#ReadUrbanandPlanningWomen2014 entry #7: Charisma Acey

Charisma Acey is assistant professor of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She’s one of the folks who came to UCLA as I was leaving, so I’ve always known her to chat with (as she’s a lovely person), but I’ve not made time to read her work. This is one of those weeks where I am feeling exceptionally pleased with myself for coming up with this exercise because it got me to read some of Charisma’s work. I don’t know much about her research area, I learned a lot, and she’s a marvelous prose stylist. Newly minted fangirl here.

I selected a history paper:

Acey, C. 2012. Forbidden waters: colonial intervention and the evolution of water supply in Benin City, Nigeria. Water History
4(3):215-229

This paper follows up on earlier work Dr. Acey has done on Accra, and it examines the same themes tracing how colonial decisions about the land tenure, urban residential segregation, and water infrastructure investment created a path-dependent, lingering inequality in access to water within Benin. There is a strong dose of environmental history here along with urban history.

The manuscript begins with the pre-colonial history of the Benin City dynasty that transformed the city via engineering to bring the spread of malaria. The result was a thriving city and polity that remained independent until the 1800s, when the British began to pressure the Benin leadership for greater access to trade. Whenever I read histories and I encounter the word “trade” I’m always grumpy because of a pet peeve; the type of trade is not incidental to the subsequent history. If we don’t know what the trade is in, we don’t the motives or the geography of the incentives that people are responding to. I had to do some background research to figure out what the trade was in, and from what I can tell, Benin City was a lively slave trading kingdom as well as a supplier of tropical commodities like palm oil and pepper. But the apparent wealth of the Benin City kings appears have to flourished prior to European contact as they were an established empire who conquered neighboring tribes, so an existing slave economy makes sense given the the empire’s reliance on farming and agriculture to support the city (there are slave empires all over the ancient and medieval world.) This isn’t the main point of the manuscript, but it does suggest to me that, given agricultural dependency, the story about water has some interesting facets prior to the story that Dr. Acey develops here.

The British took over Benin City in 1897 after a series of tentative treaties broke down into violence, and British colonial water regulation began in 1910 with taking water from the Ogba River–a river that locals had usually allowed only grey water uses and not human consumption. Instead, local residents use the water from the Ikpoba River, with royal and elite families drawing from the more exclusive freshwater offshoots of the Ikpoba. The Ogba was selected because it was a cheaper infrastructure project for th British. Soon conflicts ensued over water levies and taxes. Eventually, the city went back to relying on the Ikpoba River in 1987, but it still has proven difficult to get an adequate supply of water for the entire city, with attempts at private supply and an emerging hybrid governance structure that still carries the imprint of colonization: disproportionate investment in European settlements with investment lagging in indigenous settlements.