Comparing grassroots campaigns against water privatization

Two cities, two battles. In the early 2000s a coalition of Vancouver activists scuttled plans for the private construction and operation of a water filtration plant in the Seymour watershed that provides fresh water to metro Vancouver. In Stockton, California, a similar alliance undertook a longer campaign to stop the contracting out of some of that city’s water services and wastewater treatment.

What do these cases tell us about clashes over privatization and the efficacy of social movements in such struggles? York University sociologist Joanna Robinson provides some answers. The published version of her dissertation, Contested Water: The Struggle against Water Privatization in the United States and Canada is explicitly scholarly. A reviewer therefore faces a choice between assessing it as the academic text it is aimed to be or as a trade book of general interest. The choice here is the latter.

Although peoples and cultures apply different meanings and significance to the idea of water, all these constructions carry connotations that make water special, not just another traded good or service. Almost all local communities fear the idea of control of their access to water passing into the hands of distant impersonal institutions. So it is no surprise that the Canadian public today is ambivalent about the idea of attaching prices to water services. An even more conflicted attitude exists toward the creation of markets in rights of access to water, or to ownership of water or other components of the commons as tradable paper claims.

Public discussions about water projects reflect this ambivalence, through a deep-seated tension between an instrumental approach and a rights-based or moral approach, with local observation and traditional knowledge playing an expanding and unpredictable role. The projects being discussed are by their nature far from simple; they are often set in growing urban environments with fast-morphing technology. Increasingly it is recognized that decisions about water projects must take into account the complex social and ecological systems within which they are set.

Policy approaches involved in implementing water system proposals go under a variety of names in the field of public administration—procurement policy, make-or-buy policy, new public management, alternative service delivery. All these areas have large, well-established literatures, but with few hard conclusions. Robinson’s book is distinguished by its lively description of how debates over this policy context play out on the ground. Much can be learned from her accounts of local organizing efforts. In Vancouver the loose alliance of activists succeeded in persuading municipal authorities not to proceed with a proposal to contract out the design, construction and operation of a water filtration plant in the Seymour watershed. The alliance’s counterpart in Stockton persuaded the city electorate to support a ballot initiative requiring voter approval on all privatization contracts—in particular, on the development of a public-private partnership arrangement for delivery of water services—but not before municipal authorities had rushed through such a contract in the face of evident public opposition. After five years of litigation, the contract was rescinded and the water services involved returned to municipal control. The book’s principal question is why activists in Vancouver succeeded in persuading their municipal authorities, while those in Stockton did not, even if the Stockton alliance achieved the result it wanted in the end.

How can social movements come together to build a wave sufficiently broad and inclusive as to offer effective resistance to attempts to replace democracy and concerns for justice with economic calculus and an accounting mindset? When public institutions no longer serve as the means for the realization of human purpose and values, when they have moved beyond control, this question becomes central. “A matter of life and death,” Robinson notes, “the politics of water, including the movements that mobilize to protect water as part of the commons, is one of the most critical, visible, and contested issues of our time.”

Her analysis has several cross-cutting layers. She looks at how the challenge to privatization can best be framed—as a service issue, an economic or management question, or a threat to the independence of local decision making. The core of Robinson’s comparative study lies here. She suggests that the difference in outcomes between Vancouver and Stockton reflects the success in Vancouver of a strategy of identifying a common external foe. Activists claimed the need for a public organization to avoid the bigger risks of falling into monopolistic control of a vital resource with the threat posed by distant unaccountable arbitrators whose rulings might constrain sovereignty and discretion at a local scale. This approach framed the struggle as one against international accords negotiated by bureaucrats who had fallen captive to faith in “neoliberal globalization.” With this common enemy, Robinson argues, the Vancouver alliance moved the terms of the debate away from one about the best organizational form to assure efficiency and adequate capital in delivery of water services—a debate in which there was no likelihood of agreement.

In Stockton there was little chance to implement such an overarching strategy. The focus instead was on antagonism to the mayor and council, and the absence of an open political process, rather than on possible negative consequences associated with the outcome of that process. This framing explicitly pitted privatization supporters against others in the community, including not just community activists and environmentalists but labour union members directly affected. As a result, the resistance to privatization remained largely a divisive local contest.

But framing goes only so far. Robinson highlights the institutional spaces within which political debates are pursued, since such contexts vitally affect the success of populist movements. She suggests that in Vancouver the setting was more open to arguments about potential risks. This made it possible for activists to work with municipal officials toward what they considered the right decision, while in Stockton a long and bitter history of antagonism, ballot initiatives and litigation locked participants in continuing conflict rather than collaboration.

Finally, Robinson focuses on the prospects for building effective cross-movement coalitions. Vancouver activists’ framing of the issue as a fight against an outside threat enabled its leaders to form an effective cross-movement coalition that included strong public sector union support in alliance with environmental and social justice organizations, all directed toward a larger cause. In Stockton the movement lacked a unified organizational core and dense network, remaining divided around purpose and tactics.

