The Role of World Bank in Urban Water Supply: Aligning Water for All and Water for Sale


The green knowledge marks major shift in the World Bank to become a global expert. The motivation to become a global expert has driven the World Bank to declare itself as the Knowledge Bank in 1996. As consequence, the World Bank has the capacity needed in producing certain knowledge, favouring particular facts and embedding evidence into narrative that promote neoliberalism in water and sanitation

1.       Introduction

Water has arguably been one of the most contested natural resources since the beginning of civilisation. The way water is socially and economically defined is based on how water is utilised, allocated, managed, as well as governed across political boundaries or between social and economic groups. Moreover, the last several decades have seen water become a major issue as it is considered a limited resource, heavily polluted in some locations, and facing uncertainty created by climate change and global population growth (Bates, Kundzewicz, Wu, & Palutikof, 2008).

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targets for access to safe drinking water were achieved in 2010 (WHO/UNICEF, 2012). However, the WHO/UNICEF (2012) Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supply and Sanitation Report showed that, since 1990, the proportion of people able to access a water piped system in urban areas has not improved; resulting in about 130 million people, mostly in Global South countries, being underserved. In the context of urban drinking water supply, the discussion among scholars focuses on the public and private binary (Bakker, 2013; Goldman, 2007). Therefore, two conclusions can be drawn from the continued failures to achieve universal coverage; the proponents of privatisation allege it is because of state failure, while others argue it is market failure. Interestingly, from both perspectives, the World Bank (hereafter ‘the bank’) is mentioned as making a direct or indirect contribution to those failures (Bakker, 2013; Molle, 2009; Lobina & Hall, 2008; Bakker, 2007; van der Zaag & Savenije, 2006; Prasad, 2006; Budds & McGranahan, 2003). For this reason, explaining the Bank’s role will help to understand whether concepts in drinking water supply, such as the water for all, water scarcity, right to water, pro poor, and integrated urban water management are neutral and free from a particular agenda.

The essay will assess the role of the World Bank in water resource management. Specifically, it attempts to answers the question, how water resource management, especially urban water supply in developing countries, is exercised and shaped by social, political and economic knowledge construction induced by the World Bank. The essay will not evaluate the appropriateness of the Bank’s privatisation approach, nor judge between state or market failure. Rather, it is argued that social, political and economic concepts of urban drinking water supply are used not only to promote water for all, but also to defend the Bank agenda: water for sale.

This paper is divided into four sections. The first section introduces the importance of study into the role of the Bank in Urban Water Supply. The second section describes the theoretical background of “narrative” that borrows hegemony theory from Gramsci’s (Ekers & Loftus, 2008). Narrative is the analytical framework proposed by Molle (2008), that will be used to disentangle the concepts around urban drinking water supply. Based on the theoretical framework constructed in the second section, the third section discusses and analyses social, political and economic knowledge construction induced by the Bank. However, given the limited scope of this literature review, the discussion of narrative is limited to water scarcity, water as an economic good, demand driven approach, professional, pro poor, right to water and Integrated Urban Water Management. In order to examine how those concepts are framed by narratives, the third section will; (1) explore the Bank’s contribution to knowledge production on drinking water supply; (2) assess how knowledge is produced, and favourable evidence selected, packed and published to support a certain agenda; and (3) examine the narrative deployed by the Bank in order to articulate, spread, and permeate its agenda. The last section summarises and concludes the discussion.

2.       Theoretical Framework

Analysis of water resource management shows cognitive and ideological aspects strongly influence policy discourse (Molle, 2008). Ideas and ideology are never neutral and reflect particular worldviews. This has fuelled interest in defining who has or does not have the power to manage the water resource, who has legitimate power to choose certain governance/management options, and who decides to include or exclude particular social groups (Molle, 2008). At this point, interrogating hegemony discourse becomes central to disentangling the relations of power and knowledge around water (Ekers & Loftus, 2008).

It is important to consider how changes in water resource management are tied to the configuration of social, political and economic knowledge rather than physical science.  This is especially significant in developing states, since they are particularly vulnerable to external ideological influences (Bryant, 1998). For instance, epistemic communities  from developed countries promote ‘democratisation’ in decision making in water management (Pahl-Wostl, Holtz, Kastens, & Knieper, 2010; Liberatore & Funtowicz, 2003); the Bank’s loan strongly applies certain condition that tie to a neoliberal agenda (Goldman, 2007); the UN’s agencies endorse the notion of water as an economic good as well as the right to water (UN, 2010); Western based multinational companies promise effective and professional management of water as well as securing enormous investments (Goldman, 2007); and, north-south NGO networks play a significant role in inducing a discourse of environmental protection and anti-privatisation to water (Wright, 2012).

