Putting the focus on public
Reclaiming public water utilities has been successful in several municipalities around the world, demonstrating the viability of public alternatives for water service delivery (Balanyá et al., 2005; Kishimoto & Petitjean, 2017; Pigeon et al., 2012). Research shows over 1,400 cases of successful remunicipalization, returning to public services, in more than 2,400 cities globally (Kishimoto et al., 2020). The Water War in Cochabamba, Bolivia, is a celebrated example of citizens mobilizing against the privatization of the municipal water company to oust the private foreign enterprise from the country. The mobilizations for the democratization of water in 2000 and beyond have demonstrated that privatization is neither a desired nor a viable option in Cochabamba. However, the public water system remains a work in progress as the people of Cochabamba continue to struggle for better public services today. As a starting point for analysis, I examine the concept of “social control,” a demand made by the water movement in Bolivia for collaborative participatory governance and greater influence in decision-making that has been incorporated to varying degrees in Bolivia’s overarching water policies.
Academic literature has primarily focused on anti-privatization resistance rather than post-privatization recovery. Progressive research is, however, now moving away from the anti-privatization debate and towards building a greater conceptual and empirical understanding of public alternatives. This book contributes to this literature through the analysis of water remunicipalization in Cochabamba to help provide insights into what has worked with the new public entity, what has not, and where the public water system could be strengthened, being mindful of how power dynamics are reproduced or addressed in alternative models of governance. Remunicipalization is the most widely used term referring to “the return of water services to public ownership and management following the termination of private contracts” (Lobina, 2017, p. 149). It typically, though not exclusively, entails a return to operation at the municipal level (McDonald & Ruiters, 2012). Building on a growing literature and experiences with the remunicipalization of public water services around the world, my research aims to contribute to the methodological evaluation and theoretical conceptualization of public alternatives.
Although most countries began their water services via private investments, it became clear by the early 20th century that private companies were largely unable or uninterested in investing in water infrastructure owing to the low profitability of such investments. As water and sewage systems are natural monopolies, it was also viewed as more efficient to provide water through a centralized administration rather than through competing firms using parallel infrastructure systems. As was the case with health care, water provision came to be considered a state responsibility due to the universal social and economic benefits for citizens, not to mention water’s importance to industrial development and the economic health of the developmental state. Therefore, after World War II, access to water, basic services, and sanitation came under public sector management around the world, although the endeavour was typically more successful in the Global North than in the Global South due to resource availability and political commitment (Bakker, 2003b; Bennett, 1995).
The story has been very different since the 1970s. Accompanying the neoliberal policy shift of the past few decades has been an objection to the concept that states should hold the primary responsibility for providing access to water.
Proponents of privatization have cited “state failure” in providing universal water access in policy documents and reports (Bakker, 2013; Howell & Pearce, 2001). The 1992 Dublin Principles defined water as an “economic good,” and presented the argument that past failures to attribute an economic value to water had led to wasteful use and scarcity of water resources in developing countries (Bakker, 2007; Budds & McGranahan, 2003; Castro, 2009). Thus, privatization 1
of the water sector was presented as the best solution to poor public sector performance.
pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, many governments of developing countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia were pressured to sell off their public water systems. 2
These policies have served to normalize the occurrence of transnational corporations providing public services. However, it is important to note that the lines between public and private are not as distinct as they are often depicted. The majority of the largest donor-funded water projects consist of public–private partnerships (PPPs) as collaborations between private companies and states (Boag & McDonald, 2010).
Substantial literature critical of water privatization emerged as a result of the impacts of the increased commercialization of water systems (Barlow, 2007; Budds & McGranahan, 2003; Hall & Lobina, 2007; Swyngedouw, 2005). The imposition of water privatization by international organizations has raised questions about democratic control and the limitations placed on the decision-making capacity of local government and people. However, while the interests of multinational corporations are clearly promoted, local elites often support and benefit from privatization as well (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012; Bakker, 2003a; Conaghan & Malloy, 1994; Estrin & Pelle-tier, 2018; Kohl, 2002; Yeboah, 2006). Privatization has mostly failed in its desired objectives and has not proven to be more efficient or effective than the public sphere in water provision. While privatization was purported to solve the problem of uneven access—a panacea to water problems—it has not led to full expansion of service delivery, and the costs of limited expansion typically fall on consumers and taxpayers (Budds & McGranahan, 2003; Hall & Lobina, 2007). In Cochabamba, user fees skyrocketed to unaffordable levels, cutting off the poorest households from accessing water. Similar experiences with water privatization occurred in Argentina, South Africa, Chile, and Uruguay (Bakker, 2000). Importantly, in the case of Cochabamba, the private contract granted the concession access to sources of water traditionally used collectively by rural farmers. This provoked a movement to reaffirm the importance of regaining social control of the water systems.
Much of the academic literature on the Water War in Bolivia focuses on its success as an anti-privatization victory, but the ongoing struggle for better public services in Cochabamba has not been adequately documented or assessed. This is reflective of the tendency in the debates on commodification to reject privatization in favour of public alternatives yet stop short of exploring a deeper conceptualization of what an alternative means and how it might unfold on the ground. Researchers often talk about the need for alternatives to water privatization, yet their focus is on highlighting the destructive processes of privatization and social movement strategies to overcome them rather than on explicit investigations of what else might be done.
