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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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!