The Bank has an important role in water supply due to its mandate in poverty reduction and economic development by providing technical and financial support. The Bank strategies, approaches and technical assistance emerge from considerable research evidence; based on identifying problems, analysis, interpreting results, and creating knowledge and evidence. According to Molle (2008), some evidence could be selected and used to support a particular narrative. As a consequence, these narratives are perceived as “the truth” and utilised as scientific background to support certain policy making processes (Molle, 2008). Likewise, policy making processes are not free of value, since actors involved are practicing their worldview to frame the problem and select or ignore particular facts and values (Molle, 2008). Therefore, the Bank capacity in conducting massive research and its role in providing technical support to developing countries becomes strategic in constructing narrative. However, it also should be noted that the Bank is part of the international development big family, which actors involved are, intentionally or by accident, contributing in the construction and dissemination of narrative. This narrative is presented as seemingly natural and can infiltrate public consciousness and convince them. Rather than being neutral, they reflect the agenda, interests and even ideology of the Bank.



Molle (2008) defines narrative as a story that is crafted to understand, interpret, and explain the meaning of social and physical phenomena. In the water resource management context, narrative influences opinion, for example: what conditions should be considered to categorise water as good water or bad water (Sultana, 2013); which argument is better to explain the failure in water provision (Bakker, Kooy, Shofiani, & Martijn, 2008); whether privatisation is useful or not (Araral, 2009; Bakker, 2007), and most importantly, what constitutes sustainable urban water management (Swyngedouw, Kaika, & Castro, 2002). Narrative is a result of, supposedly, consensus, between two or more perspectives in order to find a solution for certain issues in environmental management (Molle, 2008). However, Mehta (2001a) argues that, in reality, narrative is an intentional act of choosing or disregarding particular facts and values, mainly by measuring the cost and benefit that may impact certain groups. Nevertheless, narrative can be re-crafted and continuously strengthened depend on its usefulness to certain actors. As a dialogue process, narrative always incorporates the opposite arguments, reframes the issue, and is re-constructed to enhance its robustness, without excluding its own principal ideology (Molle, 2008). In short, narrative could be considered as cherry picking an idea or argument that may support certain agenda while at the same time masks its original political nature (Molle, 2008).

One example of narratives is the Bank’s “water for all” concept. Goldman (2007) critically analyse the water for all concept and conclude that, rather than reaching universal access to water, the phrase “water for all” has instead being used to manufacture legitimacy for privatisation. From the political economy point of view, privatisation is seen as part of capitalism penetration to accumulate capital. Hornborg et al. (2013) argue that the capital accumulation process is systematically exploits nature and pollutes the environment, in order to fulfil the increasing demand for goods, due to exponential population growth and changing lifestyles. The population is seen as consumers, while market, and state to some degree, facilitates the continuous flow of supply (goods and services) to meet the demand; resulting in natural resource depletion and pollution. It seems clear that the capital accumulation process has caused ecological rifts (Hornborg et al., 2013). However, the Bank’s subtle technique in constructing and presenting the water for all narrative, including its embedded market oriented approach, has sophisticatedly blurred the negative impact of privatisation. Therefore, it is not surprising, many development professionals, policy makers and government officers from Third World countries fail to recognise that water for all is a double-sided coin (Kothari, 2005). Unless the Bank’s knowledge hegemony and its relationship with the power are critically examined, the water for all narrative will always be taken for granted.

Gramsci’s hegemony theory is useful to characterise and explain how narrative is working on the ground level (Ekers & Loftus, 2008; Ekers, Loftus, & Mann, 2009). Hegemony, according to Gramsci (1971), is seen as a way one group or class maintain its power and earn support from others (cited in Ekers & Loftus, 2008). Hegemony is automatically running behind society’s conscious mind, so smooth without anyone able to recognise that they have been subjected to certain rules and control. Hence, on the one hand the state or the ruling class can gain support from society, and on the other hand the hegemony pervades public awareness, in such a way that it can affect peoples’ understanding and behaviour without realising it (cited in Ekers & Loftus, 2008). Gramsci (1971) pointed out that hegemony become possible through power consolidation in civil society’s institution, such as churches, trade unions and schools (cited in Ekers & Loftus, 2008). In the same way, the Bank’s knowledge hegemony has taken place and mainstreamed at international, national and local development level.

