Becoming Waterless in the City of Mineral Springs: Bathing, Drinking, and Resisting Dispossession in Velingrad (Bulgaria)

In the town of Velingrad, the comings and goings from homes to fountains or bathhouses, from neighborhoods to hot springs on the outskirts are part of the necessary weekly routine for many inhabitants. Fountains offering different types of mineral water (from cold to nearly boiling) serve as a locus of social interactions, animating street-corner societies. Activities such as drinking, bathing, cooking, laundering, and performing family rituals are also acts of identity. However, this hydrosocial ecosystem faces threats from rampant neoliberalism, as water from hot springs has become a highly sought-after commodity for spa entrepreneurs and investors in luxurious apartment buildings. In their relentless pursuit of increased flow rate and new licenses, private actors exert pressure on the pipeline. For them, public fountains and baths are obstacles. In this context, people criticize the public authorities and lament the prospect of “becoming waterless”, while “walking on water”, in a place of “abundance”. Drawing on extensive ethnography and archival research, this presentation traces through narratives the making of the city of multiple waters up to the current process of its unmaking. I argue that water grabbing could be thwarted – firstly through public interventions given that thermal water is a limited resource, and secondly because current mobilizations are deeply rooted in ideas about identity and belonging.