Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Disciplining De Facto Development: Water Theft and Hydrosocial Order in Tijuana

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Disciplining De Facto Development: Water Theft and Hydrosocial Order in Tijuana

Article excerpt

Introduction

As dawn breaks over a canyon in western Tijuana, Dona Rosa gets up for a drink of water. The hot August morning is already choked with dust from the unpaved roads of her neighborhood, Divina Providencia. (1) Rosa paces through the house--a tiny shack made of corrugated metal and discarded garage doors--and grabs a kettle, heading outside. Clotheslines and electricity wires zigzag above the small backyard patio, casting a lattice of shadows over colorful tins and potted plants. Rosa pauses and stares up at the web of white plastic tubes braced against steep canyon walls. High above the canyon floor, a toma clandestina--or unauthorized connection--diverts water from the municipal network into a maze of plastic pipes. Water is carried via gravity and piped to backyard spigots, such as Rosa's, where she fills the kettle to boil water for breakfast. Like many unconnected urban dwellers, Rosa and her neighbors rely on an intricate assemblage of unauthorized taps, unpaid labor, and nonmarket transactions to supply water and survive. In the absence of the grid, Rosa and other 'midnight plumbers' build networks and self-organize management of water that municipalities are unable or unwilling to provide (Bakker, 2010; Gandy, 2006, 2008; Swyngedouw, 2004).

Informal and illegal water development, not surprisingly, is coming under greater scrutiny worldwide. World Bank experts estimate that over 48.6 million cubic meters of potable water--enough to supply 200 million people--escape daily from municipal networks, including 30 to 50% of all treated water in developing countries (Kingdom et al, 2006). (2) In some Mexican cities, the loss rate exceeds 50% (CONAGUA, 2010). In contrast to authorized consumption, this 'nonrevenue water' (NRW)--consisting of physical leaks and commercial losses (eg, metering inaccuracies, data inadequacies, corruption, and theft)--works against core principles of neoliberal water management, such as commodification and full cost recovery. Indeed, "a high NRW level is normally a surrogate for a poorly run water utility that lacks the governance, the autonomy, the accountability, and the technical and managerial skills necessary to provide reliable service to their population" (Kingdom et al, 2006, page v). To remedy such ills, the World Bank encourages greater private sector involvement in urban water governance, with the goal of achieving development by restructuring municipal provision presently controlled by 'weak' state institutions and public utilities (Gonzalez de Asis et al, 2009; Holden and Thobani, 1996; Kingdom et al, 2006; Thobani, 1997; UNWWAP, 2009).

Two themes run through these characterizations. First, as water is increasingly valued as an economic 'good', illegal use and users are targeted as a social 'bad'--producing, in effect, a new practice to discipline and punish. For Dona Rosa and her neighbors in Divina Providencia, water theft actually works--liquid is produced, livelihoods are sustained--but such practices are broadly cast as dysfunctional and antidevelopment. Second, and perhaps more significantly, water illegality is seen as symptomatic of a weak state. Informal and illegal water provision is depicted as working separately from or in opposition to state power and formal development efforts (Gonzalez de Asis et al, 2009; Kingdom et al, 2006), even as scholars have questioned the degree to which informal and unauthorized institutions operate against--or even 'outside' of--neoliberal water management (Boelens, 2009; Boelens and Zwarteveen, 2005b; Boelens et al, 2005; 2010; de Vos et al, 2006; Gaybor, 2008; Pena, 2005; Perreault, 2008). While these dual assumptions are prominent in mainstream development discourse, they raise a number of key questions related to water informality and its broader role in development.

In this paper I argue that state authorities use illegal forms of water provision as a source of power, particularly to 'discipline' certain spaces and sectors of the population; and, moreover, that such power geometries are deeply uneven. …

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