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The Commodification of Water, Social Protest and Cosmopolitan Citizenship Professor Bronwen Morgan University of Bristol
Introduction • Water is a basic necessity, essential to life. Profiting from this incontrovertible fact is politically problematic, and the commercial delivery of drinking water services to domestic consumers, especially by the private sector, is highly contested. • Two recent trends have politicised urban water consumption: – a sharp increase in private sector investment in the delivery of water to household users across national borders – intensified social protest against the commodification of water in both developed and developing countries. • The project explored conflicts surrounding the provision of drinking water to domestic consumers that were embedded in global governance dynamics • The project did not focus on broader water resource issues such as river basin management, nor on the allocation of water to industry and agriculture.
Water-related research intersections Climate change, biodiversity , forests, transnational rivers Welfare state, social policy, law & development, universal access Watersheds, river basins, irrigation, dams Essential services, regulatory governance of telecoms, electricity, gas, water
What we did • identified sites where transnational companies had invested in water service delivery in both developed and developing countries • studied four specific disputes arising from this (in New Zealand, France, Bolivia and Argentina) and two changing dispute contexts (in South Africa and Chile) in qualitative comparative case studies • attended and took part in multi-stakeholder meetings in global water policy • mapped global policy networks in the water sector • tracked developments in international rule-making processes relating to water service delivery (trade and investment, professional self-regulation, social and economic human rights)
Research questions • • What range of ethical and ideological visions animate protest against water commodification? What strategies have protestors used to institutionalise these visions? What rules or principles at the local, national and international levels have been important in shaping and resolving the conflicts? How have those protesting engaged with these rules, and what have been the results?
Key finding 1. - Water activists transform norms of ‘responsible consumerism’ through practices of civil disobedience and use of quasi-judicial fora • Conflicts often viewed mainly through the lens of national legislative politics are also shaped by court hearings, less formal spaces such as ombudsman or small claims tribunals, and on the street with direct action • The less formal spaces can play an important role in channelling direct protest into sustained and more routine political leverage • This is because legal and quasi-legal dispute resolution particularises and makes concrete very general rules, thereby allowing small sequential wins and losses for otherwise polarised forces, thereby routinising and legitimising ‘unruly consumer’ tactics • In some circumstances, this can secure ‘social’ changes to the regulatory framework of water service delivery, particularly when allied with significant participation in legislative reform • E. g. more redistributive tariff structures – Argentina • E. g. term limits on contracting-out water services – NZ
Key finding 2. – Iterative interaction between a wide range of actors at different levels is cumulatively constructing a nascent regime of ‘global water welfarism’ • Global water welfarism: a set of institutions and rules that attempt to establish a legitimate transnational public sphere for the governance of water • Two models are being constructed from the cumulative effects of varying local experiences: • Managed liberalisation: organized rule-based response that shapes the national governance structures on which it relies for delivering outcomes (France has a critical shaping role, Chile is example) • Praxis-based restructuring: (and re-energising) of public sector operators working with civil society at the national and local level, supported where necessary by a framework of formal rules at the global level (Bolivia, possibly South Africa)
Infusing governance strategies with agency, resistance, and the everyday understandings of ordinary citizens • “One striking aspect of research on the nonstate is how little its chroniclers have had to say about institutionalisation. The emphasis is on movements, actors, networks, and relationships, but not on embedded, enduring sets of roles and rules that give shape and form to a whole array of struggles over time” - Ken Conca, Governing Water: Contentious Transnational Politics and Institution. Building, MIT Press 2006, p. 24 • “What remains difficult for research concerned with governing …is to imagine people as citizens in anything other than the most perfunctory sense. This marks a failure of imagination in a research field that continues to conceptualise the political field as a realm of policy, regulation and governance rather than one of mobilisation, participation and contestation”. – Malpass et al in Governance, Citizens and Consumers: Agency and Resistance in Contemporary Politics (eds Bevir and Trentmann) forthcoming 2007