Contested Urban Waterscapes

Analytical Framework

An analytical framework for better understanding contestations over control and access to water in urban waterscapes addresses the interactions between three salient components: processes (commodification and decommodification), actors (human and non-human) and strategies (discursive, material and institutional).

Together, these components are useful for conceptualizing, exposing and explaining water inequalities as a problem articulated to political and economic interests operating at multiple scales. Although this conceptual framework is not exclusive or exhaustive, it serves the purpose of analysing contestations over control and access to water in urban contexts as shown in Figure 1.

1. Processes: What is being contested in the urban waterscapes?

Contestations in the urban waterscapes need to be approached from two distinct and simultaneous processes: commodification and decommodification.

Commodification – is a systemic process of transforming a resource into an economic good. Water companies (whether public or private) deploy standardized and capital-intensive urban infrastructure networks (e.g. dams, tanks, pipes, meters) to capture and homogenize water (H2O) into potable and clean water. This metabolized water is delivered to customers at a cost-reflective price. Customers in return have the responsibility to pay to the company. In case of failing to pay on time, the water service is disconnected until debts are paid back.

Decommodification – is the process of disrupting the social relations that contribute to water’s commodification process (McDonald and Ruiters, 2005). In this process, water becomes insulated from the spheres of capital and it is distributed according to household’s needs. It is important to stress that a decommodification process is not equivalent to the provision of water free of costs. Instead, it is a weapon employed by low-income households to secure access to water when it is being denied.

While commodification particularly evaluates how power circulates within particular forms of capital accumulation, decommodification analyses diffuse forms of power circulating within the daily practices in low-income households in their attempt not only to secure access to water, but also articulate political claims such as demands for citizenship recognition.

2. Actors: Who is taking part in these contestations and why?

Contemporary studies over water access tend to focus on either commodification or decommodification. However, very little research has addressed commodification and decommodification as two closely intertwined processes. By drawing attention to different kinds of actors (human and non-human) and the interactions among them at different scales, this conceptual framework provides productive ways for tracing how uneven power relations are embedded in water struggles and contestations.

Analysis might include:

Human actors – water companies either public or private, the state as a regulator, low-income households, informal water providers, etc.
Non-human actors – water

3. Strategies: How are the urban waterscapes being contested?

Actors deploy different strategies to justify and legitimize their interests and actions. The power of specific actors to mobilize and negotiate these strategies ultimately decide who will be entitled to have access to water, and who will be excluded.

These strategies are divided into three categories:

Discursive strategies – Discourses are necessary to defend and legitimize particular policies and practices. For example, water can be discursively presented as a scarce resource, public good, commodity or right. The “citizen” in a market logic can be associated to a good/disciplined user that pays water bills on time, and therefore, is granted with the right to have sufficient and realiable access, while the “non-citizen” is the bad/undisciplined user that needs to be excluded from the water service for non-payment of bills or because illegal land tenure status.

Material strategies – Infrastructure networks are essential objects to organize the flows of water into the city as they physically sustain the simultaneously process of commodification (standardized pipes, storage tanks, conventional meters, flow limiters, prepaid technologies) and decommodification (diversity of self-constructed infrastructures that combine tubes, valves, pumps, taps, etc).

Institutional strategies – Institutional frameworks are necessary to determine how water is (to be) used, distributed and governed and to legitimize some forms of authority over others. This research involves traditional formal institutions (e.g. regulations, laws and rules) and informal institutions (e.g. bargaining, solidarity, negotiation).

  • Figure 1. Analytical Framework for Understanding Contested Urban Waterscapes