Water, Activism, and Policy Implementation

My book project is about how politicians, bureaucrats, experts, and activists shape water and sanitation policy in two Latin American cities: Greater Buenos Aires in Argentina and Greater Santiago in Chile. Water and sanitation policy concerns two central challenges of the metropolis: how to distribute clean water to its residents and how to get dirty water out. While these challenges appear to be about taming ecological processes with the technical know-how of engineering, they are also social and political problems. I focus on a period when old ideas about how to manage water were challenged, forcing cities to choose the way forward during two prolonged episodes of privatization. These episodes led one city to accept foreign private companies as new providers of basic services, while the other used the failure of privatization to revive faith in public sector approaches. Beyond a struggle over states and markets, what debates over privatization revealed was a search by cities worldwide to adapt their aging infrastructures to changing social and environmental conditions.


I make two main contributions. The first is to trace how the idea of privatizing water was introduced by policymakers and experts, and why it resulted in such different trajectories. During the last thirty years, policy experiments with private investment in the urban water and sewage sector became commonplace throughout the world,

generating a new global market in “environmental services.” Major cities—not only in Latin America, but also Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States—attempted to address their infrastructural and service provision deficits by attracting foreign and domestic private companies to take over responsibilities for water and sanitation provision, sometimes under pressure from international financial institutions. I argue that policy outcomes were partly contingent on starting conditions and how the logics of market-based approaches interacted with the institutional and social contexts into which they were introduced. Privatization in Greater Buenos Aires collapsed for many reasons, but fundamentally because it was expected to solve the problem of major gaps in access to water and sewerage connections. Privatization in Greater Santiago persisted not because markets “work” in Chile, but because the company was sold after substantial investments and other changes undertaken by the public company before privatization.

The second is to consider how activists, bureaucrats, and urban residents have participated in this story. The comparative sociological and political science literature has documented powerful “defensive” mobilization against economic adjustment policies and around social citizenship rights, as well as cases where urban residents experience quiescence and endless waiting rather than collective mobilization, where legacies of political repression constrain the willingness to act politically, and where clientelistic practices between political elites and the poor shape patterns of service provision, leading to mixed expectations about the effects of collective action on policy implementation. Existing scholarship has also shown that the privatization of water and sanitation services has implications for the human right to water, that water tends to be imbued with meanings connecting it to broader constructs like community, and that the lack of access to water and sanitation is a dimension of socioeconomic inequality.

Yet in the politics of water there is much variation in the policy implementation process and whether activists, residents, and other policy "outsiders" who take up these issues are able to have an impact. In some settings, activists play central roles in contesting water privatization and demanding better services, while in others they have had less presence, voice, and influence. How and under what conditions, then, do activists and residents become involved in and influence the implementation of water and sanitation policy? What kind of impact do they have? I argue that when policies are introduced that affect social citizenship rights related to subsistence and collective consumption, activists are more likely to be heard when they engage in multiple strategies, using disruptive protest to draw attention to grievances as well as contesting the legitimacy of particular dimensions of a given policy. Furthermore, cross-class social mobilization with connections to state bureaucrats, even if fragmented, has more associational power and is more likely to have policy influence than social mobilization by a narrower subset of groups lacking access to the state bureaucracy. Mobilization is even more likely to have an impact when it unfolds as part of broader protest cycles with which such efforts resonate.

© by Maria Akchurin