Urban Water Privatization in Argentina and Chile

Agua no potable

My book manuscript tells the story of how two major Latin American cities, Buenos Aires and Santiago, privatized their water systems, reimagining and reorganizing their cities’ relationships to water provision in the process. They were among the first in the hemisphere to experiment with bringing in private companies to take over their water and sanitation utilities, and both ended up contracting with subsidiaries of Suez, the same French multinational company, to do so.


Privatization was an epistemic project that had far-reaching implications. In Buenos Aires, privatization collapsed after more than a decade of attempts to salvage the process, and this failure eventually revived public sector efforts to reinvent and reinvest in its public services. In Santiago, the French subsidiary emerged as the new provider of water and sanitation and acquired indefinite use-rights to water drawn from the Mapocho River, becoming firmly embedded in the local system of water management, remaining entrenched and relatively unquestioned even as many Chileans have been actively mobilizing against the legacy of market-based ideas inherited from the Pinochet era, including the commodification of water resources.

The project is structured around the following questions: How was privatization introduced as a rival idea to public sector approaches to water and sanitation? How did policymakers, experts, bureaucrats, and private sector managers shape the pathways of implementation of water and sanitation policy? Under what conditions did activists, urban residents, union leaders, and other “policy outsiders” have influence and impact? These questions form part of the larger puzzle of how urban water and sanitation policy is made at a time when many people make more claims about socioeconomic rights and expect more from their governments, while they also internalize the individualist logics of neoliberalism and are living in a world where many basic social goods are provided not through the state via taxation but rather by private and other types of non-state entities.


I argue that the contrasting trajectories of water policies in Buenos Aires and Santiago are best explained by a processual and historical account of policy implementation, one that considers what happens as global technopolitical projects like privatization encounter distinct urban water regimes. By urban water regimes, I mean the political, sociotechnical, and ecological relationships in place when a new mode of organizing water provision gets introduced. I follow the half-life of this idea—urban water privatization—through a set of distinct geographic and institutional landscapes to understand why these cities responded so differently to attempts to privatize water and sanitation services, and what they were left with as a result of these experiments.