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!

Water Systems and Management

Within the past century, cities have increased in population and land area which has led to capacity problems in surrounding water supplies and receiving waters. Newman believes future city models should incorporate improved methods for efficiently transporting water, while keeping in mind social equity, economic efficiency, and environmental responsibility. One question that arises is how can we create systems that naturally use less water to begin with?

Hanjra & Qureshi write about how food security and water scarcity are intertwined with one another. The irrigation sector is the largest user of water and therefore is prone to feeling the consequences of decreasing water quality and increasing climate change impacts more. There are new technologies however that could help increase crop yields and water/energy efficiency. If food scarcity is more of an issue in developing countries yet it is the larger overall carbon footprint of developed countries that contributed to climate change, how much responsibility should be placed on the latter to finance these new technologies?

Lastly Maganga et. al take a look at the reasons why there have been increasing problems over water use in Tanzania including “fragmented planning and management, a lack of integrated approaches, and conflicting sectoral policies”. What are the benefits and disadvantages of the WSS sector becoming involved in integrated water resource management? What are the pros of switching from a supply driven approach to WSS to a demand driven approach to WSS?


Sustainable Water Management


Due to the global population boom of the 1900s, the 20th century paradigm of water planning anticipated that future water demands would rise indefinitely and need would be met through vast engineering solutions. That anthropocentric lens led to dams, reservoirs, and pipelines being built without consideration for broader ecosystem impacts. Additionally, the rapid rate of water infrastructure growth failed to find common ground between conflicting stakeholders and instead imposed a fragmented and often inequitable network. Gleick suggests that the 21st century offers a new paradigm that will address the shortcomings of the 20th.  What are the elements of the new model of water planning development? How is ecological value incorporated?

Gumbo and van der Zaag, expand on the challenge that water resource management must balance- the use of water for the livelihood of an increasing population and the protection and conservation of water to sustain its ecological functions. In both The Changing Water Paradigm and Principles of Integrated Water Resources, the authors describe scarcity and the need for systems that use water more efficiently. A notable case involving sanitation treatment and efficient use of gray-water is the CuveWaters project in Outapi, Namibia.

From watching this video and looking over the site, how does the CuveWaters project fulfill the principles of IWRM? What components can be replicated in future development projects?

On Contaminants & Exposure


This week’s readings address some of the many pathogenic contaminants present in drinking water supplies. The Fawell and Nieuwenhuijsen (2003) reading introduce us to a series of environmental contaminants — microbial, chemical and radiological — that enter the waterways through groundwater or, more often, surface water contamination. We’ll go over these on Thursday. Though many are ‘naturally-occurring’, there is an implicit argument in this reading and others that we are witnessing an escalation of the number and kind of contaminants due to human activity (anthropogenic contamination). The production of harmful by-products from chlorine-based disinfection of water serves as an example of the complex trade-offs involved in ‘hydrosocial’ drinking water management. TTHMs are a class of disinfectant by-products that remains in elevated concentrations in the water in Flint, in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act (City of Flint Annual Water Report 2014; in Hanna-Attisha 2016). The citation reveals this was known to the City and presumably the State, though no action was taken. The banality with which drinking water safety violations can occur — even where ‘improved’ sources and routine systems of monitoring exist — should remind us that Flint’s water crisis is only a dramatic case of a disastrously commonplace reality.


The study of WASH-related illnesses worldwide is wracked by the problem of data: the variance in water supply, distribution, uses and practices are often lost in the approximations needed to produce numerical metrics, making water-related illnesses particularly resistant to classification by these means (Schmidt 2014). This may hamper the ability to advocate for certain interventions in an era of global health (from colonial medicine and then international health and development) that has been largely driven by replicable metrics to which monetary projections can be assigned (see Adams 2015).  At the same time, water-related illnesses represent the greatest attribution of the global burden of disease, and so are inherently bound up in these global health projects.


Another fundamental assumption in all this — one drawn from the biomedical tradition — is that human beings respond identically to the presence of pathogenic contaminants — or predictably unequally, based on age, gender or nutritional status. But in addition to the projects of describing the pathophysiology of various contaminants and accounting for them quantitatively, there is a small but growing effort to understand the qualitative and even affective dimensions of our relationships with these kinds of toxic exposures.


