Rising Tides, Rising Stakes: Water Infrastructure Work as Climate Adaptation in Mombasa, Kenya

Project Description

Climate change is here. Despite the imagery of an apocalyptic future that it calls to mind, the reality is an already unfolding, insidious and chronic disaster. Coastal African cities are at the forefront, underprepared and overexposed. Being faced with the inevitability of the crisis, it is imperative we look at and understand processes of adaptation that are already in action to better equip us for the challenges that lie ahead. In this context, the idea of radical incrementalism plays a crucial role. Written about as the process of bringing about change “through … surreptitious, sometimes overt and multiple small revolutions” (Pieterse 2008:6), yet there has been little empirical substantiation of the concept to date. To address this, this project seeks to operationalize radical incrementalism as a lens to account for both the trans-scalar forces involved in remaking cities at the sharp edge of climate change, and the mundane, everyday practices of coping with, and adapting to the crisis. By examining the effects of changing climate, global capital flows, and external climate policy prescriptions, this study explores how these tensions manifest in the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya. Particularly exposed to climate risk and undergoing steep demographic growth, Mombasa provides a rich context for this locally grounded, longitudinal urban ethnography. Specifically, through “deep hanging out” this study traces the actions of water infrastructure workers who, despite their reputation as apolitical technicians, stand at the nexus of local politics, international development funding, and the recalcitrant materiality of creaking public infrastructures. By recognizing their daily operations as a form of adaptation, we can make visible the reality of climate disaster and, in turn, foster more accurate and sustainable governance in response to the disaster already underway.

Supervisor:  Prof. Dr. Jon Schubert

Co-Supervisors:  Prof. Dr. Kenny Cupers,  Dr. Prince K. Guma (Sheffield University)

Short Bio

Natalie is a South African with a background in social science and the built environment, holding an MSc in City Design and Social Science from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has 10 years of applied research experience in UX research and software development, which she leverages in her academic work in urban studies. In 2022, Natalie was awarded the Graduate School of Social Science Startup Stipend from the University of Basel to develop her doctoral research project on climate change adaptation in coastal African cities. Since then, she has been enrolled as a doctoral student at the university. Natalie's research interests fall under the broad themes of urban climate change, infrastructure and African cities. Most recently she won the Doc.CH award by the Swiss National Science Foundation (2023 - 2027) to carry out her doctoral research in Mombasa.


Natalie Schöbitz
Urban Studies
Departement Gesellschaftswissenschaften
Rheinsprung 21
4051 Basel