Notes on Sultana and Loftus’s Introduction to The Right to Water

(With apologies for missing class due to that dreaded E. coli)

This piece serves as an introduction to a remarkable collection of texts on the right to water that probe the very issues raised by Loftus and Sultana: the need for highly specific and critical analysis of the policies and practices of water governance that traffic under the sign of the “right to water”. Sultana and Loftus are particularly critical of the cooption of the right to water discourse by private-sector actors and interests, but also note the broad and sometimes competing aims of the ‘global water justice movement’. They explain this through a striking example: “Immediately following the 2010 UN resolution, Global Water Intelligence, a magazine that promotes private water investment, took the opportunity to reassure investors that it represented a ‘massive defeat for the Global Water Justice Movement’… The reasoning behind this: the right to water remained fundamentally compatible with private sector participation and contained no obligation on utilities to provide subsidies to poor communities” (3).
“The right to water risks becoming an empty signifier used by both political progressives and conservatives who are brought together within a shallow post-political consensus that actually does little to effect real change in water governance. This is not helped by the conflation of quite different terms when the right to water is collapsed into broader discussions of ownership of ‘water rights’ and more ecocentric conceptions of ‘the rights of water’ (2).
The set of chapters in the volume explore “philosophical framings(chapters by Bakker, Schmidt, Linton), the role of law and legal frameworks (chapters by Staddon et al, van Rijswick and Keessen, Ruru), and the question of property relations and civil society (chapter by Mitchell) before integrating some of these more abstract arguments within a range of concrete struggles (chapters by Giglioli, Meehan, Clark, Bond, Bywater, err, Bustamante et al).”
They suggest several fruitful areas for this exploration:
 1. To ensure that the right to water does not descend into meaninglesss technical discussions. “If the call for the right to water is to become a genuinely political movement, we need to consider how it might acquire a material force within the world and how it might actually become world-changing” (8)
2. To explore how specific struggles are shaped by broader global struggles without losing local difference.
3. To consider further potential for what the right to water means in terms of participation in the “hydrosocial cycle”, the ability to transform socionatural conditions by remaking relations between human and non-human others and remaking our world in more democratic ways.
They turn to the writings of Antonio Gramsci as one ‘philosopher of praxis’ who synthesizes theory and practice to inform and give coherence to common sense struggle. Gramsci’s works suggest a historical geographical materialism that is able to consider ‘militant particularists’ in relation to global ambitions. They argue further that the non-human and human are inseparable for Gramsci, in contrast to other urban theorists like Henri Lefebvre (13).
They conclude that the right to water is a necessary but insufficient call in the struggle for water justice and call for geographical sensitivity to the universality of this claim.

The right to water in Morocco

Hello, everyone.

I mentioned a few articles about Morocco in class the other day. I am posting so you have some things to noodle on this weekend:

A little over a week ago, residents in southern Morocco held “thirsty protests” because of the persistent water shortages. At the end of the article, it mentions using too much water to grow watermelons. Another challenge for us to consider: the right to water versus the right to food?

Also in southern Morocco, there’s technology to capture fog and dew to create more drinking water. Of course, there are challenges with the technology, especially in certain weather. However,  given that there are many dry places with real water scarcity, these experiments are necessary and exciting.

Happy weekend, y’all.

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?