The persistence of informality: Small-scale water providers in Manila’s post-privatisation era

Deborah Cheng
Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, University of California, Los Angeles, USA; dcheng@ioes.ucla.edu

ABSTRACT: This article troubles the notion of a formal-informal dichotomy in urban water provision. Whereas expansion of a water utility typically involves the replacement of informal providers, the experience in Manila demonstrates that the rapid connection of low-income areas actually hinges, in part, on the selective inclusion and exclusion of these smaller actors. In this sense, privatisation has not eliminated small-scale water provision, but has led to the reconfiguration of its usage, blurring the boundaries between formal and informal. By examining the spatial and temporal evolution of small-scale water provision in Manila’s post-privatisation era, I show how certain spaces are seen as less serviceable than others. Critically, small providers working in partnership with the utilities are sanctioned because they supplement the utilities’ operations. The areas in which they work are considered served, factoring into aggregate coverage statistics, even though their terms of service are often less desirable than those of households directly connected to the utilities. In contrast, small providers that operate outside of the utilities’ zones of coverage are considered inferior, to be replaced. The result is a differentiation in informality – one in which the private utilities largely determine modes of access and thus the spatialisation of informal water provision.

KEYWORDS: Urban water utilities, informality, privatisation, small-scale water providers, Manila