hydraulic infrastructure,
centralised monopoly control and diplomatic negotiations, have been
transformed in many regions by integrated systems supported by private
engineering companies, constituting a new ‘technopolitical regime’.
Desalination in particular has become an expedient solution not only to the
chronic problem of water scarcity but protracted geopolitical disputes over
shared infrastructure. Engaging with literature on geopolitical materialism,
technopolitics and socio-technical transitions, this paper will examine how
desalination technology has been developed in Singapore to depoliticise the
water supply network, bringing into relation a different constellation of
actors. In the 1990s, imported water from Malaysia became increasingly
vulnerable due to a worsening of diplomatic relations, therefore Singapore
began to leverage on RO to circumvent antagonistic, politically charged
negotiations. The water authority was subsequently plugged into global
industry networks, technologically and institutionally reconfiguring the
state through integrated management, corporate intermediaries and
strategic nodality. By 2060, RO technology is expected to provide 85% of
water supply, co-producing, it is argued, an alternative state ontology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)110-124
Number of pages15
JournalTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2018


  • Singapore
  • desalination
  • geopolitics
  • nation-state
  • political ecology
  • techno-diplomacy


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