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Politics of inequality in the urban water cycle: experiences from Argentina and Brazil

Castro, José Esteban; Quintslr, Suyá; Maiello, Antonella; Britto, Ana Lúcia; Aversa, Marcelo; Empinotti, Vanessa Lucena; Klink, Jeroen Johannes; Fracalanza, Ana Paula; da Paz, Mariana Gutierres Arteiro; Núñez, Ana

This issue is part of the activities of the WATERLAT-GOBACIT Network’s Thematic Area 3 (TA3), the Urban Water Cycle and Essential Public Services (http://waterlat. org/thematic-areas/ta3/). TA3 brings together academics, students, professionals working in the public sector, workers’ unions, practitioners from Non-Governmental Organizations, activists and members of civil society groups, and representatives of communities and users of public services, among others. The remit of this TA is broad, as the name suggests, but it has a strong focus on the political ecology of urban water, with emphasis on the politics of essential water services. Key issues addressed within this framework have been the neoliberalization of water services, social struggles against privatization and mercantilization of these services, the politics of public policy and management in the sector, water inequality and injustice in urban areas, and the contradictions and conflicts surrounding the status of water and water services as a public good, as a common good, as a commodity, as a citizenship right, and more recently, as a human right. 

The issue features four articles, three covering topics from Brazil, in Portuguese, and one from Argentina, in Spanish. Article 1 is authored by Suyá Quintslr, Antonella Maiello, and Ana Lúcia Britto, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and addresses the situation of unequal access to water and environmental vulnerability more generally in the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Region. The article is based on research carried out in Queimados municipality, in the Baixada Fluminense, as part of the Network’s DESAFIO Project (http://waterlat.org/projects/desafio/), which was developed between 2013 and 2015. Article 2 was authored by Marcelo Aversa, Vanessa Lucena Empinotti, and Jeroen Johannes Klink, from the Federal University of the ABC in Sao Paulo. It presents a critical discussion of the notion of human right to water adopted by the International System of Human Rights, exposing the contradictions of the concept and of the normative structure behind it, which among other issues simultaneously promotes the human right to water and water privatization as a possible option. The authors also emphasise the contradictions between the privatization-friendly approach to the human right to water promoted by international organizations and national governments and the “philosophy of Living in Plenitude (Buen Vivir)” grounded on Andean indigenous cultures, which inspired pioneering constitutional reforms on this issue in Ecuador and Bolivia. 

Article 3, by Ana Paula Fracalanza and Mariana Gutierres Arteiro da Paz, from the University of Sao Paulo, focuses on the “crisis of water governance” reflected in the catastrophic water shortages affecting the metropolitan regions of the State of Sao Paulo since 2014. The authors emphasise the contradictions in the urban politics of water and sanitation services, particularly in the Sao Paulo Metropolitan Region, where these services are run on a commercial basis. Among other issues, the article discusses the deepening of the conditions of vulnerability, inequality and injustice affecting the poorer sectors of the population, which according to the authors are caused by the dominant capitalist approach to water management and the lack of implementation of democratic principles and mechanisms enshrined in the 1988 Constitution, such as effective social participation in the control and monitoring of the management of essential services. Article 4 was authored by Ana Núñez, from the National University of Mar del Plata, Argentina, and proposes a critique of prevailing approaches to 

public-policy analysis using examples from the history of water and sanitation services in Argentina. The author argues that there is a need to transcend what she terms “the hegemonic academic literature that places emphasis on the techno-bureaucratic and physical aspects of management” and proposes to focus on how public policies are generated and developed, giving analytical pre-eminence to the study of these policies “as a process and an instrument of social struggle” in the context of a capitalist social order grounded on the production and reproduction of social inequalities. 

The topics covered by the four articles are of the highest relevance. They address problems that are among the key factors accounting for the failure in meeting the 2015 Millennium Development Goals for water and sanitation services, and contribute to the ongoing debates about the obstacles and opportunities that we face in relation to the new challenges set by the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to universalise the access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

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