Urban Informality and Informal Water Vendors

Non-utility water vendors provide critical services supplying water to areas that lack adequate sources, particularly where rapid urban growth is underway. Yet, vendors are rarely recognized by governments. Kjellen and McGranahan present the challenge that governments attempting to “formalize” and expand access to clean drinking water face: how to neither promote nor suppress water vending, while still improving water quality and sanitation services. If governments take a negative attitude toward water vending by imposing strict regulation, they will most likely reduce the amount of water available, in turn, further increasing prices. If governments endorse water vending, they stand to support a practice that charges the poorest segment of the population the highest prices.

However, by choosing to ignore vendors, as many, if not most governments do, vendors and non-sanctioned services function without a structure of accountability, aside from market-response (even then, only in areas where choice of vendor exists). The lack of acknowledgement and oversight maintains the possibility of price gouging and collusion among vendors as well as the potential sale of water that is not of safe drinking quality for all ages. Under the SDGs, where nation-states are the duty bearers in ensuring safe and affordable water, are governments obligated to recognize vendors as they play an increasingly critical role in providing water? Beyond duty, by improving government – water vendor- water utility relations, don’t all parties stand to benefit?


Informal versus formal?

One of the most enduring distinctions in urban planning is between the “informal” and the “formal.” As McFarlane points out, these words are often used to describe territorial formations (e.g. slums), categories of particular groups (e.g. labor), or forms of organization (e.g. structured versus unstructured).

The readings this week caution us to be careful about how we use informal and formal to categorize places, people, and ways of organizing. Instead, we should consider them as more fluid concepts, or maybe more of a spectrum. As Ahlers points out, “all actors involved have multiple identities moving in and out of formality.”

This point seemed evident in the Burt and Ray reading. Based on a series of surveys, after the implementation of 24/7 access to water, most people still continued to rely on “informal” practices of in-home water storage and using water without paying. The piece highlights once again the power of the words we use, their definitions, and the people who get to determine them. Who decides what is formal? Even with the right to water, there’s seemingly one formula to having your right fulfilled.

Then, when the right to water is violated, what choices do people have other than engaging in “informal” practices? Is it right or fair to label it as “informal” behavior in that case? How we make sure that our own biases and notions of what is “formal” do not impede in delivering the right to water for all?

Speaking of definitions, at the end of the Burt and Ray reading, it talks about how some users put convenience and affordability above other dimensions of water service. Some put frequency and reliability of delivery over quality and continuousness. It shows just how much depends on the user and their own lived experience. I don’t think we’ve explicitly mentioned convenience yet. How should convenience be considered in delivering right to water?

We’ve talked a lot about the difficulty in choosing one normative category over another. While we might not have to choose one over another, many people around the world regularly conduct their own cost-benefit analysis of what’s more important in a given moment. Given that and the challenges in delivering on the right to water all at once, how might we make that decision easier?

Relatedly, I came across this Right to Water project for Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. The phrase “permanent temporariness” and the increasing numbers of displaced people around the world makes me wonder even more about how useful “informal” is as a term.

Post script: As a member of team “words matter,” I enjoyed reading “They are not informal settlements, they are habitats made by people.” Hope you enjoy it, too.

RTWS Implementation

Barlow’s guide for implementing RTWS summarized the history of the struggle for the right to water, why its recognition was important, and what was expected of governments in order to fulfill these rights. Since there is inadequate funding in many cases to tackle each issue all at once, should we start with first reassessing how we even are measuring our progress towards target goals and subsequently standardizing these methods? As city planners how do we take into account third-party politics when implementing the rights to water and sanitation (ex. corporations, lobbyists)?


In De Alburqueque’s book, On the Right Track, she provides analysis on existing practices of implementing the right to water while also acknowledging that a practice that is considered very good in one region could be terrible when done somewhere else. Who gets to decide whether or not a certain practice is “good” if different stakeholders have different agendas?



Implementing the Human Right to Water

In the UC Berkeley Water Law Report we see how the international human right to water framework has manifested itself in California State Law. The normative right to water principles and guiding human rights principles are spelled out in AB 685 with the familiar recognition of the right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” AB 685 also requires state agencies to “consider” the right to water in planning and policy.

As summarized by the Right to Water Panel at the Yosemite Conference, millions of Californians are still at risk of exposure to unsafe drinking water, especially from contaminated groundwater sources. The Balazs and Ray reading provides further example of the inequities in access to safe drinking water in the Central Valley. It is clear that California must go beyond acknowledging the human right to water, and adopt more concrete and actionable policy.

In a more recent development, Senate Bill 623, or the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund is actively making its way through the State Senate. The bill, which is back by environmental NGOs, environmental justice advocates, and agricultural interests, would tax water bills in homes and businesses in order to generate funds to clean up contaminated groundwater and provide long-term drinking water service in disadvantaged communities. The bill is opposed by a list of California water utility companies.

Click here for a short article on SB 623. Is a tax on water an appropriate step in implementing the right to water?

Increasing funding for safe drinking water projects is an important step in realizing the right to water, however funding is not the only barrier. As the Balazs and Ray reading describes, the disparities in the access to safe drinking water can be deeply rooted in a complex system of environmental, built, and sociopolitical factors. Furthermore, funding sources are often unavailable to the communities that need it most because of the priority that “shovel-ready” projects receive.

How can we ensure funds actually reach the communities in need?

Balazs and Ray’s Drinking Water Disparities Framework identifies three “environments” that drive the distribution of exposure to contamination and disparities: the natural, built, and sociopolitical environments. As planners, where can we most effectively intervene and at what scale (ie. regional, community, or household)?