There is a move among medical anthropologists to think more about these contaminants as part of the “chemical infrastructures” of our everyday lives (Murphy 2013; Nading 2015). As Alex Nading explains, drawing on Marget Locke’s nuanced understanding of ‘local biologies’: “Despite global health’s universalizing vision, neither bodies nor chemicals behave the same way everywhere” (2015). This body of work is especially focused on the ways in which global health projects to eradicate disease have unanticipated consequences of producing new harms, in scale or in kind — like the disinfectant byproducts in our readings. These effects are carried through by chemicals and other substances which ‘leak’ from the ‘social’ to the ‘natural’ world and reveal the inadequacy of these conceptual borders. Such inorganic chemicals may translate social effects between, for example, humans, bacteria, watersheds, and bureaucracies. It is a framework I introduce as a means of destabilizing the universality of human health in relation to particular contaminants, and in turn, troubling the hegemonic production of data and interventions into water and sanitation systems from a global scale.  I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on the utility — or futility — of this kind of research!


Adams, Vincanne. Metrics: what counts in Global Health. Duke University Press, 2016.

Fawell, J. & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. Contaminants in drinking water. Br. Med. Bull. 68, 199–208 (2003).

Hanna-Attisha, M., LaChance, J., Sadler, R. C., & Champney Schnepp, A. (2016). Elevated blood lead levels in children associated with the Flint drinking water crisis: a spatial analysis of risk and public health response. American journal of public health, 106(2).
Murphy, Michelle. “Distributed reproduction.” Corpus. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2011. 21-38.

Nading, Alex M. “Local biologies, leaky things, and the chemical infrastructure of global health.” Medical anthropology 36.2 (2017): 141-156.

Schmidt, Wolf‐Peter. “The elusive effect of water and sanitation on the global burden of disease.” Tropical medicine & international health 19.5 (2014): 522-527.

Is our water safe?

The two Bain articles this week remind us that access to water isn’t enough. The water must also be safe for human use. Not fully considering the quality or safety of water worldwide means that we’ve overestimated access.

One challenge is that humans decide what is “safe” and that decision can impact billions of people. For example, Bain mentions we have assumed improved (sources of water)=safe. Yet, according to their studies, improved sources are not always free from contaminants. These kind of assumptions impact how and when we collect data, monitor water, report our findings, and then share information with the public.

For water, what does safe mean? Who defines it? In what context? Is the definition the same everywhere? Can it be? Should we have stronger global and local definitions? What happens when we determine that water might not be safe?

The Huffington Post article answers this last question for a case in the U.S. In California, the Water Resources Control Board has known about a probable human carcinogen, TCP, in water for 28 years. It’s been considered a contaminant by EPA since 2009. However, little has been done to regulate TCP and that’s just one example.

Even when we have data and know water might be unsafe, that doesn’t mean governing bodies can and will act quickly. We talked about governance last week. Are there any lessons we could apply here? Is this another pro for a more decentralized approach? How might household treatment play a role?

Unfortunately, much of this assumes we have frequent, timely, and accurate data in the first place. As Bain points out, we don’t have a lot of the data we need. Should we prioritize finding better ways to collect data and monitor water first? If so, who do we trust to lead that effort? It looks like the EPA has asked for innovative solutions to this very challenge. Have you come across other examples of this kind of work? Given the Huff Po piece, some might argue we shouldn’t wait on or trust the EPA’s notion of “safe.” What do you think?

Article share: Survey of Water Challenges and Injustices in the U.S.

Just last month News21, a student reporting project based out of the University of Arizona published an in-depth 11 article series and 30-minute documentary on water challenges and injustices in the U.S.

In Will’s questions for this week, he asks “how can the right to water be scaled to local geographies and varying government agencies?” Many of the examples in the Troubled Water series could be insightful in answering that question.

One other recent article, I wanted to share from The Guardian gives a damning critique of water inequity in the U.S., focusing on Lowndes County Alabama, mentioned in last week’s US Water Alliance briefing.