Following the failure of many private sector water contracts, discussions of alternative water supply models have increasingly invoked “public” or “community.” However, without defining the concepts, these models can actually serve to extend the logic of commercialization, as can be observed in the surge of public–private–community partnerships (PPCPs), water provision resulting from partnerships typically between communities and small-scale private businesses (Franceys & Weitz, 2003). There is, however, also a push to remove profit-driven private sector involvement in water delivery.
Social movements around the world view water as essential for human survival and defend water as part the global commons, seeking progressive ways to manage water services via state and non-state mechanisms.
A new research agenda is underway as authors call for a deeper analysis of public alternatives and their consequences (Balanyá et al., 2005; Dries-sen, 2008; Kishimoto & Petitjean, 2017; Kishimoto et al., 2020; Lobina, 2017; McDonald, 2018, 2019; McDonald & Ruiters, 2012; McDonald et al., 2020; Pigeon et al., 2012; Sick, 2008; Spronk, 2010). The literature on public alternatives does not constitute a consistent theoretical approach, but has made advances in the conceptualization of public and how we understand its possibilities and limitations. So, too, is there a growing comparative literature exploring different experiences of public alternatives, using methodologies grounded in a normative framework to assess their success (McDonald, 2016; McDonald & Ruiters, 2012). The following criteria have been employed to refer to broad categories of evaluation, all of which contain a range of finer-tuned sub-categories with reference to criteria such as gender and spatiality: participation, equity, accountability, transparency, quality, transferability, efficiency, sustainability, solidarity, public ethos. These terms establish universal criteria for public services, yet are flexible enough to be culturally specific and appropriate, allowing for contextualized accounts of water access and distribution while still enabling the comparison of cases in other parts of the world.
This book builds upon this emerging literature on public alternatives as a starting point to understanding efforts to rebuild public water services in Cochabamba, with a particular focus on the criteria of participation. The slogans of the Cochabamba water movement suggest that water should not simply be a means for economic profit or state control but a public good that is essential for life and accessible to all citizens, driven by community engagement. Demands for social control revolve around local stewardship, with communities being part of the new public solution. Applying the concept of social control allows us to better see the obstacles to and opportunities for creating a public water alternative and can provide insights into the processes through which political power is exerted by varying actors in the development of water systems (Swyngedouw, 1997).
Guiding questions and fieldwork
Grassroots resistance to the commercialization of water in Cochabamba has produced a narrative of public control of water services that envisions water as a public good. The water movement in Cochabamba shifted from an anti-privatization battle to a struggle to build an alternative system. This book examines why, almost two decades after the Water War, the democratic vision of Cochabamba’s water movement is still unfulfilled and why water access remains extremely fragmented. It seeks to uncover the obstacles in realizing a progressive public vision of water delivery but also sheds light on opportunities to strengthen the public utility. In doing so, this project focuses on the movement’s demand for social control, a collective form of water management with greater citizen participation. I examine the various meanings of social control and how different understandings of it have been incorporated into the new public model (or not) for water services in Cochabamba. In particular, I want to see how participatory mechanisms have developed and whether they meet demands for social control made by citizens. As such, the research is guided by the following questions: 1) How is social control defined by actors in Cochabamba, and how has it changed over time? 2) How have calls for social control been integrated into managerial, operational, and technical responsibilities of water service provision in the city? and 3) How does social control facilitate inclusion or exclusion amongst water users in Cochabamba, and does it reproduce or confront inequities?
My research methodology was geared towards gathering information on the depth and scope of participation, how participation is formalized or institutionalized, and if the forms of participation can be sustained in the long term. The research comprises a study of Cochabamba to give a contextual account of water access and distribution. The use of a case study follows Snow and Trom’s (2002, p. 147) definition that includes the following: 1) investigation and analysis of an instance or variant of some bounded social phenomenon that 2) seeks to generate a richly detailed and “thick” elaboration of the phenomenon studied through 3) the use and triangulation of multiple methods or procedures that include but are not limited to qualitative techniques.
The methods I used to undertake this research included text analysis, participant observation, and in-depth interviewing, incorporating Smith’s (2007, p. 413) feminist institutional ethnography approach, which is a method of inquiry that
explores and explicates social relations and powers from the standpoint of people in their everyday worlds… [to learn] from the actualities of what people are doing and from what they have to tell her or him about their everyday lives.
Using this approach puts an emphasis on social relations, “the sequences of action in which people are involved at different stages but not necessarily directly engaged in a shared work process,” thereby starting with the actions and everyday experiences of people participating in the management of Cochabamba’s water services and then exploring how people’s activities and contributions are coordinated through these activities (Smith, 2007). This approach also emphasizes institutions’ use of texts to coordinate people’s work, how they reflect social relations, and how they are actioned. I pay attention to how the concept of social control is included in the laws, policies, and procedures that are key to water governance in Cochabamba and the kinds of outcomes this entails for water users.
During my fieldwork, I explored how the people of Cochabamba envision public water services and how the articulations of the demand for social control have shifted over time. I delved into the ...