Bottling water differently, and sustaining the water commons? Social innovation through water service franchising in Cambodia

Isaac Lyne
Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, New South Wales, Australia; i.lyne@westernsydney.edu.au

ABSTRACT: Until recently, bottled drinking water was a cause for concern with regard to development in the Global South; now, however, it is embraced as a way to reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal target 6.1, which calls for the achievement by the year 2030 of "[u]niversal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all". Reaching the SDG 6.1 target through the use of bottled drinking water is controversial as there are broad questions about how any form of packaged – and therefore commodified – water can be ethical or consistent with "the human right to water" that was ratified in 2010 by the United Nations member states. By examining a social innovation enacted by a Cambodian NGO called Teuk Saat 1001, this research questions the polarising narratives of marketised and packaged water. Teuk Saat 1001 operates a social enterprise service franchise that delivers treated family-scale drinking water in refillable 20-litre polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles directly to customers’ houses. In contrast to literature that focuses on the strategic development of such organisations, this research combines a bottom-up view of community interaction with an analysis of hybrid institutional arrangements and ethical debates about the role of the state in water regulation. From a postcapitalist perspective, it considers entrepreneurial subjectivities fostered by bottled water as a 'service' and asks if this mode of packaged water can – contrary to the general arguments – actually help to sustain the water commons. The paper also considers temporality and water ethics; it concludes that models like this require close monitoring, considering the general history of commercial non-profits.

KEYWORDS: Drinking water, postcapitalism, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), social enterprise, social innovation, the commons, Cambodia