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Reviewed by:
  • Privatizing Water: Governance Failure and the World's Urban Water Crisis
  • Roger Mark Selya (bio)
Karen Bakker , Privatizing Water: Governance Failure and the World's Urban Water Crisis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010), 303 303 pages, ISBN 978-0-8014-7464-4.

Although not specifically included as such in any convention or treaty, the availability of water is often discussed and treated as a human right. This is found in the formal millennium development goals as well as in the growing popular and scholarly literature devoted to water supply issues. The book under review is a valuable addition to this literature because it explores a critical problem: how to supply an affordable, safe and secure supply of water to the continuously expanding urban populations in underdeveloped countries. In constructing a framework to answer this question Karen Bakker touches upon a wide range of topics that are not always included in discussions of urban water problems: for example, the controversies regarding privatizing urban water systems, governance and market failures that may affect water delivery, acceptance of water as a [End Page 289] human right, the role of community in water supply management, and important hydrological and ecological factors that must be included in any attempt to solve water supply problems.

Bakker's work consists of a preface, a brief note on terminology, an introduction, seven topical chapters, and a conclusion. An attractive stylistic device is Bakker's use of stories and parables of individuals, cities (Cochabamba, Bolivia; Dar el Salam, Egypt; Porto Alegre, Brazil; Santa Cruz, Bolivia; Durban, Nelspruit, Johannesburg, South Africa) regions (Wales) and countries (South Africa) concerning successes and failures of their urban water supplies. However, there is a distractingly inordinate amount of duplication of material from chapter to chapter. This may reflect the fact that several of the chapters have appeared previously as stand-alone articles in scholarly journals. Thus, rather than summarize the individual chapters it is better to list Bakker's core arguments and propositions.

Bakker's core arguments and propositions:

  1. 1. Although the development of each urban water system is unique, there are enough commonalities to warrant describing their common histories.

  2. 2. In seeking solutions to water problems it is imperative to avoid the use of terms such as informal, risks, private, or community.

  3. 3. There is no single cause of a lack of a modern water supply system nor is there one panacea to water supply crises.

  4. 4. There is a global pattern of localized crises in which pollution, overexploitation, and poor governance lead to increasing water scarcity.

  5. 5. Behind every theory or plan for reforming or solving water supply problems are contending issues, and untested and unproven assumptions.

  6. 6. In assessing water supply controversies it is imperative to avoid seeing alternative solutions as dichotomies, such as private versus public water management systems. Dichotomies are inevitably false and mask subtle gradations between, and mixes of, the two polar solutions. Furthermore, in reality there are three models of water supply—public, private, and community.

  7. 7. There is no single answer to the debate over privatization versus public ownership of water systems. Water is essentially both a local and place based commodity; as such there is a need to reject any "small is beautiful" or automatic delegation of power at the local scale.

  8. 8. Be wary of utopian descriptions of communities that suggest freedom from oversight is desirable or even possible.

  9. 9. There is an inherent tension between the need for centralized oversight and community control of water.

  10. 10. Instead of framing dichotomies, envision solutions to water problems as involving a potential range of delivery, governance, and source options.

  11. 11. Failures in water delivery systems usually involve market, state, and governance problems; but do not external pressures such as public protests.

  12. 12. Dams are not necessarily the best way to insure adequate supplies of water since their planning and building rarely address adequately their cultural, demographic, ecological, and financial impacts.

  13. 13. Although water is a human right, especially when the focus is on drinking water, it also has to be considered a community right.

  14. 14. There is a need to include ecological variables when making decisions regarding water supply.

  15. 15. Urban dwellers, more than...


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pp. 289-292
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