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The politics of wastewater governance

My recent conversation with Dave Karpf, Mariana Medina, Mervyn Horgan and Andrew Biro on “the political” made me think about “the political” in sanitation and wastewater governance. I’ve written before here on why I study sanitation. The size of the problem is huge, and it is such a basic necessity. Yet almost a billion people still defecate in the open, because they lack the dignity of a toilet to do their most basic necessities.


Photo credit: Sustainable Sanitation Alliance Secretariat

The work of Susan Chaplin, Sarah Jewitt, Lyla Mehta, Kathleen O’Reilly, Matthew Gandy and mine, of course, are all relevant to the questions that I grapple with on an everyday basis: why, when we have the technology and the means to provide almost-unparalleled, universal access to sanitation, we lack political will and institutional factors that ensure that this basic need is met?

I’ve written before about how I think that this kind of research (sanitation, wastewater, human waste all viewed through a social science lens) is not “sexy”. Scholars in the water world seem way more interested in understanding patterns of (and lack of) water access, whereas wastewater treatment is seen more as a public health problem, if that. Understanding the politics of sanitation requires us to have a multidisciplinary perspective. We cannot write about sanitation if we fail to understand that water is not only a natural resource but it is also inherently political.


Photo credit: Ton Haex on Flickr

It is a little bit more than overwhelming to think that in some countries, more people have access to a cell phone than to a toilet. Bewildering, no? This phenomenon is not limited to India or China, Africa or any developing economy. Lack of basic sanitation is a fact of life even in developed countries. Hence why I stay on course and I keep studying this topic. Because there is something inherently political in the governance of sanitation and wastewater. And these questions on how can we solve the global sanitation crisis can’t solely be answered through a technical (engineering) or managerial (economics) lens. We need to look at it from a global, truly interdisciplinary perspective.

Posted in academia, environmental policy, wastewater.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. The politics of water privatization in Mexico – Raul Pacheco-Vega, PhD linked to this post on February 4, 2014

    [...] For years, I shunned the literature on water privatization because I was (and still am) in the politics of wastewater governance. I thought to myself that water privatization would never need to be part of my research agenda. I [...]



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