ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Charting a Course through Embattled Terrain

Privatising Water: Governance Failure and the World's Urban Water Crisis by Karen Bakker (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan), 2011; (reprint from 2010 edition by Cornell University Press.)

BOOK REVIEW

-

-

-

Charting a Course through Embattled Terrain

Karen Coelho

-

debates and conundra. Drawing on her close studies of water management systems across the world over 15 years (starting with England and Wales in the 1990s and moving on to Indonesia, South Africa and other countries), it provides a clear and informed analysis of the stakes in

A
t the peak of the “water wars” of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as anti-privatisation activists battled multinational corporations and financial institutions on streets and in conference halls around the world, many water activists and scholars struggled, often unsuccessfully, to obtain a solid grasp of the i ssues involved. More confusing were the late 2000s, when corporations began to back off from large-scale investments in urban water systems, suggesting a “postprivatisation” era that was nevertheless littered with talk of public-private partnerships (PPPs) and private sector participations (PSPs) that claimed to be distinct from outright privatisation.

Debates on water governance have generated more heat than light; the polemics have often overshadowed the problematics. What does the fight to establish water

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 10, 2011

Privatising Water: Governance Failure and the World’s Urban Water Crisis by Karen Bakker

(New Delhi: Orient Blackswan), 2011; (reprint from 2010 edition by Cornell University Press.)

as a human right mean in practical terms, how does it cohere with recognition of the economic value(s) of water? If water in u rban supply systems is technically neither a public good nor a common pool resource, how can we resist its classification as an “economic good”? What does the struggle for public water really entail? What are the implications of tradable property rights in water? What viable instruments are available for ensuring equity and sustainability in water production and distribution?

Valuable Road Map

Karen Bakker’s book offers a valuable road map through this thicket of questions,

vol xlvi no 50

volved in water governance. It approaches this task by parsing the key d ebates that have shaped this field not only since the 1990s when anti-privatisation struggles gained worldwide prominence, but since the mid-19th century, when large-scale capital-intensive water infrastructure began to be installed in c ities, both in the industrialised world and in (usually colonised) cities of the South. Experiments with, and debates over public and private ownership of urban water systems date from this period: many of the early systems, for example in Boston, New York, London, Paris, were built and operated by private companies, who charged high tariffs and restricted supplies to wealthier neighborhoods, leaving poorer sections to rely on public taps, wells, rivers and/or informal vendors. Subsequently, calls for universalisation of protected water supplies, accompanying concerns about water-borne

BOOK REVIEW

diseases and hygiene, led to a municipalisation of these systems. Governments estab lished utilities which used public funds to extend coverage, and cross-subsidised tariffs for the poor. Bakker thus historicises the process through which municipal ownership and management of water supplies came to be the dominant pattern in both developed and developing countries for most of the 20th century.

The book sets itself the task of clarifying concepts and terminologies that have been deployed in debates over water privatisation, many of them adopted as battle slogans. Dismissing categories of “public” and “private” as incapable of adequately characterising the complex arrangements that typically constitute urban water s ystems, it offers alternate analytic concepts that encompass the political, technological and institutional dimensions of water governance. The “municipal hydrau lic paradigm”, dominant from the mid-19th to the late 20th century, was a supply-led approach oriented towards harnessing large volumes of water to service urban growth and modernisation and to fulfil municipal commitments for social equity and universal provision. It was materialised through integrated engineered networks built on economies of scale, usually owned and run by governments.

‘Market Environmentalism’

These networks, however, tended to remain partial and incomplete, particularly in postcolonial cities, where they embodied the exclusions and classifications of colonial rule as well as the classic constraints (financial, technical, and political) of piped water networks. By the late 20th century, this paradigm had come u nder severe attack owing to its internal failure to sustain its financial and social commitments, as well as to external concerns about water scarcity and to the ascendance of neo-liberalism and the Washington Consensus. The municipal hydraulic paradigm was replaced by the 1990s with what Bakker terms “market environmentalism”, a paradigm that prioritises economic efficiency and financial sustainability over distributional equity. The paradigm applies market mechanisms to address environmental problems such as water scarcity and deploys strategies such as full-cost pricing, commercialisation and privatisation of water management, property rights and tradable markets in water, to transform water into an “economic good”.

Market environmentalism was actively driven by institutions like the World Bank. Bakker provides a historical explanation for the emergence of the water privatisation agenda in the 1990s in the World Bank. Although the Bank had moved into lending for water supply only in the 1970s, it powerfully influenced policies in the sector, initially promoting the spread of the municipal hydraulic model around the world as a key strategy of its “poverty agenda” as well as a rich source of bankable projects. By the 1980s, however, a web of problems besetting the Bank’s water projects around the world – poor performance, low cost-recovery, lack of community participation, negative environmental impacts, and inability to extend services to the poor – were identified in internal reviews, leading to a major policy shift away from the municipal hydraulic paradigm towards market-led models. The book, thus, offers an account of the rise of neoliberal policies that goes beyond purely ideological explanations.

Bakker goes on to examine a range of concepts that have emerged as alternatives to the privatisation agenda, such as the “human right to water”, community-managed water systems, and the “water commons”. Drawing on contemporary developments in South Africa, Jakarta, and post water-war Cochabamba, she explores the political-discursive effects as well as the practical implications attendant on the deployment of these concepts. The book makes a useful attempt to disentangle the knotty strands of argumentation and debate that constitute contemporary water politics, and to render them intellectually and politically comprehensible through systematically examining their lineages, affiliations and implications. For example, while Bakker explores diverse meanings attached to the terms “private” and “privatisation”, she also insists that privatisation should not be reduced to technical or managerial definitions but must be seen in its larger political/ideological aspect, as a process of market expansion creating new property relations and new society-nature relations.

december 10, 2011

But this book is not just a conceptual treatise, it puts forward a strong argument. Sidestepping polarised positions of state versus private provision, Bakker argues that dominant models of “industrialised” water supply, in other words, centralised capital-intensive infrastructure networks, are subject to the simultaneous effects of “state failure”, “market failure” and “governance failure”. If state failure refers to the inefficiencies and unresponsiveness of large hierarchical bureaucracies, market models suffer from exchange failures due to the “naturally” monopolistic character of integrated networks. The book points to similarities in the failure records of government-run and private utilities, particularly in their inability to incorporate externalities and to extend coverage to the poor. State failure and market failure have thus fed on each other and mutually contributed to the poor state of water services in most cities.

The problem, Bakker argues, is not one of states or markets, but of dominant paradigms of governance that have failed to take community and ecological dimensions of water into serious account. The book forges towards an alternative conceptualisation of water governance that encompasses questions of ecological sustainability and collective (community) trusteeship. Here, however, the book turns fussy, sacrificing the strong empirical and analytic treatment found in earlier sections for vague and tentative propositions that leave the reader unconvinced. The book makes for tedious reading in parts, owing to a rather repetitious structure and a style that sometimes tends towards the verbose. All in all, however, this book makes a very important contribution to the ongoing battles over water governance across the world.

Karen Coelho (karenc@mids.ac.in) teaches at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

available at

Ganapathy Agencies

3/4, 2 Link Street Jaffarkhanpet, Ragavan Colony Chennai 600 083, Tamil Nadu Ph: 24747538

vol xlvi no 50

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top