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Making the water flow

Conflict(s) and cooperation between formal and informal urban water regimes in Asia and Africa

Photo: "Local Water Supply" is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, source Flickr.

The project is funded by a Formas Future Research Leaders grant and will take place during 2019-2020.


Historically cities have built their water infrastructures based on the ideal of universal coverage that relies heavily on formal water supply (“the piped paradigm)”. According to this ideal, water is turned into an uninterrupted urban water supply through the formation of a hydraulic society that involves grand infrastructure projects, the emergence of strategic groups, in particular the state bureaucracy and hydraulic engineering experts. We refer to these as formal water regimes that tend to operate at the supply end (i.e. the established network of technology comprised of pipes and other large infrastructures)

The particular mode and speed in which urbanisation is currently taking place means that in many parts of Asia and Africa formal water regimes represent only part of the water supply picture. Large populations still do not have access to formal water regimes despite the expansion of the hydraulic society. Water for drinking and other domestic uses such as food preparation, hygiene and sanitation continue to be met by the urban poor through informal water regimes. Comprised of an increasing number of informal vendors and small-scale private entrepreneurs informal water regimes have been able to keep the water flowing where there is lack of formal water provision.

Despite wide recognition of the existence of both formal and informal water regimes, we still do not know how conflict(s) and cooperation between these two regimes occurs. However, in this study we are convinced that ultimately making the water flow in rapidly urbanising regions critically depends on the combination of formal and informal water regimes. Furthermore, ensuring that the two can better co-exist becomes an important step towards achieving the sustainability of the entire urban water system and achieving equity in water access and distribution. Combining socio-technical studies and urban political ecology, we will weave into our analysis questions around water and technology control, how water services are managed and organized not purely based on technical water reform agendas; but as politicized and inherently contested agendas.


In this study our overarching objectives are therefore to:

  1. Problematise the interaction of formal and informal water regimes.
  2. Understand the interaction of water regimes through conflict(s) and cooperation in Asia and Africa.
  3. Identify policy arrangements for improving the co-existence of water regimes and hence strengthen overall sustainability of the urban water system and water equity.

The study will be based on empirically grounded fieldwork in Gurgaon, India (Asia case study) and Nairobi, Kenya (Africa case study).

Conceptual Process of the Water Flow Project
Belongs to: Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment
Last changed: Sep 21, 2020