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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

The Commodification of Water, Social Protest and Cosmopolitan Citizenship

Water is a basic necessity, essential to life. Profiting from this incontrovertible fact is politically problematic, and the commercial delivery of water services to domestic consumers is highly contested. This socio-legal research project explored conflicts surrounding the provision of water to domestic consumers, bringing together the North-South dimensions of a topic that engages global governance frameworks in local contexts in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, France, New Zealand and South Africa.

This project ran from March 2003 to December 2005

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view the findings summary sheet for this project [pdf]

Project team
Bronwen Morgan award holder
Carolina Fairstein

Professor Bronwen Morgan
Faculty of Social Sciences & Law
University of Bristol
Wills Memorial Building
Queens Road

+44 (0)117 954 5333

Publications include:

Morgan B. ‘Turning Off the Tap: Urban Water Service Delivery and the Social Construction of Global Administrative Law’, European Journal of International Law, 17 (1) (2006), pp. 215–246.

Morgan B. ‘Emerging Global Water Welfarism: Access to Water, Unruly Consumers and Transnational Governance’, in Brewer J. and Trentmann F.(eds), Consumer Cultures, Global Perspectives: Historical Trajectories, Transnational Exchanges (Oxford and New York: Berg 2006), pp. 279–310.

Morgan B. ‘Water: Frontier Markets and Cosmopolitan Activism’, Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture, 27 (2004), pp. 10–24.


Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


Water is a basic good, and access to water is critical to full membership of a community. But in the face of aging infrastructure in developed countries, lack of investment capital in developing countries, and a looming shortage of water at a global level, the provision of access to water as a basic universal entitlement of citizenship is increasingly intractable. A commonly offered solution to this focuses on the participation of the private sector in the delivery of water to household users. As this increases, social protests against the commodification of water have multiplied in both developed and developing countries. These developments are increasingly coordinated on a transnational basis but are also deeply embedded in national and local legal contexts.

This project will study the links between the status of 'global consumer' and the trend toward global governance in the case of urban water consumption and delivery. It will explore grass-roots efforts to mobilise the a-national identity of 'consumer' as a way of securing basic needs in relation to water. It will also identify patterns of exploiting or even creating strategic linkages between local, national and international levels of governance as a lever for achieving this goal. The project will thereby enable greater precision to be brought to emerging notions of community membership that cut across traditional political boundaries. At the same it time it will contribute to the policy search for institutional solutions to the problem of providing potable water to the world's population.

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Commodification of water is occurring in an emerging 'global field' of water policy via the spread of privatised water delivery mechanisms in specific national and local contexts, and the expansion of the remit of international trade regimes. Equally, social protest against such commodification is increasingly widespread. By exploring particular disputes in city sites in both industrialised OECD countries and less well-resourced developing countries, the research seeks to clarify the political salience of water-related consumption practices, as well as to understand better the governance context of water as a global policy issue.

Linking these two sets of findings has exciting potential to give some concrete shape to the hitherto diffuse notion of 'cosmopolitan citizenship'. How so? Citizenship can be understood broadly as the incidents of full membership of a community. The institutional and concrete dimensions of citizenship are normally secured in a national legal setting, but the pressures of globalisation have catalysed discussion of less bounded notions of citizenship, of which cosmopolitan citizenship is a prominent example. At the same time, because increasing market liberalisation is one of the most significant pressures characteristic of globalisation, the most powerful transnational identity emerging to date seems to be that of consumer.

The present time is ripe for research that links questions of consumption and citizenship to governance issues around water. The bulk of water research has long focused on technical scientific (engineering, environmental, public health) aspects, while research on governance and institutional aspects of water consumption is relatively young. At the same time, a number of recent major global norm-creating processes - ranging from sustainable development summits to multilateral negotiations on services to competing (official and 'alternative') World Water Fora - have placed this issue in a political spotlight of increasing intensity that presages imminent institutional innovation. The research thus explores a flashpoint issue for the legitimacy of both globalisation and the spread of economic liberalisation. The next ten years may well see crucial settlements made between the 'anti-globalisation' and 'pro-globalisation' forces around these broader issues: settlements that will shape the trajectory of the future, and to which this research aims to contribute.

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The main questions dealt with by the project are:

  • What are the ethical and ideological visions animating organised protest against the commodification of water?
  • How have the practical strategies of protestors engaged with local, national, international and transnational regimes of rules and principles governing the provision of urban water consumption and delivery?
  • What are the patterns of communication, exchange of knowledge and interaction between the different networks of actors shaping the conflicts studied?
  • In particular, to what extent are the identities and visions that animate protest supported or undermined by the applicable rules and principles shaping the resolution of conflict over the provision of urban water services?

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The study will first map the transnational networks of actors in the global water sector (including water companies, organised consumers, social activists, technical specialists, and water regulators). Next we will conduct six qualitative case studies in a range of different national contexts. Each will focus on a specific social conflict over water consumption practices that has a decisive endpoint: a change in the ownership or the control structure of water services delivery. We will then interview key players in the transnational networks that comprise the global water sector in order to cross-check the degree to which the case study findings typify water consumption disputes. We will also study, on an ongoing basis, two important international processes that affect the status of water: a) multi-stakeholder dialogues, e.g. the Third World Water Forum in 2003; and b) negotiations and litigation under multilateral trade treaties. We will focus on the question of whether water should be treated as a good to be purchased or a basic human right.

The case studies have been selected to vary along a number of different dimensions that explore a cross-section of possible governance contexts. They all involve one or more of the three largest multinational water companies. They include both developing countries and OECD countries (Argentina, Boliva, Chile, France, New Zealand, South Africa), and a full range of different legal structures (one concession, two management contracts, two privatisations, one public-private partnership).

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The research will collect new information regarding the range of dispute resolution mechanisms and strategies used to address social conflict over water. It will also enhance our understanding of the role of consumers in processes of commodification, by collecting new information about the ethical and ideological visions underpinning resistance to commodification. A third outcome will be a contribution to knowledge about how different sets of rules and principles at varying levels of governance affect the trajectory of water policy.

These three specific outcomes will make possible two broader outcomes: first, the project will feed into policy and practice in the important area of trying to find institutional solutions to the problem of providing potable water to the world's population, at a ripe moment when institutional innovation in the realm of global water governance seems imminent. Secondly, the project focuses on a deeply symbolic and instrumentally critical resource that is a basic good fundamental to all other human pursuits, at a time when the legitimacy of emerging forms of global governance is sharply contested. Hitherto diffuse notions of global or cosmopolitan citizenship crucially need greater specificity, to which a grounded project such as this one will contribute.



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