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Rethinking water corporatisation: A ‘negotiation space’ for public and private interests, Colombia (1910-2000)

Kathryn Furlong
Department of Geography, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Quebec, Canada; kathryn.furlong@umontreal.ca

Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero
UNESCO-IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, Delft, the Netherlands; t.acevedo@un-ihe.org

Jeimy Arias
Department of Geography, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Quebec, Canada; jeimy.alejandra.arias.castaao@umontreal.ca

Camila Patiño Sanchez
Department of Geography, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Quebec, Canada; c.patino.sanchez@umontreal.ca

ABSTRACT: As part of neoliberal reforms to public service delivery, the corporatisation of water supply has been of increasing concern since the late 1990s. Typically, both promoters and detractors frame it within neoliberal theory: it is the next best (or worst) thing to privatisation, enabling the ostensibly independent, commercial and technical management of utilities. In Colombia, however, city-owned water supply corporations are far from new. They were adopted across the country’s main cities at the beginning of the 20th century. Colombia’s century-long experience with corporatised water supply is instructive. The case reveals a model that emerged in the context of challenges common to Southern cities, rather than as a 'solution' imposed from the North, the deep inter-linkages between public and private sectors in the evolution of publicly owned corporations and thus the limited nature of utility autonomy under corporatisation. In sum, corporatisation – imagined as a technology for the 'government of government' – cannot escape the shifting social realities in which it is immersed. It therefore emerges as a technology not for the excising of government authority but for the negotiation of public and private interests in (and influence over) utility services in contexts of relatively limited government autonomy from the private sector.

KEYWORDS: Public utilities, public and private interests, water supply, corporatisation, cross-subsidisation, neoliberalisation, Colombia