Water Regimes: Beyond the public and private sector debate (Lorrain and Poupeau, 2016)

Olivia Jensen

regime Lorrain, D. and Poupeau, F. 2016. Water regimes: Beyond the public and private sector debate. Routledge, 229 p. ISBN 9780367227630 (Paperback), ISBN 9781315618760 (eBook) £29.59.

(URL: www.routledge.com/Water-Regimes-Beyond-the-public-and-private-sector-debate-1st-Edition/Lorrain-Poupeau/p/book/9781138668201)

Olivia Jensen

LRF Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk, National University of Singapore; olivia.jensen@nus.edu.sg


To cite this Review: Jensen, O. 2019. Review of "Water Regimes: Beyond the public and private sector debate", Routledge, 2016, by D. Lorrain and F. Poupeau, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/40-regime


With “Water Regimes”, Dominique Lorrain and Franck Poupeau reenergize the academic study of public and private organizational arrangements in water service delivery. This volume invites the reader to consider practice before ideology and in so doing makes a valuable addition to research on the performance of public and private utilities.

The well drawn cases cover a range of public, private and partnership structures in dynamic and sometimes challenging operating environments. They address first and foremost what service providers have actually done to contribute to the over-arching policy objective of ‘water for all.’

Two early chapters are devoted to distinctive but successful partnership models. Lorrain presents a joint equity arrangement in Chongqing, China, a model that has proved popular and durable in the Chinese context but is unusual elsewhere. The second case is the complex and adaptive Salt River project in Arizona analysed by Coeurdray and co-authors. This unique arrangement has evolved in organizational terms to meet increasing ecological challenges in the region. In both cases, performance appears to have been driven by a shared understanding between the partners of service objectives and a pragmatic problem-solving approach to management and operations. This contrasts with the rigid, legalistic target-based approaches often associated with public-private partnership contracts.

The next three chapters cover well known cases of contract-based PPP arrangements which are often referred to as ‘failures’: Buenos Aires (de Gouvello), Paris (Lorrain) and Berlin (Blanchet). These chapters reveal that in some respects these PPPs performed well and that the government-owned utilities which replaced them did not necessarily perform better. However, the contracts did not fit well with the evolving political or institutional landscape of their respective cities, leading to termination and restructuring. There was no evidence in these cases that policy-makers subjected the decision to end the PPP to an objective and rigorous evaluation against other possible policy options, or that if they had that termination would have been the optimal choice.

The chapters on La Paz-El Alto (Poupeau & Hardy) and three African cities (Blanc & Botton) highlight another interesting puzzle: why large centralized public water systems may co-exist over long periods with small private and community service providers. While small-scale providers might be expected to play a role in a transition period, their continued presence raises the question of whether differentiated access to services might be acceptable or even preferable in the long-run in some urban contexts.   

The characteristics of the private parties involved in a PPP arrangement may have a strong influence on their performance, as the strained relations between the joint venture partners discussed in Zerah and Renouard’s chapter on Nagpur shows. In Paris, in contrast, the institutional embeddedness of the companies allowed for the water sector to be governed “automatically” up to the 2000s. The interaction between the organizational attributes of service providers and appropriate regulatory and governance mechanisms merits deeper investigation in future studies.

A recurring theme in explaining performance in these cases is the degree of fit between the water service arrangements and the broader institutional context. The authors in this collection refer to the important role played by “second rank” or “small” institutions; other authors refer to intermediate or meso-institutions (Menard 2017). Systematic research to identify and characterize these institutions would be valuable.

Finally, the cases in this volume demonstrate the dynamic nature of water systems. Population growth, urban densification, environmental deterioration and other factors require technical adaptation and may also have consequences for the optimal organizational form. PPP models, for example, may be well suited to the challenges faced in one phase of development but unsuitable in another. With its clear focus on the ultimate policy objective of water for all and the practices that lead to the achievement of this goal, Lorrain and Poupeau’s book offers rich insights as well as inspiration for the future research agenda.


Ménard, C., 2017. Meso-institutions: The variety of regulatory arrangements in the water sector. Utilities Policy, 49, pp.6-19.



Additional Info

  • Authors: D. Lorrain, F. Poupeau
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Reviewer: Olivia Jensen
  • Subject: Urban water supply, Water politics
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English