A poetics of drainage — From power flows to a flood of empathy / Jenia Gutman

“Without poetry, rain is mostly one of three things: a resource, insignificant, or a nuisance… In order to be able to feel rain in your heart, there is a need for poetry,” claims Dror Burstein in his short article recently published in “Haaretz.” And what about floods? What are they without poetry? Without amazement? This brief essay dreams of floods, starting with the “here and now” of Government Decision No. 207 which outlines flood-related policy, and from there dreams itself toward poetic engineering, legislation and research.

The image of the floods in Germany and Belgium in the summer of 2021, and memories of the local events of Winter 2020 prompted the Israeli government to adopt a stance on floods in August of this year. The wording of the decision’s applied measures teaches us a lot about the perception of flooding and its legitimacy (or illegitimacy) from the perspective of elected officials as well as about the Flood Warning Agency. Each of these address the ‘Man-Water’ contract in Israel, with flooding as a visual case study that catches media and public attention. A generous reading of the decision allows for an understanding of the political pressure, the “execution” in the semantics of change, and the perception of what is considered proper and effective action with regard to water — expressed spatially as flooding — as well as the decision-makers. 

Decision No. 27 for improving infrastructure and managing flood risks came about “following the national effort to promote the construction of housing units… and to strengthen the ability to carry out national projects.” The title and opening sentence indicate the framework of the discourse and how flooding is seen in local politics — significant as an obstacle that must be removed in the interests of development as it is dangerous and delays housing projects. The toolkit with which the decision was formulated is broad and addresses areas of legislation (amendment to the 1957 Drainage Act), planning (promoting a national plan outlining risk management and protection against floods), formulation of information and knowledge and, primarily, the execution of various drainage projects. The proposal is characterized by extensive use of verbs such as ‘promotion,’ ‘execution,’ ‘protection,’ ‘taking care of the system,’ and ‘minimizing risk’ with the aim of supporting the rapid advance of development plans and construction. When it comes to rehabilitating rivers as a method of containing floods, the decision adopts softer language and instructs “formulating policy, instructions and measures in the field of river rehabilitation, in order to reduce the risk of flooding.”

This essay argues that the perspective and belief in our ability to manage floods, reduce their occurrence (and disruption) in the field, and minimize their spread in order to develop more housing units, suffer from the lack of a planning alternative stemming not only from budgeting but also from a lack of public awareness. In the current state of affairs, tracking and the perception of flooding as damage are unavoidable. The claim of the essay is that we suffer a grave lack of poetic tools and that philosophy, poetry, dance and art have the power to cultivate empathy towards flooding in its various manifestations. They also have the power to expand our perception towards flooding to include wonder, compromise and accommodation

The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum offers a fitting description of the state of affairs regarding our (imagined) control over floods: “The capacity for genuine concern for others [requires] … a recognition that total control is neither possible nor good, that the world is a place in which we all have weaknesses and need to find ways to support one another.” As of 2021, we are very concerned about floods but do we know how to care for them? To make space for them, physically and spiritually, in our lives? A flood is a basic component in geomorphological processes which shape spaces, are intrinsic to the water cycle and critical to the existence of moist habitats which are disappearing from the local landscape. Most of the floods in Israel (especially in the built-up, Western, infrastructure-rich basins) are a hybrid phenomenon of humanity and water, that is, the consequence of relationships, mutual effects, causes and results of human action on nature and nature’s responses to us. Yet this complex phenomenon is hardly represented in science, politics, or society. Floods are barely researched in academia, their representation in planning processes lacks statutory significance, and apart from technical representations (such as the probability of a flood, or its hydrograph), we do not have the tools to describe or address floods. A curious, exploratory and respectful attitude towards this complex phenomenon is our last opportunity to recalculate a trajectory with regard to the lack of political and public empathy for floods. 

