Glendon professor examines water privatization in new book

Who should control water? It is as essential for life as air, but also holds deep emotional, social, cultural and spiritual significance, says York’s Glendon College sociology Professor Joanna Robinson.

Robinson tackles this critical and contested issue of control in her new book, Contested Water: The Struggle Against Water Privatization in the United States and Canada (MIT Press), which examines the emerging politics of water today, BookContestedWaterfocusing on two local social movements against water privatization. It is the first scholarly examination of the social processes that underlie movements against water privatization. It reveals important insights about the mechanisms that shape local movements in a global context.

“We all need clean, safe drinking water, but there are struggles about who should control water resources. The question of who has access to and who controls water is perhaps the most important policy issue of our time,” says Robinson. “As the world’s water crisis worsens, policy makers around the world must grapple with issues of scarcity, pollution and the unequal distribution of water resources.”

It’s only going to get worse. Already, local governments are under increased pressure to outsource water services to the private sector as investment in infrastructure and services declines and multinational water companies emerge.

“This growing commodification of water has spurred the mobilization of anti-water privatization movements in communities around the world,” says Robinson. Activists are challenging the notion that water is an economic good and are questioning the ability of the private sector to deliver resources equitably.

The book compares two social movements opposed to water privatization in Stockton, Calif., and Vancouver. JoannaRobinsonAlthough these movements emerged in response to similar global forces and institutions, they developed differently and had divergent outcomes.

While the movement in Vancouver successfully prevented the privatization of local water services, the movement in Stockton failed. It took an eight-year legal battle to return the Stockton water system to public control.

Joanna Robinson

Robinson draws on extensive interviews with movement actors, political leaders and policymakers, and detailed analysis of textual material. By doing so, she shows that the successful campaign in Vancouver drew on tactics, opportunities and narratives from the broader anti-globalization movement, with activists emphasizing the threats to local democracy and accountability. The less successful movement in Stockton centred 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, yet rooted in local communities.

As the book demonstrates, what happens at the local level matters for the outcomes of globalization and for the regulation of environmental resources. The findings challenge the growing tendency of social movement scholars to conceptualize the responses of social movements to globalization as a scale shift: a shift away from domestic modes of organization and contention to transnational protest.

“In contrast, I argue that successful challenges and alternatives to neoliberal globalization will not necessarily come from movements operating at the transnational level, but rather from locally situated counter-hegemonic movements that are connected globally, but rooted in local communities,” says Robinson.

The stories of anti-water privatization activists in Stockton and Vancouver demonstrate that “one-size-fits-all” globalization is not inevitable, and that alternative visions are made possible through the power of social movements and the strengthening of local democracy.

For more information, visit the MIT Press website.