Pearl River Delta Law

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Citizen’s Voice in Water Governance: Public-Private Partnerships as Triangular Relations

Workshop FAU

On 22 and 23 April I will be participating in the ‘Workshop and Expert Seminar: Best Practices for the Protection of Water in Times of Crisis. Focus on Participatory Instruments in Environmental Law and Policies’, to be hosted by the Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, in Erlangen (Germany). My paper is titled ‘Citizen’s Voice in Water Governance: Public-Private Partnerships as Triangular Relations’.

Here is the abstract:

The marketization of water services that took place over the last decades, in developed and developing countries alike, deeply transformed the role of the State in the provision of these services. The conclusion of Public-Private Partnerships lead to an emphasis on the economics of private investment. Despite being increasingly operated from an economic angle, water is also a public good in the sense that it is vital for the protection of public interests. This entails the right of citizens to participate in the decisions about how water services are managed. According to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ General Comment No. 15: The Right to Water (2003), the right of individuals and groups to participate in decision-making processes that may affect their exercise of the right to water must be an integral part of any policy, programme or strategy concerning water. However, Public-Private Partnerships are frequently presented as being less representative and participatory than public management, as citizens are frequently given no right to participate in decision-making processes. These legal instruments promoted the dissociation between services provided by the state and services that relate to public interests, frequently without the creation of a clear legal framework to govern these services. This poses a challenge to the publicness of public services due to the reorientation of state policies and administrative reforms towards the principles of market and business management.

Over the last years access to water has been viewed from a different perspective – that of human rights – according to which water is a fundamental human right and therefore should not be subject to private management. From this viewpoint, the participation of private actors in water services provision can result in a decreased respect for human rights. However, the affirmation of a human right to water is not in itself incompatible with private operation of water services. While governments under General Comment No. 15 are required to provide access to affordable, safe water without discrimination, it does not rule out the possibility of privatisation.

Citizens’ participation in water governance is essential for the protection of public interests. Public-Private Partnerships in the water sector should not be viewed as bilateral relationships between the public and the private sector but rather as triangular relationships that include citizens and communities. This presentation aims at discussing how states can craft legal frameworks that promote greater transparency and public participation in water governance. Governments need to rethink their domestic legislations and Public-Private Partnerships to ensure that they provide sufficient room for the consideration of citizens’ interests and opinions. The public interests associated with water management justify an enhanced measure of transparency and openness to civil society. Greater transparency enhances the public’s ability to actively take part in water services governance, contributing to more responsible contracting by companies and governments.


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