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Introduction to the special issue on the political economy of water

June 2010, Volume 42, No. 2



Metropolitan Autonomous University, Mexico City

The response to our call for papers for this special issue dedicated to the “Political Economy of Water” was particularly gratifying. It sparked a lively flow of correspondence with members of the editorial board, highlighting important changes in the process of global accumulation: new forms of expansion of capital and the intensification of popular challenges to continuing attempts to appropriate collective resources, to transform the access to water into a commodity, and to deny historical claims to the basic human right to water.

In our call, we highlighted a self-evident truth: “Water is a matter of life and death. Water and food for nutrition enable us to live, but for many of the world’s people the availability of both substances is tenuous at best. While food scarcity has been part of human history, more recent changes have heightened concern that limited availability of water threatens a rising portion of the population.” We posed a number of questions to our colleagues, questions that focused on key concerns that now occupy a key place on the global political scenario:

• How do current processes for regulating private appropriation of water, for sale or use, work now, and how might they be improved?
• How does the availability of water shape households and the distribution of work in them?
• How might a “life-line” provision of water as a basic right be organized?
• What principles will guide new efforts to assure access to clean and safe water?
• Global land-use patterns and economic development have, and will, hinge on the availability of water. Is the world turmoil we see over petroleum a forerunner of future battles over water?
• Remediation of environmental pollution of water resources takes on increasingly urgent meaning, but resources for this work remain scarce. Can we better understand or modify how global climate changes affect conditions of drought or flooding?

The articles offered in this special collection address many of these matters. They highlight some of the most pressing issues in international debates and the foremost concerns of leading scholars and practitioners in the field: privatization of services or of the resource itself, the human right to water, and the resolution of conflicts among different claimants in diverse societies. The reader will also find a cogent discussion of the vexing debates that plague the economics profession and politicians everywhere: how to reconcile the complex and seemingly technical matters of assuring adequate volumes and quality of water (evaluated in terms of its suitability for human consumption) and well-managed distribution networks with the restrictions of limited budgets, the highly sensitive matter of tariff structures, the cry for “full-cost recovery,” and the exigencies of universal service delivery. Another particularly sensitive issue is the matter of waste water management and sanitation, examined in an informative and critical review of three recent books on the subject (Cohen).

There are, however, a number of pressing matters not dealt with in this collection that merit comment by the editors before introducing the topics examined in detail in this issue of the RRPE. Even leaving aside the very serious transboundary conflicts in semi-arid and arid regions, about which a growing literature has developed (i.e., Priscoli and Wolf 2008), perhaps the most important of these is the rapid intensification in the battle for access to water by different classes of users. Although many of these conflicts are implicit in the push for “privatization”—most especially the problem of assuring access to poorer groups—the increasing claims on water by agricultural, mining, and industrial users as well as demands for energy generation and cooling towers have seriously affected water availability and quality for urban populations throughout the world. The conflicts in this regard are so serious as to imperil the very survival of affected populations: the International, Central American, and Latin American water tribunals have been confronting demands from impacted groups throughout the world for almost twenty years as a result of the pollution occasioned by productive activities and the growing demands for water as part of productive processes in remote areas that seriously affect viability of aquifers and rivers in regions throughout the Third World (Maganda Ramírez 2010). The problem is substantially less in developed countries because of better regulatory institutions and more effective citizen participation in political processes, although even there egregious violations of established laws and norms are repeatedly uncovered.

Economic instruments (most particularly, payments for environmental (hydraulic) services) are becoming increasingly fashionable as a mechanism to attempt to correct or anticipate problems that the market cannot manage. It is clear that greater care will have to be used if these instruments are to be effective in assuring that the programs lead to effective processes for guaranteeing available supplies of quality water for the groups paying for these services. An excellent example of the complexity of dealing with this matter responsibly is the successful experience of New York City in negotiating a watershed protection program with dairy farmers in the Catskill-Delaware region, some 75-125 miles north of the city, which supplies 90 percent of its water; instead of using the very popular market based signals favored by economists to achieve environment, social, and economic objectives, its success can be attributed to the development of a “Whole Farm Watershed Agreement” that included a program of productive activities to increase incomes of the collaborators while also assuring high water quality at a much lower cost to users in the city. Although in place for more than twenty years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration, staffed by professionals guided by traditional “command and control” models and market principles, continues to push for an alternative multi-billion dollar water treatment plant, arguing that the present solution cannot confront the long-term stability of the city’s needs (Appleton 2002; Hoffman 2002; see for details about this ongoing program). In contrast, the examples mentioned in the Brazilian case show how the commodification of envi- ronmental services can actually contribute to environmental damage (Ioris).

