Anomalous Water Rights and
the Politics of Normalization
Collective Water Control and Privatization Policies
in the Andean Region
RUTGERD BOELENS AND MARGREET ZWARTEVEEN
Current thinking about water rights in the Andes, as in many other regions of the world, is intimately tied up with the discussion of privatization. For the sake of increasing water use efficiency and productivity, and strongly justified by the proclamation of a lurking water crisis, reforms are proposed or being implemented that promote the transferability and marketability of water, allowing it to be used where its marginal returns are highest. The need for clearly defined and enforceable water rights is recognized primarily because they are a condition for the success of privatization efforts. Water rights define the rules for water allocation and use and provide the means for describing and accounting for committed uses. Market valuation and tradability of water rights make it possible to price water per unit consumed, inducing users to reduce its waste. A strong assumption of the new policies and the thinking on which it is based is that these benefits can only be achieved under a private water property regime, or if water rights are privatized. This chapter focuses on this assumption and critically examines it.
For water policy making, the attractiveness of the neoliberal language and of the rational choice paradigm on which it is based is not difficult to understand. It is particularly well suited to producing propositions that are partly true in relation to each of a diverse range of specific situations (see M. Moore 1991: 16), and fits well with a preference in professional irrigation thinking for large scale standard policy initiatives and design principles for building viable technologies and institutions (see Ostrom 1992; Plusquellec et al. 1994; FAO 1996). The application of instrumental rationality to problems of resource management appears to offer a convenient, scientific way to solve complicated distributional questions. The belief that flows of money and water follow universal natural laws, and that human beings have roughly the same rational utility-