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Published January 4, 2021 | Version v1
Journal article Open

Scrutinizing water politics: lessons from Bolivia, Chile, France, and Spain (in English and Spanish)

  • 1. National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET)
  • 2. National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM), Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Action-oriented Sciences (LIRSA), Paris, France
  • 3. Universidad Humboldt, Berlin, Alemania
  • 4. Institute of Geography, University of Munster, Germany
  • 5. Independent Researcher, Munich, Germany
  • 6. University of Alcala, Spain


In this issue we feature five articles focused on experiences from Bolivia, Chile, France, and Spain, presenting research results, some originated in doctoral dissertations. Article 1 was authored by Christelle Pezon, from the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM), at the Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Action-oriented Sciences (LIRSA), Paris, France. The paper presents a synthetic historical overview of the changing institutional arrangements for the provision of water and sanitation services in France. The focus is on the expected far-reaching impacts of the 2015 NOTRe Law, which prompted a historical reform by transferring the responsibility over water services from 36,600 municipalities to 2,000 urban and rural communities. The author argues that the reform presents unprecedented challenges for rural areas and small towns but may also end the long-standing dichotomic choice between public and private management of water services facing local governments since the 19th century and induce the development of more complex arrangements dependent on political negotiations between local authorities, service providers, and users. Article 2 was written by Cristian Flores Fernandez from the Integrative Institute of Research on Transformations of Human-Environmental Systems (IRI THESys), and Department of Geography, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. The paper addresses the Chilean model of privatized urban water and sanitation services, and presents a critical assessment aimed at exposing the “myths” associated with this experience. The author provides a historical overview of the Chilean model of privatization and uses the 2019 sanitary crisis that affected over 140 thousand people in the city of Osorno as an empirical example of the failures and risks associated with the privatization of essential water and sanitation services. The Chilean case is also the object of Article 3, by Melissa Bayer, from the Institute of Geography, University of Münster, Germany. The author examines the situation affecting informal settlements in the city of Antofagasta, one of the wealthiest regions in Chile, measured by per capita income, but also presenting the highest levels of inequality. These settlements are not included in the formal system of water provision, which is run by a public water utility from Colombia operating in Antofagasta as a private concessionaire. The author examines how the alternative arrangements developed by people in these informal settlements to get water is associated with the search for social inclusion, and the recognition of their citizenship rights. In Article 4, Francesca Minelli, currently an Independent Research in Munich, Germany, presents a synthetic analysis based on her recent doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Glasgow, United Kingdom, on the histories and prospects facing water cooperatives in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The paper places emphasis on the role played by cooperatives in developing water services in areas of Cochabamba that lacked formal access to essential services, and how they established legitimate forms of control over their territories and water sources. The article also discusses the diversity of challenges facing the cooperatives in rapidly changing circumstances, including a consideration of the threats and risks to their survival owing to a decline in the active participation of members in several cooperatives, the increasing competition with other actors over water sources, and the financial pressures posed by maintenance and replacement of ageing infrastructures. Finally, Article 5, by Noelia Rodriguez Prieto, from the University of Alcala, Spain, examines the links between water politics and nationalism from a historical perspective. The author discusses the significant role played by water politics after the “1898 Disaster” derived from the war between Spain and the United States that accelerated the end of the Spanish Empire with the loss of its main remaining colonies, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Establishing control over water sources through large-scale infrastructures became a central strategy in the search to reorganize Spanish society, rebuild its economy, and reinvent its national identity. The paper provides a synthetic analysis of the contrasting forms of “nationalism” associated with this water-management-based transformation of Spanish society between the late 19th century and the 1970s. The argument focuses on the contrast between the modernizing water politics proposed by the intellectual, professional, and political elite of “regenerationists” (regeneracionistas) after 1898 and the extremely conservative nationalism grounded on the construction of large-water infrastructures developed by the Dictatorship of General Francisco Franco (1940-1975).



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