Perhaps one of the most innovative new analytical approaches introduced into the tool box of engineers and economists is the concept of “virtual water” (Allan 2003). Offering to quantify the volumes of water embedded in the production process of commodities, the concept proposes to enrich our understanding of resource scarcities and international trade flows by complementing the examination of flows of value with the corresponding flows of water required in all stages of production; this concept has been operationalized as the “water footprint” (Hoekstra and Chapagain 2008). Incorporating these considerations into an alternative analysis of comparative advantage, based on the virtual water embedded in these commodities, analysts are evaluating the ways in which water scarce regions are constructing trade strategies, when evaluated in terms of resource endowments. Widely publicized by UNESCO, the concept has not yet been subject to the scrutiny it merits by critical scholars who will have to examine the concept’s social and political implications, similar to the ways in which standard trade theory has ignored these con siderations for the poorer countries in the world system.

Public Good or Commodity?

Debate among economists begins with the seemingly simple question of whether the widely (but not universally) recognized human right to water should imply its delivery to all social groups free of charge. Although enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed in 2002 in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by the respective United Nations Committee, Branco and Henriques point out in their contribution that many countries have demurred in principle or in practice from the conclusion that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use.” Their analysis takes us through a careful examination of the way in which economic analysis confronts these matters and concludes the profession cannot provide an adequate solution because “markets are both inefficient in reaching universal coverage and unaccountable.” Moving to a different part of the world, Duggard shows how commercial implementation at the local level can undermine a political commitment to the universal rights agreed upon by the national government; even when these commitments are acknowledged, the skills required by local groups to ensure adherence are often lacking among poorer socio-economic and marginalized groups and success will depend on the state itself developing mechanisms to transfer skills and negotiating capacities (Goldin).

Do/Can Markets Work?

The highly contentious issue of introducing market criteria into the management and delivery of water services is more polarized than in many other areas of public policy because of water’s special importance as an essential good for human existence and for the survival of the ecosystems on which we depend. The major transnational corporations who control a large segment of the concessions granted by national and local governments for managing the services have been particularly effective in advancing their viewpoint in international fora and, in cooperation with the multilateral “development” finance community, convened five “World Water Forums” (the latest being held in Istanbul, Turkey in March, 2009) where they aggressively advance their agendas for private management and for the need to develop mechanisms to ensure that water is “correctly” priced on international and local markets. These international conclaves have also served as a magnet for an increasingly numerous and sophisticated opposition to this approach, based upon the call for respect for the environment and human rights, and the evidence that shows that social control of water and its management can produce very satisfactory results (Balanyá et al. 2005).1

This second transversal theme repeatedly appears in the contributions in this special issue of the RRPE. The commercialization of water services and consumption itself becomes a means to generate a new form of resource scarcity that systematically deprives people of the historical basis for asserting and defending their collective rights and, in the process, dismantling hard fought struggles for collective identities (Ahlers). By inserting access to water into the market, with the institutional complexities and strictures that this involves, people are not only deprived of many traditional avenues for cooperation that facilitated collective problem solving, but they are also being thrust into increasingly contentious situations which are increasingly opening the door to the use of the police power of the state as a means of control, with terrible social consequences and environmental impacts (Ioris).

Another consequence of the imposition of the logic of the capitalist marketplace in the area of water services is the extension of the process of capitalist accumulation. This involves the advance and intensification of the inexorable process of “accumulation by dispossession” (Ahlers), opening new territories and spheres of social activity to domination by capitalist forms of market behavior. These transformations led to the use of “technical” criteria for determining “efficiency,” based upon quantitative measures of operational and financial adequacy that ignore social efficiency or place these criteria on a secondary plane, thus effectively depriving the population of basic citizenship rights (Spronk).