The Banks knowledge hegemony is materialised in the Global South through several medium, such as: government officers and individual experts at both national and local level; private companies, like consultants and contractors; and civil society, for example universities, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) and community groups. The international organisations which directly and indirectly work with the Bank also contribute to weaving the Bank’s narrative, namely the International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nations, bilateral organisations and international NGOs (prominently WaterAid) (Goldman, 2007). Furthermore, Goldman (2007) emphasised the contribution of transnational policy networks in the water sector that have facilitated the Bank’s narrative, namely the World Water Council (WWC), Global Water Partnership (GWP) and World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). Nevertheless, the hegemony comes in as a seemingly natural process, even in the most participatory approach, for instance stakeholders’ involvement in the whole cycle of project management, starting from problem identification, planning, execution, and monitoring and evaluation. During this process, at the global level hundreds to thousands of people are involved, learn, practice, and transmit the Bank induced knowledge (Goldman, 2007). To put it briefly, the Bank performs its hegemony by, jointly with other actors, crafting and disseminating the narrative, which subsequently becomes the norm and “scientific truth” on how; for example, water for all, should be understood and executed. 

3.       Discussion

From Knowledge Gap to Knowledge Empire

Even though Molle (2008) does not explicitly interrogate the Banks role, his analytical framework is useful to explain the correlation between how knowledge is manufactured and influences governments in developing countries. Using narrative as an analytical tool, Molle (2008) detaches a political agenda that is apparently natural in the policy making process and everyday policy practice, on which the Bank’s case is usually taken for granted. In the same way but with more detail facts and figures, Goldman (2007) presented in-depth analysis of the Bank’s involvement in the knowledge production process and show how it become major belief among international development actors. Based on his previous study in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Goldman (2001) shows the birth of the Bank’s green knowledge as response to the global call for environmentally sustainable development. The green knowledge is the Bank’s way to adapt for two contradictory demands; to accommodate toward more responsible action to nature on one hand, and to facilitate the private sector involvement to a market in undercapitalise Third World countries on the other.

The green knowledge marks major shift in the Bank to become a global expert. The motivation to become a global expert has driven the Bank to declare itself as the Knowledge Bank in 1996 (Mehta, 2001a). Another major shift during this period was the Bank coming to realise that they have limited information and knowledge about development. However, Mehta (2001a) argues that the Bank has simplified the complexity of knowledge gaps into two types of knowledge: technology and attribute. Technology refers to technical knowledge that answers questions, such as what kind of technology fits with a small urban area or what technical skills are needed for a municipal utility’s staff in order to work effectively (Mehta, 2001a). Attribute knowledge relates to the quality of project outputs, for example the ability of a consultant to produce project results in a given timeframe (Mehta, 2001a). These two types of knowledge gaps have fuelled the Bank to produce thousands of publications and trained millions of people; making the Bank a knowledge empire (Mehta, 2001a).

Since its reforms, the Bank training centres have trained more than 9000 professionals in water sector, including water engineers, academicians, policy makers and community members (Goldman, 2007). Similarly, the Bank has published thousands of documents related to water supply, ranging from technical field notes to academic literatures and a diversity of themes. During the early years of the reforms, most of the knowledge was produced in response to the emergence need in fulfilling access to drinking water supply in the Global South. This argument was based on the view from the Bank that developing countries are unable to provide basic services to its citizens due to water resource depletion, fiscal constraints, inefficiency, lack of technical skills, and poor institutional arrangement (Araral, 2009; Goldman, 2007; Prasad, 2006). As a consequence, the Bank persuasively promoted the involvement of private companies based on the assumption that big corporations are more capable, effective and professional than publicly owned utilities in providing water (Goldman, 2007). This perspective was well accepted during the earlier time of green knowledge and it is used as an argument to privatise public utilities in some Third World cities (Araral, 2009; Prasad, 2006). Although the private sector has failed to realise its promise in some parts of the world, the Bank continue to promote privatisation by revising, reconstructing and repacking its narrative to support the advancement of capitalism through public private partnership (Prasad, 2006). Nevertheless, the Bank always has new facts that support the privatisation idea, for instance privatisation could reduce child mortality (Galiani, Gertler, & Schargrodsky, 2005). Thus, the Bank has the capacity needed in producing certain knowledge, favouring particular facts and embedding evidence into narrative. Next section presents how scientific knowledge is woven by the Bank into narrative.