This story is plausible and interesting, although one might note several concerns with it as an academic study of social movements. A relatively minor point is that Robinson chose to assign pseudonyms not just to the individuals but also to the organizations mentioned in her narrative. This makes it difficult for readers familiar with some of the events or actors to assess her account against their knowledge of the organizations involved. This lack of transparency can be problematic. For example, she argues that in Vancouver the main participating union’s strategy of focusing on the big picture increased its “credibility with both the public and political elites who [in the words of one union official] ‘couldn’t argue that we were doing it to protect jobs and workers’.” This characterization might be questioned by readers who know that the Canadian Union of Public Employees represents water workers in Canada, and was the source of triumphant announcements declaring victory with the May 2010 opening of the new Seymour-Capilano water filtration plant under municipal ownership—oddly, an event not mentioned in the book.

More substantively, Robinson treats the Stockton case as arriving ultimately at the right outcome (although she focuses on the failure to persuade the Stockton authorities to adopt the right decision initially as Vancouver did). Selecting only particular cases in a comparative study opens the possibility of what researchers call selection bias, with conclusions as to what works being potentially distorted by a failure to explore cases where things did not work. Moreover, selecting only two cases leads to serious limitations on possibilities for drawing any general conclusions. Both these technical concerns are addressed in a recent book by Doug McAdam and Hilary Schaffer Boudet, Putting Social Movements in Their Place: Explaining Opposition to Energy Projects in the United States, 2000–2005, which appeared after completion of the dissertation on which Contested Water is based.

For this reader, the bigger drawback is the lack of exploration of the definition of success in the contests Robinson describes, and the absence of any search for greater precision around the idea of conflict inherent in “commodification of the water commons.” In this reference, she reflects the growing general apprehension about institutional arrangements that permit what influential ecologist Garrett Hardin has referred to as “the commonization of costs and the privatization of profits.”

In this connection, Robinson also recognizes a growing interest in what have come to be called “the rights of Nature,” although this topic is not pursued in the book. Citing the work of Karen Bakker, a leader in water governance at the University of British Columbia, Robinson notes, “The central concern of an ecocentric model is not whether water is a public or private resource, but rather whether the interests of the environment are balanced with those of other users. A focus on ecological equity would thus allow for effective private sector involvement with strong regulatory oversight by public governance institutions.” Both political context and equity issues must be taken into account. “What matters therefore is the correct balance between private sector investment and government oversight.”

As emphasized in its professional literature, the world of alternative service delivery is not black and white. Rather than being “either/or,” the choice between public and private provision is often “both/and.” Along the spectrum of possible contracts, some mixed arrangements would surely be both politically acceptable and preferable in terms of effectiveness for these two cities. But Robinson sidetracks any discussion of political positions besides her own; she fails to pay attention to the significant differences among privatization, partnerships and simple contracting for services. She includes no interviews with proponents of the privatization plans, or with key civic officials involved, and avoids examining the merits of the case made in support of those plans. These gaps naturally prompt the reader’s own consideration of unmentioned options. What might have been the possibilities in each city if there had been a devolution of decisions or delegation of duties, and if the actual evidence as to preferred organizational form and prospects for effective contract management had been taken into account? Indeed, the growing attention to workplace democracy and cooperative enterprises with social missions represents one possible positive solution, an intermediate shade of grey, neither public sector nor multinational corporation, that it might have been useful for Contested Water to analyze.

Also deserving further exploration is Robinson’s emphasis on the risks that commitments in contracts signed between local governments and multinational corporations will be overridden by decisions of unaccountable international tribunals. Given the loss of local control for political decision makers, to what extent has the state itself become unaccountable to the general public? Evaluating this challenging issue requires a thorough evaluation of the current state of legal opinion regarding so-called investor protection provisions—something that Robinson does not do.

All this makes reading Contested Water frustrating as well as rewarding. Teased into a maze of fascinating questions, the reader encounters concepts and arguments too important to be left at the level of imprecision or ambiguity encountered in the book. What matters are critical questions about the feasibility of appropriate oversight and the extent of accountability of governments as well as corporations. Ultimately this requires decisions around questions of justice, intergenerational equity, sustainability in the face of profound uncertainty, and similar judgements that demand a democratic consensus, not only an expert opinion. Indeed, the deepest challenges lie in rebalancing the relative strengths of the voices weighing in on those deliberative processes. We somehow need to give greater voice to interests currently voiceless when considering the basic human right to a healthy environment as well as the intrinsic rights of Nature.

These issues are too big to be tackled in this book, which has the goal simply of completing an academic analysis of the factors explaining the different outcomes in the two sites under study. For academic purposes Contested Water offers a comparative case study providing a suggestive description of the dynamics of social movements. But in the larger social struggle between depersonalized global institutions and the preservation of agency and discretion at local scale, the author simply follows her heart.