A related problem is the quality of the service provided to consumers by water companies and government agencies. In many parts of the developing world, but also in some municipalities in the United States, the quantity and quality of the water delivered to households is unacceptable and even harmful to human health; historically this problem is aggravated by the inability of many water service agencies to assure adequate financing to make the necessary investments or even to pay their operational expenses. This has been a major argument of the international development agencies (World Bank along with the Inter-American and Asian Development banks) to push for the privatization of service, arguing that the private sector can do the job more adequately and efficiently (Marin 2009); Spronk argues that this is a narrow and ill-framed discussion. This matter is central for an understanding of the problems of social justice required for a progressive analysis of water services; the brief critical discussion in this special issue can be enriched by a reference to the many excellent critical studies based on case studies available in the literature (i.e., Castro and Heller 2009; Barkin and Klooster 2006; Kailsam, 2009; Olvera and Terhorst 2009).

This special issue of the Review provides an initial foray into the complex issues involved in the attempts by international capital to continue its expansion geographically and in terms of new areas of human existence and natural processes. The authors are quite critical of recent experience and offer a wide variety of detailed information about the way in which these processes have advanced. In a forthcoming article, another critical analysis will further enrich our understanding by examining the way in which disappointment with regard to the inability to achieve the initial high profit expectations of privatization and commodification had terrible consequences in terms of unfulfilled promises of investment in infrastructure and the resulting deterioration of health and sanitary conditions in many areas (Bond, Vol. 42, No. 4). We anticipate additional materials on this subject and other environmental issues crucial for a progressive understanding of the impacts of capitalist expansion in future issues of the RRPE.

David Barkin, for the special issue collective:
David Barkin
Christopher Gunn
Ann Jennings

1. The group Rethinking Public Water has been coordinating an international effort to promote the public control of water for more than five years. In addition to its ongoing publications program it is involved in the active promotion of mechanisms to facilitate successful public water agencies’ participation in providing technical and administrative assistance to others in need of support. For more information about their activities and program, consult the website:

Allan, J. A. 2003. Virtual water—the water, food, and trade nexus: Useful concept or misleading metaphor? Water International 28 (1): 4–11.

Appleton, A. F. 2002. How New York City used an ecosystem services strategy. Paper presented to the Katoomba Conference, Tokyo. (accessed 14 Nov. 2009).

Balanyá, B., B. Brennan, O. Hoedeman, S. Krishimoto, and P. Teherhorst. 2005. Reclaiming public water: Achievements, struggles and visions from around the world. Amsterdam: TNI. (Also available at:

Barkin, D., and D. Klooster. 2006. Water management strategies in urban Mexico: Limitations of the privatization debate. Tampa, FL: Patel Center, University of South Florida. Available at:

Bond, P. Forthcoming. Water, health and the commodification debate. Review of Radical Political Economics.

Castro, J. E., and L. Heller, eds. 2009. Water and sanitation services: Public policy and management. London:

Hoekstra, A. Y., and A. K. Chapagain. 2008. Globalization of water: Sharing the planet’s freshwater resources. London: Blackwell Publishing.

Hoffman, J. D. 2010. The cooperation challenge of economics and the protection of water supplies: A case study of the New York City Watershed Collaboration. London and New York: Routledge.

Kailsam, B., producer. 2009. Writing on water. Amsterdam: TNI, Centre for Law Policy and Human Rights Studies Chennai (motion picture). Available at:

Maganda Ramírez, C. 2010. Water management practices on trial: The Tribunal Latinoamericano del Agua and the creation of public space for social participation in water politics. In Social participation in water governance and management: Critical and global perspectives, eds. K. A. Berry and E. Mollard. London: Earthscan.

Marin, P. 2009. Public-private partnerships for urban water utilities: A review of experiences in developing countries. Washington, DC: World Bank, Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF). (Trends and policy options 8.)

Olvera, M., and P. Terhorst. 2009. Changing the flow: Water movements in Latin America. Washington, DC: Food and Water Watch, Other Worlds, Reclaiming Public Water, Redvida, and Transnational Institute. Available at:

Priscoli, J. D., and A. T. Wolf. 2008. Managing and transforming water conflicts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

More information about this special issue is available from the Sage Publications website

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