Goldman (2007) argues water scarcity is one of the “physical scientific facts” that has been widely used by the Bank to promote privatisation. The global water crisis report (World Water Commission, 2000) clearly indicated that freshwater is a scarce commodity and therefore, “full-cost pricing of water services with equity will be needed to promote conservation and to attract the very large investments that are needed” (p. 3). On another environmental issue, the Bank reported that groundwater mismanagement in India and Mexico has impacted on intrusion of saline water in shallow aquifer. Interestingly, this problem is framed in a way that the lack of regulation and effective water pricing is stated as the main cause and therefore should be addressed through Bank supported fiscal reform programs (Pitman, 2002). What fiscal reform means actually is the Bank’s loan are attached with conditionality; most importantly privatisation (Goldman, 2007). Mehta (2001b) urges public tends to simplify scarcity in drinking water source into natural force. Nevertheless, the Bank’s water crisis claim was found controversial, as other scholars argue that water scarcity is more closely associated to social construction rather than scientific fact. Kaika (2003), for example, found that the market oriented development and privatisation agenda in Greece has driven the state to formulate certain characteristics that define the water crisis. This political-laden perspective was not only found in Greece, as Johnston (2012) urged that globally, water scarcity is defined not only by physical notion (water availability and demand), but also economic and cultural values that are associated with water. It appears scientific fact is sorted and favourable to support the water scarcity narrative in order to obscure political agenda of the Bank or other development actors (Mehta, 2001b).

The cost and benefit analysis is one of the Bank’s favourites as “social science facts” to promote the narrative of water as an economic good. The Bank’s prominent study is the sanitation impact assessment from Southeast Asian Countries which concluded that poor access to sanitation has deteriorated surface water and had high economic loss impacts (Hutton, Rodriguez, Napitupulu, Thang P, & Kov P, 2008). Since surface water and groundwater are the main water source for drinking water purposes in most of developing countries cities, it appears that the Bank is promoting diversification for private sector investment, from investing in drinking water supply to capitalising the protection of drinking water source. Indeed, one of the sanitation impact assessment report’s recommendations is privatisation and points out the important role of, “decision-makers (that) should use an evidence-based approach to design efficient sanitation policies and implementation strategies, to increase value-for-money from public and private investments into sanitation” (p. 72). Interestingly, by showing the economic loss of not treating wastewater appropriately, the Bank has been able to value water as an economic good, not only on drinking water, but also wastewater. From the same cost benefit perspective, the Bank continuous to cite various studies to claim the economic benefit of health related to water supply. For instance, Hutton et al. (2007) analysed the cost benefit of water and sanitation found for each 1 USD invested there is a benefit of about 5 USD to 46 USD in return. In summary, the narrative of water (drinking water and wastewater) as an economic good is produced to attract Global South states avoiding significant economic loss by creating market based environment (policy) for private sector participation.

The demand driven approach is a narrative that indicates the Bank will not impose privatisation unless there is a request from a certain country (Humphrey & Michaelowa, 2013). However, Swyngedouw et al. (2002) suggest the Bank purposefully generates demand for private sector investment by showing financial gaps. There are three steps performed in finding financial gaps: (1) how much investment is needed to achieve universalization of access to drinking water supply; (2) how much public expenditure is actually spent on drinking water supply; and (3) the financial gap between investment needed and the actual expenditure. The Bank often cites some research from water sector investment. In the recent United Nations World Water Development Report (UNESCO, 2012), the Bank is given the exclusive right to write a chapter, titled ‘Investing in water infrastructure, its operation and its maintenance.’ In that report, the Bank estimated that more than 72 billion USD annually is required in developing countries to build new and maintain existing water infrastructure (UNESCO, 2012). The cost estimation was stated as a “price tag” which should be fulfilled by global communities, states and the market. In the same report, the Bank assessed public expenditure in some developing countries and revealed the actual public expenditure in the water sector to be much below the required cost to serve targeted populations (UNESCO, 2012). Thus, demand is created and a solution is offered: by promoting private companies to fulfil such financial gaps. In some of African countries, the Bank actively creates such demand (Ginneken, Netterstrom, & Bennett, 2011). Swyngedouw (2013) argue the demand responsive narrative is the Bank’s way to depoliticise privatisation and request Global South governments to be more market friendly for private investment involvement in the water sector.