Re-Considering How We Solve Water Supply and Financing Issues

This week we are tackling the supply and financing of urban water and sanitation infrastructure. Collectively, the readings encourage us to think about the larger historical, political, economic, and social processes in which calls for reform and techno-fixes are embedded. More specifically, the readings illuminate conditions that are necessary for us to consider when asking “who bears the (cost and management) burden the of this new ‘cost-saving’ measure?”

The commercialization of municipal utilities and the drive to monetize natural resources (in order to calculate and allocate) serve as a backdrop to local-level reform. The readings push us to apply a critical eye to all water provision expansion proposals that emerge from cost/benefit analyses (what is included in cost calculations? Are we over/underestimating benefits?) and greater technological innovation (surveillance?). When implemented, these proposed reforms have material impacts on families that go beyond our basic considerations of water supply. As demonstrated in Von Schnitzler’s article, water touches on many forms of daily life that go unaccounted for in government officials’ calculations. What might be the unintended consequences for people’s health of having used water in an open container outside? What if a fire breaks out and a family has run out of credits? These are burdens disproportionately placed on households that don’t have immediate access to additional resources.

  • How, then, as planners, academics and policy analysts, do we design a process for the design and implementation of affordable water provision that takes potential unintended consequences into account?
  • What reasons do the readings provide for why thoughtful policies are not being currently implemented?
  • In thinking about the prepaid meters in Soweto and the water use preferences for residents in Can Tho, how might we have approached the provision of water differently?


Financing Urban Water Infrastructures

One of the driving concerns of scholarship and activism on water is privatization. Privatization, as Karen Bakker showed us, refers to many different arrangements between the public and private sector, and not only its most complete form, where a private entity owns and operates the water and wastewater system. Bakker has pointed out, too, that privatization may actually be compatible with the human right to water, and a look at the cooption of water justice demands by corporate advertising and the use of bottled water in state relief efforts would seem to prove her point.

James Spencer’s piece examines the relatively low adoption of piped water supply amongst residents of Can Tao, Vietnam in comparison with natural sources of water. The detailed household survey brings issues of quality, access and cost together with custom and perception to better understand the range of factors that affect water use in a hybrid system of provision. Here, private supplies are predominantly small-scale — wells and rain barrels and so forth — rather than the conglomerate corporations imagined in discussions about privatization. The paper fleshes out several compelling reasons for preference for these private systems and concludes by suggesting that a range of options may best help the poor in an unstable social and economic environment rather than dependence on a single (public) source.

Erik Swyngedouw’s “Disposessing H2O” examines the history and politics of privatization, drawing on David Harvey’s work to portray it as a strategy of “accumulation by dispossession.” He describes four phases in the history of this disposession:

  1. Up until the second half of the 19th century, small private companies supplied water of varying quality across cities, with wealthier people getting better water
  2. Municipalization: motivated by modern planning and a desire for a sanitary city, governments, and local elites, heavily subsidized infrastructural investments in centralized water & sewer systems
  3. State-led water works: alongside Fordist-Keynsian social and economic policies, nations invested in grand infrastructure projects (dams, canals, etc) and increased regulatory purview over water and sanitation; some nationalized their water systems
  4. Post-1970s Structural Adjustment: heavy debt-financing of industrial projects and a retraction of welfare services and subsidies, with particularly acute effects in the developing world; privatization was billed as a solution to the crisis in Fordism by cutting red-tape regulation and offering greater investment flexibility

Anita VonSchnitzler’s piece explores how a new mechanics of connection (the prepaid meter) based on market logics (here it’s neoliberalism, not privatization per se) transforms South African water users into “citizen-customers” who learn citizenship through practicing a certain calculative rationality with respect to water. Through a brilliant exploration of the history and local relationship to prepaid meters, VonSchnitzler shows how liberal water reforms work to re-signify “civic virtue” as a wedding of moral political life with economic rationalization. The technology acts to translate the overarching logics of neoliberalism into the subjectivity and lived experience of South African water users, restructuring the temporality and logic of their daily lives.

Sylvy Jaglin’s article explores the dependence of privatization on certain forms of user “participation,” exposing this framework as a mode of transferring costs from water companies onto low-income households in sub-Saharan Africa. Participation appears as the expression of a compromise between full cost recovery and universal provision. In a context where informality and extreme poverty are being managed through economic liberalization, consumer protection is seen as secondary to efficiency and profit, or believed to flow from these market aims. Like VonSchnitzler and Swyngedouw, Jaglin describes the historic and political forces driving the entry of the market into the domain of water provision, where it has been used to build new alliances with the growing urban poor and newly impoverished middle classes. Unlike Spencer’s case study, it seems Sylvy is more suspicious of the negative potential for two-tiered or hybrid systems to lock low-income users into dependence on poorer quality services.


How can we compare Jaglin and Spencer’s pieces in their presentation of heterogenous systems of water and sanitation provision? How can we reconcile the opportunities and the challenges of what Acey calls “hybrid governance” into our thinking about privatization?


How are we shaped by our interactions with water and water-related technologies? What relationships do we have to our own sense of citizenship through paying utilities monthly based on use, or refilling durable water bottles at convenient stations on campus, or where and how we wash our clothes? I think it would be useful to think through some of these everyday technologies as generative of our own subjectivities.  


… With apologies for late posting!

What does water quality sound like?

A friend of a friend has an art project that generates sounds based on water quality. It’s called Sonaqua and it “creates sonification orchestral arrangements of water samples based on electrical conductivity. ” If you check out the link, you can hear the differences between clean and polluted water.

I thought you all would appreciate it!