According to Nussbaum’s approach, we can treat a lack of empathy with practical-poetic tools and we must do so as fast as we can, since empathy is a central tool in a democracy that aspires to equality between the sexes, ethnicities, religions and so on. It is safe to assume that if her book was written today (and not over a decade ago) the question of the equal status of ecosystems in democracy, including the water cycle, would also be addressed. After all, without it, the climate crisis would be a fait accompli. The “Anthropocene Shock” and an understanding of our radical dependence on a non-human set of factors (rocks, soil, water, air, pollination, biodiversity, etc.), among them rivers and floods, search for a channel of actual expression, such as through government decisions, laws, planning principles and the expansion actions that are considered legitimate for the investment of government budgets. A multifaceted democracy, in which interdependency is expressed using governmental tools, is perhaps the way to prevent the collapse of eco- and climatic systems. One suggestion for such expression is the act of inclusive, embodied empathy, according to Associate Professor Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, as the act of concern.

Below is a three-step process for anchoring the toolbox for developing empathy and imagination as formulated by Nussbaum, based on the principles of Socrates’ pedagogy, the humane teaching of Rabindranath Tagore and the imaginative approach of pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donal Winnicott. According to Nussbaum, these approaches complement each other in building capacity for empathy

Empathy in Statutory (Legal) Tools 

“While making use of material possessions, man has to be careful to protect himself from their tyranny. If he is weak enough to grow smaller to fit himself to his covering, then it becomes a process of gradual suicide by shrinkage of the soul.”

The extent of the Drainage Act enacted in 1957 demands critical examination (or in Tagore’s words, the tyranny of its coverage). It is an old law which bears the Zionist ethos of “conquest of the wilderness.” This perspective believed that people’s material assets depended on the disappearance of water from those areas strategic to settlement, paving roads and laying tracks. It might be the only law whose name is an engineering action and not its purpose. The law defines the manner in which the State of Israel treats the issue of surface runoff and flooding. Water is perceived as damage: “Surface or other water that is harmful or potentially harmful to agriculture, public health, the development or the existence of regular services in the country” says the law, and drainage is “any action whose aim is to concentrate, store, transport or remove it.” As Tagore puts it, the nation’s material assets, and this is true for Israel in 2021, are those over-planned housing units with no reference to the space that floods require. For example, a plan outlining the evacuation of IDF camps from the central area known as ‘Tama 47N,’ the purpose of which is to indicate areas for the construction of housing units, describes “the range between aggregation-oriented and channel-oriented solutions and the range between the integration of the solutions in open areas versus in constructed space.” The semantics are clear — even the word ‘river’ does not appear here. 

The danger of poetics is in the lack of relevance and urgency, while the leading interest — the important material assets, are the housing units. The “gradual suicide by shrinkage of the soul,” in Tagore’s words, is a poetic description of the situation in which the drainage act has not yet been updated and planning and regulatory understanding is characterized by a lack of empathy for the stream and for flooding as natural phenomena and as much support as possible for (not necessarily human) life systems in the river beds and the humid environment of the floodplains. Does empathy in law sound unrealistic? We may begin from logic, then integrate Socrates’ pedagogic principles — to examine the assumptions underlying the law, the set of values that this law serves and the relevance of these values in 2021. Use of the Socratic method will introduce discussion that is focused on the essence — open discourse about the declared and undeclared interests, the reasons for which the amendments to the law did not go through, naming accepted narratives as authoritative and traditional narratives formulating stated common goals and most importantly — an egalitarian and respectful platform for the influential and affected actors of streams, rivers and floods

