Daniel Gallagher

Urban PlanningMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Award Information

2017 IDRF Program

Urban PlanningMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

A Political Ecology of Urban Governance: Contested Urban Institutions and the Struggle for Alternative Water Futures in Latin America

My dissertation seeks to explain the recent emergence of alternatives to the dominant capitalist institutions in water governance in Latin America. Specifically, I propose a multi-sited ethnography to study dramatic reconfigurations in the laws and policies that govern water in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Santiago, Chile and Havana, Cuba. Each of these sites reveals a complex—and not merely oppositional—entanglement with global water markets and underwent profound institutional shifts during recent water crises. These shifts include the cancellation of the world's largest water concession, the introduction of socially redistributive water tariffs, constitutional-level reforms to decades-old water laws and an engagement with processes of privatization that belies ideological expectations. One firm—a subsidiary of the world's largest water conglomerate, Suez Environnement—binds these sites together through its role in the governance of water in all three cities. Through this project, I focus my ethnographic attention on the political, social, cultural and ecological conditions that have given rise to institutions that define and govern water as a social need and not a profit-generating commodity. I examine the extent to which institutional transformations in the three cities challenge the roots of uneven access to water and artificial scarcity for the poor. Finally, I aim to make a theoretical contribution at the frontiers of scholarship in urban studies and geography by informing and potentially challenging existing theories of the urban governance of water. At a time when the doctrine of market-based prescriptions is re-emerging as a prescription for water stress under climate change, my research will contribute cross-disciplinary and humanistic knowledge on what actually works in pursuing socially equitable water governance in service of the urban poor.