SOAS University of London

Centre for Water and Development

PRIMI - Privatization and Regulation in Italy, Mexico and India

This project will develop a framework for a large collaborative and comparative research project on water governance. The substantive part of the framework will be developed through comparative analysis of regulation and privatization in water governance and their impact on water security in three countries: Italy, Mexico and India. Research focuses on the shared but diverse experience of urban-rural and sectoral water re-allocation as part of societal (post-)modernization.

Research themes: privatization and regulation in water governance reform

Efforts at water governance reform in the past two (neoliberal) decades have been characterized, at least discursively, by an emphasis on privatization and the introduction of new forms of regulation, in a proclaimed effort to enhance ‘water security’ for all. A shared focus and concern in water governance reform globally is the re-allocation of water resources as part of societal (post-)modernization: rural to urban and across sectors. In the South this has typically taken the form of re-allocating water out of agriculture to expanding industry and fast-growing urban regions; in the North a driving concern has been to increase allocations for ecological restoration and flood protection. On closer look, and with intensifying demands on water resources, a suit of re-allocation issues play out in diverse combinations, with North/South distinctions seeming to lose relevance. Similarly, the experiences of actual privatization and (re)regulation have been highly variable, across countries and across water sub-sectors, as well as the ‘water security’ for different uses and users that has been achieved. The water resources re-allocation problematique as addressed through (re)regulation and privatization focused governance reform thus provides an excellent case for the comparative study of international development.

The sub-sector of domestic and urban-industrial water supply has been a main target of privatization. Countries like the UK and New Zealand have pursued privatization of water supply vigorously and these efforts have endured. However a city like Berlin, Germany is at the point of reversing the privatization of its urban water supply utility. In several countries in the South the contracts with multinational water companies for urban water supply have been revised and/or reversed. Beyond the famously controversial ‘water wars’ in Cochabamba, Bolivia there is a wide range of highly diverse processes of water supply governance and management reform. This experiential variety neither fits generalized mainstream policy declarations advocating privatization, nor the polarized public debates that counter-pose water as an economic good to water as a fundamental human right. How this variety of experiences has affected the water security of domestic and
industrial users, and how this depends on the forms of governance and management that have been chosen (if at all), is not well known.

The agricultural water sub-sector, where the bulk of freshwater is used, has had its share of neoliberally inspired policy reform discourse (notably the advocacy for tradable water rights and irrigation management transfer). Except for a boom in groundwater extraction by individual users (farmers), notably in India and PR China, which might be called ‘privatization’, but which is neither the direct result nor seems controllable by government policy, the introduction of market mechanisms in agricultural water management has not made much headway – agricultural water has been an ‘uncooperative commodity’. Agricultural water bureaucracies have been particularly resilient in maintaining their historically established ’engineering’ approaches, and have resisted quite effectively efforts at reform with economic efficiency and environmental sustainability agendas. It is unknown why efforts at the ‘reflexive modernization’ of the agricultural water sub-sector have shown so little impact.

India is an example where, in several States (notably Maharashtra) – now followed by a push from the Union for all states to adopt the same – the establishment of regulatory authorities is attempted as a key feature of water sector reform, encompassing both the water supply and agricultural water sub-sectors. This follows examples of this form of regulation in other sectors (notably energy/electricity) and examples of environmental and water sector regulation in other countries (like the UK, other European countries, Australia, New Zealand and the USA). Transplantation of developed countries’ models occurs, but whether models of regulation as practiced in these countries are relevant to countries in the South is questionable, but the frameworks and assumptions underlying the models, how local context mediates their adoption, and their effectiveness are poorly researched.

Research focus: re-allocation and water security in Italy, Mexico and India

To focus the research effort, this project investigates how rural-urban and cross-sectoral re-allocation of water affects water security for/of different uses and users in Italy, Mexico and India. Water security may be conceived to have three constituent elements: availability (controlled supply of quality and safe water), access (enforceable rights to water for a range of stakeholders), and addressing conflicts of use (mechanisms to avoid/address disputes over competing uses). Given time constraints this project will focus on how re-allocation affects access, with broader aspects of water security to be addressed in the larger project. 

Research Team

SOAS staff: Prof Philippe Cullet (Law), Dr Albert Asquer (DeFIMS), Prof Peter Mollinga (Development Studies)

Research Assistants: Sujith Coonan, Antonio-Martin Porras Gomez  


  • Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, India
  • National Law University Delhi (NLUD), New Delhi, India
  • Department of Geography, University of Bonn, Germany
  • Florence School of Regulation, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute in Florence, Italy
  • Turin School of Local Regulation in Turin, Italy


The project is funded by the Faculty of Law and Social Science, SOAS, University of London