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Urban water governance: Privatization, scale mismatch and infrastructure

Whenever anybody complains to me that I focus on urban water governance (and yes, there ARE scholars in Mexico who question me because I am interested in how water in cities is governed), my first impression is to want to send them to read scholarly literature. This is often not the best idea, because our writing is, sometimes, indeed incredibly dense, obtuse and hard to understand. I’ve taken to blog about my own research because it helps others and helps me clarify what I am studying.

Because I am based out of Aguascalientes, a smaller city (1 million people) in central Mexico, I have to fly into Mexico City on a regular basis. I have several projects located there, I often guest-lecture at other institutions and at CIDE in its Santa Fe campus and the most important thing, because Mexican water governance (and environmental policy) is so centralized, I have to be in Mexico City to attend important national-level and international meetings.

I was flying into Mexico City this past week, and as I often do, I started taking photographs as we landed. I did the same when we took off the previous week. Having an aerial overview of a city reminds me of why I study urban water governance. First, because it is a clear depiction of scale mismatch. The issues that smaller cities face aren’t the same that megacities like Mexico City do. The scale at which we govern isn’t necessarily the scale at which we need to respond to issues. Second, because it reminds me of issues of privatization, marketization and commodification (a literature I am enjoying currently). Provision of water at this mega-scale necessitates innovative and creative institutional arrangements for service delivery. And third, because it always reminds me of the need for robust, well-maintained infrastructure. As a chemical engineer (yes, I did chemical engineering before my PhD), I am keenly aware of the technical difficulties in providing safe water all over a city. These problems exacerbate as cities expand.

It’s also important to remind ourselves about the heterogeneity of cities when we think about urban water governance. A couple of weeks ago I was in Tempe (Arizona) visiting the Institute for Global Sustainability and the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity (CSID) at Arizona State University (ASU) to give a talk on polycentric water governance in Mexico. I flew through Houston, and as we were descending, I was bewildered. My own perception of Texas is that its cities face droughts. When I looked at the city of Houston, with such a visible water abundance, I was reminded that cities worldwide are all different.

Because of this heterogeneity within an urban system , we need to think through these issues on a regular basis. We can’t afford to design policy responses to water scarcity that are solely focused on alleviating hotspots. We need to look at the water system in a holistic way. My research aims to emphasize the closed nature of the hydrological cycle. In doing so, I go back to the literature spearheaded by Matthew Gandy on urban metabolism. This is an interesting challenge and one I’m keen to explore more as my research progresses.

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Posted in academia, research, water governance, water policy.

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One Response

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  1. Glen Speering says

    It is an interesting topic. However, it is extremely contextual from city to city.

    The privatization of public utilities, when the whole system is privatized, leads to paradoxical motives from the owners of these services. So this becomes a huge governance issue, and if it is privatized, requires more oversight than is typically given. Any kind of economic modelling or pricing goes out the window.

    But the centralization of water policy development is problematic globally. Here in Western Australia, the driest region of the driest continent, much of the national policy is completely irrelevant or behind local intervention in any case.

    Thanks for this though. I’d like to hear about which particular aspect of water governance you’re going to look at (aside from urban).

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