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The fallacy of “efficiency” in water privatization discourse

My current project on the politics of water privatization in Mexico has yielded three interesting sub-strands. The first one is an analysis of global trends in remunicipalization (the process whereby municipalities take back public water supply from private concession holders). The second one is a study of social struggles around water privatization in several Mexican municipalities. The third one (and the most related to my career-long interest in wastewater and sanitation governance) is a study of privatization of sanitation and wastewater treatment plants. These projects are part of my overarching research programme on the spatial, political, environmental and human dimensions of public service infrastructure.

Mishima (water and river restoration fieldwork for IASC 2013)Given what I have found in my survey of the literature on why local governments choose to privatize their public service delivery, I’m really puzzled as to why would municipalities want to continue going ahead with this process. Several Mexican sub-national governments like the metropolitan zones of Puebla and Guadalajara have started the process of privatizing their public water supply.

This is disheartening, particularly because the global discourse of efficiency gains of water privatization has been thoroughly debunked. I have a piece currently under review where I discuss findings by Mildred Warner, David Hall, Emanuele Lobina, Germa Bel, Naren Prasad and other scholars who have found that those alleged efficiency gains are countered by numerous problems, including exacerbating social inequities, increasing social welfare gaps and raising concerns about intergenerational (and intra-regional) injustices.

Parque Explora (Leon, Guanajuato)Properly implementing a right to water (a very challenging process, indeed) will require policy makers to change their paradigmatic stance on “passing the buck” and wanting to get out of sub-national, municipal public service delivery. Privatizing water supply is an easy way out to avoid being accountable to the public, beyond the alleged efficiency gains. I remain skeptical of private water supply.

Given what I have found in my research, I sincerely doubt that private concession of water utilities is actually a workable solution for public service delivery. However, it appears that it will be up to civil society to challenge politicians to change their stance and face the reality: governments are elected to service the public, whether they like it or not. This will be an interesting challenge. Recent media rhetoric around social protest towards water privatization has stigmatized and portrayed local residents of Mexican towns who mobilize to prevent private intervention in water delivery.

I also think reversing the current trend towards water privatization in Mexico will require the mobilization of scholarly knowledge (maybe in the form of public intellectualism) to educate policy makers in Mexico on why yielding to private interests isn’t always in the best interest of the public, and a smart use of scarce resources. New alternatives to water privatization include of course public-public partnerships, and co-production of public service delivery (Ostrom 1996)

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Posted in academia, water governance, water policy.

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  1. Ulises Genis says

    This is a very important issue. There’s a big debate on the topic, and from the economic perspective it appears as if there’s no difference at all between public and private water utilities.

    The results are ambiguous ( and often contradictory ( But one thing’s for sure: private water utilities charge more than public ones (

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