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Contested Water

Contested Water: The Struggle Against Water Privatization in the United States and Canada

Joanna L. Robinson
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 254
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  • Book Info
    Contested Water
    Book Description:

    Attempts by local governments to privatize water services have met with furious opposition. Activists argue that to give private companies control of the water supply is to turn water from a common resource into a marketized commodity. Moreover, to cede local power to a global corporation puts communities at the center of controversies over economic globalization. In Contested Water, Joanna Robinson examines local social movement organizing against water privatization, looking closely at battles for control of local water services in Stockton, California, and Vancouver, British Columbia. The movements in these two communities had different trajectories, used different tactics, and experienced different outcomes. Robinson analyzes the factors that shaped these two struggles. Drawing on extensive interviews with movement actors, political leaders, and policymakers and detailed analysis of textual material, Robinson shows that the successful campaign in Vancouver drew on tactics, opportunities, and narratives from the broader antiglobalization movement, with activists emphasizing the threats to local democracy and accountability; the less successful movement in Stockton centered on a ballot initiative that was made meaningless by a pre-emptive city council vote. Robinson finds that global forces are reshaping local movements, particularly those that oppose neoliberal reforms at the municipal level. She argues that anti--water privatization movements that link local and international concerns and build wide-ranging coalitions at local and global levels offer an effective way to counter economic globalization. Successful challenges to globalization will not necessarily come from transnational movements but rather from movements that are connected globally but rooted in local communities.The hardcover edition does not include a dust jacket.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31361-2
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Anti–Water Privatization Movements in the Age of Globalization
    (pp. 1-20)

    On the evening of February 19, 2003, a crowd of people gathered inside the city hall in Stockton, California, to observe a city council vote on whether or not to approve a private water contract for the city’s water services. The atmosphere was emotional and intense as dozens of activists went head-to-head with business leaders and politicians and spoke out against water privatization. Despite the boisterous protests of anti–water privatization activists, proponents of the private sector model were firm that Stockton’s water would not be at risk under a private contract. After more than two hours of heated debate,...

  6. 1 From Commons to Commodity: Water Governance, Neoliberalism, and the Privatization of Municipal Water Systems
    (pp. 21-36)

    Water is unique as a natural resource. No human can survive without access to water. At the same time, increasing demand and environmental threats—including industrial pollution, agriculture, urbanization, overconsumption, and climate change—have given rise to a global water crisis, with fresh water resources disappearing at an alarming rate. Scarcity makes water more economically valuable while also intensifying conflict and competition.¹ Much of Africa, Australia, the American Southwest, and the Middle East are currently facing serious issues of scarcity and conflict over access to fresh water. As water levels and quality decline, demand for water rises and the world’s...

  7. 2 Globalization and Local Social Movements: Understanding the Dynamics
    (pp. 37-62)

    How do we understand the processes that underlie counter-globalization movements? How have sociologists and other scholars approached the analysis of these movements, specifically local mobilizations focused on protecting environmental resources? Much of the current research on globalization and protest examines the shift in contention from the domestic to the transnational realm. Yet, local movements have emerged in response to perceived threats from globalization in many communities; while these movements are shaped by international processes, they are dependent on and rooted in locally based networks and institutions.

    Understanding how globalization shapes mobilization from an on-the-ground perspective is particularly important for explaining...

  8. 3 The Meaning of Water: “The Commons” as a Socially Constructed Discourse
    (pp. 63-82)

    The anti–water privatization movements in Stockton and Vancouver were shaped by external forces, including the neoliberal push for private sector investment in water services. But that is only part of the story. Their emergence is also explained by locally situated meanings of water. Although the two movements diverged in terms of organizational and political dynamics, activists in both places revealed similar cognitive and emotional understandings of the public nature of water. Place-based and visceral meanings of nature are key to understanding mobilization around environmental resources, especially those that are essential for life. In this chapter, I investigate how meanings...

  9. 4 Constructing the Problem: Framing Strategies
    (pp. 83-108)

    We are more likely to listen to and identify with a story that is well told—even when compared to another story with similar elements to which we can relate—when a story touches our own lives. Well-told stories carry power, and as illustrated in the previous chapter, there are many stories to tell when the subject is water. The narrative that anti–water privatization movements need to construct about the problem of local water privatization must be coherent and present a unified, well-articulated argument to political elites. In this chapter, I move beyond the broader examination of systems of...

  10. 5 The Political Process: Seizing Local and Global Opportunities
    (pp. 109-138)

    In Stockton, the closed nature of local political structures constrained the movement’s ability to access elites and influence policies around water services. The movement activists also lacked experience at targeting local political structures and downplayed (intentionally or not) international threats. The result was a failure to shape political decision making. Yet, ultimately, through legal challenges, the movement in Stockton overturned the private contract and returned control of water services to the public sector. This reversal represents an important and significant victory and should send a signal to social movements about the role of legal opportunities for shaping outcomes.

    In Vancouver,...

  11. 6 Mobilizing Cross-Movement Coalitions
    (pp. 139-178)

    In many communities around the world—from Cochabama, Bolivia, to Orange, South Africa—anti–water privatization movements have resulted in the formation of coalitions between labor unions and other community-based social movement organizations.¹ These coalitions vary in strength and outcomes, and opposition movements are less likely to succeed when they have not formed these broad coalitions. Cross-movement coalitions, including the involvement of labor and environmental organizations, emerged in both Stockton and Vancouver in response to proposed water privatization plans in each city. The coalition in Stockton never gained the strength, momentum, or positive outcome of the Vancouver coalition, and quickly...

  12. 7 Conclusion: Local Social Movements in an Age of Globalization
    (pp. 179-192)

    Perhaps the most important policy issue of our time is the question of who has access to water and who controls that access. As the world’s water crisis worsens in the wake of the governance failure during the twentieth century, policy makers around the world must grapple with scarcity, pollution, and unequal distribution of water resources. In an era of globalization—marked by declining investment in infrastructure and services, the changing role of the state, and the emergence of powerful multinational water companies—local governments are increasingly under pressure to outsource water services to the private sector. The growing commodification...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 193-214)
  14. References
    (pp. 215-232)
  15. Index
    (pp. 233-236)
  16. Series List
    (pp. 237-240)