Water for survival, water for pleasure – A biopolitical perspective on the social sustainability of the basic water agenda

Sofie Hellberg
School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden; and School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; sofie.hellberg@globalstudies.gu.se

ABSTRACT: This article explores the social sustainability of the basic water agenda. It does so through a biopolitical analysis of water narratives from eThekwini municipality, South Africa, where a policy of Free Basic Water (FBW) has been implemented. The article addresses the question of what water 'is' and 'does' and shows that water and water governance are productive of lifestyles, people’s self-understanding and how they view their place in the social hierarchy. The analysis brings to light that a differentiated management system, that provides different levels of water services to different populations and individuals, becomes part of (re)producing social hierarchies and deepens divisions between communities. Based on these findings, the article argues that while the basic water agenda has brought successful results globally and remains important in terms of guaranteeing health and survival for the most vulnerable, it should not be confused with efforts of social sustainability. Social sustainability would not only involve a situation where basic needs are met but would also have to address effects of water systems on the relationships between individuals and populations in society.

KEYWORDS: Social sustainability, water, basic needs, biopolitics, South Africa