Deborah Cheng joined SSRC in December 2014 as Program Officer of the Mellon Mays Graduate Initiatives Program. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, where her research focused on the politics of urban water access in Manila. Her work was funded in part by SSRC’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship and has been published in Geoforum, Water Alternatives, and Environment and Urbanization. Prior to joining the Council, Cheng was a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, where she examined the fragmentation of water governance in LA County. She grew up in Manila and has degrees in environmental engineering from MIT and Stanford.
In many cities of the global South, small piped water networks (SPWNs) play a critical role in meeting the needs of growing urban populations. While the literature recognizes their practicality and short-term benefits, it fails to capture the complexity of relationships that often develop within SPWN communities and the ways in which those linkages shape visions of access and progress. How can an analysis of SPWNs as distinct but interconnected actors in the urban waterscape shift our understanding of existing inequalities in access to water, as well as of relationships between consumers and providers? To address this question, I situate my research in Manila, where the privatized water utilities have employed an “innovative” strategy to expand services – one that involves incorporating SPWNs into their networks. Building on my pre-dissertation findings – and drawing upon the literature addressing access to water, urban planning, and governance – I will conduct ethnographic research to examine a range of SPWNs that vary in their institutional setups and relationships. I hypothesize that some SPWNs actually mitigate existing inequalities – not just by improving quantity and quality, but by reshaping the terms of provision and the ways in which access is perceived. For these reasons, some communities may prefer SPWNs over conventional utilities, challenging our notion of urban water provision as the terrain of natural monopolies. Conversely, some SPWNs may perpetuate inequalities by adding to existing bureaucracies, and may even be employed strategically by the utilities to cover “unviable” areas. I argue that an incorporation of SPWNs into our understanding of mainstream urban water provision requires a reexamination of our assumptions, and provides us with a better framework for analyzing the needs of various urban and peri-urban communities, as well as alternative notions of development, access, and progress.