Empathy in Scientific Research

It could be argued, with some generalization, that is not too far from reality, thatreality that scientific flood research in Israel is a classic example of a perspective that separates manseparates between man and nature. This differentiation, according to the theory of the French philosopher Bruno Latour, is referred to as the “modern constitution,” and it allows us to do “everything, without being limited by anything.” In fact, a person’s disconnection from the set of systems on which he relies (water, soil, air, etc.) allows unlimited doing without having to consider the consequences for those resources. This separation is the foundation of natural science research, which usually exists in disciplines which distinguish humanity from the world of “natural” phenomena. Just as the science of hydrology has determined the circular formula of the water cycle in nature (evaporation, condensation, rain, percolation/surface runoff and so forth) avoiding the human component, so the social sciences are conducted in a world in which only humans (their family history, the cultural conditioning of the society in which they were born and so on) exist, without awareness of our extreme dependence on natural systems. Research on floods in Israel, in a time in which climate changes often manifest as flooding in urban environments, is focused entirely on the environment, which is roughly described as devoid of people. We can see an example of this in the titles of lectures from a conference which took place in autumn 2021, on the subject of floods, most of which focused on floods in the Dead Sea area: “Extreme rainstorms in an arid, desert environment,” “Floods in the Judean Desert,” “Flood monitoring in arid regions,” and the like. An environment without people is indeed ideal for empirical research but it cannot contribute to a broader or deeper understanding of floods when it comes to amending the archaic drainage act. Factual knowledge and logic in the face of a reality without development pressures, without cities or people is futile. Empathy in scientific research, which would allow us to “dirty” the hydrological science with the existence of people, of decision-makers, and of the uncomfortable reality in which all coastal streams pass through a dense urban environment, are essential in order for us to be able to imagine a human-and-water combination that is accommodating, empathic, and that recognizes the other’s power, and the other’s weakness.

Empathy in Academics

“Education is that process by which thought is opened out of the soul, and, associated with outward … things, is reflected back upon itself, and thus made conscious of its reality and shape.”

Poetic education sees art as a central means by which to develop the imagination. Imagination allows us to see ourselves in the place of another person or entity. Narrative imagination is the ability to tell the story of another, to understand it, respect and sympathize. We are used to thinking about imagination as belonging to the field of play, and not “serious work.” Alcott takes issue with that, arguing that the only difference between serious work and play is the materials with which the imagination engages. That is — the imagination is essential in the “serious” world of hydrologists, planners and hydraulic engineers. A successful course of training will show students that imagination, openness, and empathy existempathy, exist within everything that is “outside the realm of direct physical response.” This includes conversation with collaborators and stakeholders, research or scientific experimentation, planning in the river region and more. Per Nussbaum, technical and factual education can easily ignore the mutual dependence which is found when we examine our world with empathy. Poetic education, on the other hand, teaches us to see the other with wonder, excitement, and gratitude. Hydrologists given a poetic education, which inherently incorporates artistic, philosophical content into the curriculum, will be able to think and argue in their own right, instead of succumbing to traditions and authorities. Hence the importance of poetic education for democracy. The nature of the argument, rather than the status of the claimant, contains empathy, use of the Socratic critical approach that reveals the structure of each person’s status, and thus exposes shared assumptions, points of intersection that promote a common conclusion. All this will turn them into hydrologists, decision-makers, geographers, planners, and professionals that make expert and not authoritative arguments, an argument integral to the human world and not as a technical formula or model. 

In an opinion column published last November, the architect Oded Kotuk points out the same “dreaming gaps,” when he looks at the public sector. In the age of climate collapse, the ability to dream, that is, to imagine worlds in which, for example, water and floods have a central place in urban planning processes, is critical. The development of the man-water narrative, with an emphasis on the semantic richness which comes with it, the introduction of water discourse into the halls of power, but no less important, making human-water discourse acceptable to any person, whoever he is, is the order of the day, and a common challenge.

Speculative governmental decision, floods — 2030, will budget for accommodating planning, without the need for restraint or demarcation of the other, teaching allocating budgets for reproductive action — preserving, nurturing, caring. Restored streams will “absorb” the budget and the floods, the floodplains will be a planning component equal to all other planning components. And let us imagine that the dreamers, the mediators of the “gaps of the imagination,” will realize both their own democratic rights but also the rights of all those non-human elements of our world on which we utterly depend.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of my father, Dr. Yaakov Gutman, obstetrician and gynecologist, who contributed to the flow of life.