Will the empire strike back? Powerbrokers and remunicipalisation in the water sector

David A. McDonald
Global Development Studies, Queen’s University, Canada; and Director of the Municipal Services Project; dm23@queensu.ca

ABSTRACT: Literature on remunicipalisation in the water sector has focused almost entirely on the ambitions, practices and ideologies of people and organisations that are in favour of publicly owned and managed water services. By contrast, little is known about what private water companies and mainstream water organisations have to say on the subject. This paper puts forward the results of interviews with 47 such organisations, offering the first rigorous insights into what these institutions know about water remunicipalisation, why they think it is happening, and what (if any) plans they have to engage with it in the future. The results are both predictable and surprising, demonstrating a clear concern about remunicipalisation on the part of private firms but a remarkable lack of knowledge about where and why it is happening, and no obvious plans to counteract this trend beyond fighting it on a case by case basis. Multilateral institutions, NGOs and water associations insist on being 'neutral' when it comes to questions of public versus private water delivery, although this position is undermined by practices which tend to favour private sector provision. There does not appear to be any coordinated anti-remunicipalisation movement, but a lack of enthusiasm for it from influential global water organisations suggests that advocates of remunicipalisation can expect little in the way of support from 'powerbrokers' in the water sector.

KEYWORDS: Remunicipalisation, water, multilaterals, aid agencies, private companies, NGOs