Water as a human right : concrete application in Buenos Aires

Daniel Florentin, 2012

Agua para todos (Water for all) : with these words the unions demonstrated at the beginning of the 2007 Agua Foro in Buenos Aires, to remind the Argentine government’s promise to establish water as a human right. In this way, they gave resonance to a theme that is still controversial.

The debates on the nature of water have thus for decades opposed two rather deeply entrenched camps. On the one hand, there are those who defend the idea of water as a purely economic good; on the other hand, there are those who defend access to water as a fundamental human right, both in terms of its physical and economic access. The first approach considers that water is a good like any other, and, as such, can be the object of commodification, and thus of commercialization according to the rules of the market. Conversely, the second approach starts from the principle that access to water must be guaranteed for all in the name of its vital character, and must be the subject of legal security1.

However, the human rights approach remains limited and insufficient if it focuses only on legal aspects or if it is confined to incantatory registers. It is a first step towards universalizing access, but not an end in itself. Access to water has thus invaded the constitutional law of a certain number of countries, including South Africa, which was a pioneer in this area in 1996, establishing the constitutional nature of the right to water, before being imitated by many other countries, including Uruguay and Bolivia.

However, in each of these countries, access to water remains unequal and imperfect, and the right to water often remains an ideal to be achieved rather than an observable reality. The populations most concerned by this deficient access to drinking water, which affects nearly one billion people worldwide, are almost systematically among the poorest and least solvent. Many of them also have to deal with slum housing, insufficient access to basic services such as electricity or sanitation, and even the absence of identity papers and legal existence for migrant communities, as is often the case in Latin America.

The challenge is therefore twofold: to connect populations living in areas that are poorly or not connected to the network and traditionally excluded. In other words, the challenge is both a technical issue and a social issue, or even a citizen issue, since it is a matter of building a material citizenship2 for these excluded populations.

In this respect, since 2005, the Argentine government has developed a public policy in the metropolitan region of Buenos Aires that combines the participatory approach, the idea of the right to water, and the physical reality of this right. A brief sketch of the Agua Mas Trabajo (Water + Work) program provides an illustration of this constructivist vision of citizenship and universalization of the water service.

1. From archipelago to network: the emergence of a participatory model

Universal access to urban networks, and in particular to water networks, remains a myth and a political construction in many countries of the South. However, since the time the service was delegated to Suez, the Argentine government and the water company have set up a program designed to bring water to the least solvent populations, particularly for reasons of sanitary emergency3.

The Agua Mas Trabajo program, launched in 2003, and following the 20,337 law on cooperatives, thus made it possible to combine social and sanitary considerations ; local work cooperatives for the unemployed were to take charge of the construction of the water network, the quality of which is then monitored by the water company. Operated as part of Suez’s corporate social responsibility strategy, the program operated on the archipelago principle, around individual wells.

However, it underwent massive development after the public takeover of the company Aguas Argentinas, which became AySA in 2006. It has become the central axis of the network extension policy and the pillar of the renationalized water company’s more participatory model. The spatial logic has also changed, since from the archipelago, we have moved to the figure of the network, connecting the sections concerned to the regular network and the potabilization plant of La Matanza, instead of operating according to the system of isolated wells4. The 20 employees working peripherally on the program were replaced by a group of 60 employees working exclusively on the program, including the social support part for the 467 modules to be built.

2. a public financing, a symbolic payment

The company, and through it the Argentine government, finances this program with 70 to 100 million pesos annually, which represents 20% of the total investment budget. This is 20% of the total investment budget, which is used to cover the cost of the work, worker training and quality control. The company delegates to the municipio, the smallest local level, the choice of the cooperative. Payment for the work is made according to the number of meters of network built, not the number of hours worked, to create an incentive for the rapid and efficient completion of the work. However, the quality controls are the same as for the traditional network, and the network is chlorinated once before use, to avoid any contamination. On average, it takes eight months for each module to be completed, tested and put into operation.

The idea of the local workers’ cooperative increases the social acceptability of the work and the care taken in building the network. In return, the company demands payment of the water bills, in order to move from the regime of illegal connection to the awareness of water as a shared good and a cost. The sum requested is minimal (around 10 pesos per month), but symbolic of an insertion in the official network. In the end, visits to the construction sites reveal a very strong expectation on the part of the inhabitants, who are ready to pay a symbolic sum that will be compensated by significant health benefits. The rate of bill collection exceeds 50%, which is a first step, knowing that the lack of address of some users makes their billing more difficult. In a sense, water supply is part of a more general urban planning problem, which is also the subject of significant social expectations.

3. convincing results

In four years, the program has already succeeded in capitalizing on quite convincing results. Nearly one million new users are already connected or in the process of being connected to the network. The ideal of a universal service is now within reach. Populations that were previously excluded now benefit from a reliable network.

The success is such that the company AySA has launched, since 2010 and in an exploratory way, a similar model for the construction of sewerage networks. The project is still in its infancy, and only 19,000 people had benefited by July 2011. However, there are likely to be more technical hurdles to its implementation, as the construction of a sewerage and wastewater system is technically more complex than digging a trench and bringing in a water system. The implementation of such a program, Agua Mas Cloaca Mas Trabajo, is, however, evidence of a certain social success of the water supply component.

4. a double criticism

However, this program has been the subject of some criticism. Two main criticisms can be retained. The first was the questioning of clientelistic practices, favoring a particular zone or a particular cooperative. It is difficult to find evidence of their existence or non-existence; on the other hand, the scope of the program and its results, which allowed for the inclusion of a considerable number of users who were traditionally forgotten because they were not creditworthy, make it possible to qualify this criticism.

The second criticism is more far-reaching and concerns the lack of dissemination of this program to other regions. Only the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires benefits from this program. This is largely due to electoral reasons, as the government refuses to fund similar programs in regions held by opposition parties, and almost a third of voters live in the Gran Buenos Aires region.

This nuance reminds us that water remains an eminently political and politicized object, and that the universalization of the network remains conditioned both by socio-economic conditions and by political will. This is one of the lessons to be learned from the Agua Mas Trabajo program and from the pro-poor vision of the public policy of which it is the symbol: the public actor remains absolutely central and plays a decisive role in the extension of the major network infrastructures. Where private operators see their room for manoeuvre restricted by the requirement of user solvency, only the public sector can often take on the burden of the work necessary to build a network that includes the entire population. This is the model on which the networks in developed countries were built 5, and which has enabled universal access to essential urban services. However, the implementation of this type of project remains dependent on the political will and financial capacity of the public authorities.

1 For a theoretical perspective on the subject, see Bakker, 2010. Privatizing water. Governance failure and the world’s urban water crisis. Cornell University Press

2 Material citizenship is a concept that emerged from post-colonial studies, and in particular from the branch of subaltern studies, and has been widely developed by Chatterjee, notably in Politics of the governed (2004, NY Columbia University Press). The critique of citizenship subtracted by the lack of access to basic urban networks has also been developed, in the Francophone literature, by Marie-France Prévôt-Schapira

3 A 2003 public report denounced in particular the critical nature of the sanitary situation in the cities of La Matanza and Lomas de Zamora, linked in large part to the poor quality of the water used.

4 The logic of connection to the network is all the more important as many of these wells are contaminated by nitrates, sodium and arsenic.

5 France is somewhat of an exception in this respect.