Academic Publication

Hybrid regulatory landscapes: The human right to water, variegated neoliberal water governance, and policy transfer in Cape Town, South Africa, and Accra, Ghanaestern Cape water crisis

Julian Yates
Publication Year:
May 04, 2020
  • SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation


Drawing on an analysis of water access and supply in Cape Town (South Africa) and Accra (Ghana), we illustrate that neoliberal and human right to water-oriented transformations co-constitute each other discursively, practically, and in policy implementation. Focusing on the transfer of policies and experiences (particularly conjoined demand management-free basic water programs and related social contestation), we provide examples of how neoliberal logics and human right to water principles intersect in evolving hybrid regulatory landscapes, which are characterized by contradiction. The human right to water makes a difference by influencing the drafting and implementation of water-related policies that affect to the lives of poor and vulnerable populations. Yet this process unfolds unevenly, as human right to water principles and practices are contextually applied, often alongside neoliberalizing policy instruments within evolving regulatory landscapes. Our analysis reveals the uneven effects of policy experimentation, transfer, and adaptation. The analysis shows that the principle of the human right to water affects the transformation of policy options circulating in the water sector, but it does so in relation to the institutional histories and policy options associated with uneven patterns of variegated neoliberalization in the water sector.


Our analysis has focused on the co-constitutive relation between the human right to water and ongoing neoliberalization in two distinct (yet linked) sites. In the South Africa case, we focused on how continued neoliberalization through the deepening of demand management programs limits and constrains the realization of the human right to water. The findings are useful for further building our understanding of the spaces that the neoliberalization of water services in South Africa has created (see Narsiah, 2013). In the Ghanaian case, we explored how neoliberal and human right to water-influenced approaches and discourses travel together but take shape according to local articulations and demands for substantive participation. Neoliberalizing and human right to water-influenced ideas and experiences are therefore being re-shaped together in-place.

In both cases, the contradictions, limits, and constraints we explored have led to a distancing of water-related policies from the progressive transformations in provision and access that civil society advocates have demanded. In Cape Town, severe drought conditions have prompted a recalibration of demand management, leading to new patterns in the roll out of WMDs. These interventions will likely prove unsustainable – and rather moot – if supplies are not augmented and other governance aspects not reconsidered in toto (Muller, 2017). Demand management efforts have also come at the expense of previous commitments to FBW, as the indigent policy is the bare minimum required by national policy frameworks. These aspects highlight the contradictions that emerge at the intersection of the human right to water, neoliberalization, and changing hydrologic conditions.

In Accra, while GWCL pursues cost recovery mechanisms and increases to water tariffs, civil society is advocating for the constitutional recognition of a human right to water. Yet everyday water access remains contextualized by a general acceptance of payments for water, and the national approach places emphasis on technological solutions (such as desalination), despite a commitment to integrated water resource management. Affordability, engagement, and quality remain key challenges.

Our argument is not, therefore, that the human right to water unequivocally or uniformly producers water policies that are more fair or sustainable.xxvi While the human right to water has affected policy developments in both Cape Town and Accra (including to defend access by poor and vulnerable populations successfully at various times), it remains just one component within a broader, variegated process of transformation in the water sector. This means that the pursuit of a human right to water in principle will not transfer into a uniform pattern of universal access in practice. Instead we observe an uneven pattern of patchy successes and failures in transforming the human right to water into policy practice.

Our analysis shows that policy principles such as FBW and prescriptive demand management policy options exist and circulate together as mobile but embedded policy paradigms. This process produces evolving hybrid regulatory landscapes that affect both water provision and access.xxvii While demand management through water pricing and consumption caps is now entrenched in Cape Town (in part at the expense of FBW), Accra continues along its own path of private provision and techno-solutions (e.g. PPPs and desalination), despite opposition from social movements. The outcomes in both places will likely be shaped by the degree to which civil society aligns with or resists policy changes, meaning that these outcomes will not fit a linear model of progress in water policy.

These findings show that the human right to water and variegated neoliberalization co- constitute evolving regulatory landscapes in practice, particularly at the municipal scale. We must not, therefore, confine our analyses of the power and potential of the human right to water just to the legal or institutional realm (at the national scale). The findings also raise questions about the degree to which the human right to water has begun to influence the policy prescriptions associated with global organizations such as the World Bank, transnational water companies, and international NGOs. Addressing such issues will shed new light on the kinds of policy mobilities highlighted by the likes of Goldman (2007) and Mukhtarov (2013, 2014), and will help to uncover the potential emergence of new – but contested – rule regimes or hegemonic practices in water governance.

There is a need for more research of this kind, we argue, in order to build an understanding of patterned regulatory change in the water sector today. There is also a need for historically-informed analyses of both neoliberalizing and other kinds of regulatory restructuring (Cf. Peck, 2013). Such historical approaches might further the kinds of cross- contextual analysis we have presented here by uncovering how the discursive, legislative, and practical potential of various principles underpinning expectations in water provision and access are institutionalized over time as coherent but geographically differentiated approaches. These approaches and practices will continue to exhibit various contradictions, limits, and constraints—key elements which deserve analytical attention across sites and scales to better understand shifting hybrid landscapes of water governance. Such historical and cross-contextual analysis will be required, we argue, if we are to understand any enduring significance of the human right to water.



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