Since the 1980s development agencies and international financial institutions, including the Bank, have promoted private companies as playing a role in water provision services. Goldman (2007) argues one of the Bank’s main assumptions is that the private sector is more professional, in terms of capability and effectiveness, than publicly owned utilities in providing water. Prasad (2006) shows that in 1990s the Bank has extensively used this argument and has now become a mainstream idea in the Global South. Terms such as capable, effective and professional were used to establish, classify and segregate, for example, “developed” and “developing” nations (Kothari, 2005). Furthermore, Kothari (2005) argues the word “professionalism” in the development context segregates people into groups according to their skill and knowledge that are typically associated to Western thoughts/thinking of modernism and neoliberalism. Kothari (2005) emphasises in the international development context, experts have the authority to define a problem; explain how it comes about; show what needs to be done to improve the situation; and assess what is ‘wrong’, and how to put it ‘right’. Araral (2009) tested the argument based on evidence in developing nations in three continents and found the assumption is not empirically justified. In short, there is no significant difference between public or private owned utilities in term of professionalism.

The argument that the private sector is more professional than public utility is used also to support other narratives, such as pro poor and right to water narratives. Cross and Morel (2005), the Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) researchers, argue that water utilities in African cities are characterised by low ability to provide continuous service, poor operation and maintenance, and financial insolvency if not supported by government subsidies. This condition is exacerbated by political intervention that may undermine certain values that should be included on the water tariff setting. As a result, the tariff structure has given privilege to certain groups while at the same time poor people are unable to have access water from the public utility; poor people rely on other water sources which may be more expensive or cheaper but with lower quality. Cross and Morel (2005) do not explicitly promote privatisation, instead, they suggest to strengthen governance (institutional and policy setting) as a precondition before the private sector can become involved and benefit to the poor. This is based on the assumption that private companies are more capable in performing business, managing risk, and reducing water tariffs through cross subsidise; resulting in more equitable access to drinking water supply, especially for the poor.

The latest narrative endorsed by the Bank is Integrated Urban Water Management (IUWM), which considers water as integrated entities rather than partial view (Closas, Schuring, & Rodriguez, 2012). On their water resource strategy paper, the Bank covers three important elements of integrated water management: environmental sustainability, economic development and equity for poorest people (World Bank, 2010). The IUWM concept is actually an answer to Swyngedouw et al. (2002) critique that urban water supply, “requires a policy framework that does not isolate the circulation of water from other sustainability-related process” (p. 134).  Indeed, the IUWM seems to apply to all of requirements proposed by Swyngedouw et al. (2002), to integrate water, sanitation, stormwater, or even solidwaste into the urban planning and governance system. At this level, Molle (2008) suggests that the integrated notion is an unquestionable concept, which no one will argue against. While actually, IUWM could be borrowed to mask certain agendas or obscure the underlying political nature. Furthermore, Molle (2008) shows that environmental sustainability, economic development, and equity are conflicting and require an exchange.

It can be argued that the concepts or narrative around urban water supply, such as pro poor, right to water, professional and demand driven approach are never free from certain values and agendas. It should be noted that, the Bank’s narrative involves learning process as part of knowledge production process in order to make a robust concept. However, it is tempting to consider the Bank as an active actor in promoting privatisation in developing countries by disseminating the narrative. However, Bakker (2013) argue differently with Molle (2008) and Goldman (2007) and emphasises that, “…pressure from developing countries to make loans available for water supply and sanitation was a powerful inducement to extend lending activity in this (developing countries) area” (p. 288).  Bakker’s (2013) argument challenges Molle’s (2008) and Goldman’s (2007) idea that the Bank is proactively created narratives. Instead, she suggests narrative is an evolving work that developing countries also take part in defining the basis for the narrative.

4.       Conclusion

Water is a contested natural resources and should not be taken for granted. The way water is socially and economically defined is based on how water is utilised, allocated, managed, as well as governed across political boundaries or between social and economic groups. Narrative is a tool to disentangle the concepts around urban drinking water supply. As discussed, concepts such as water scarcity, water as an economic good, demand driven approach, professional, pro poor, right to water and Integrated Urban Water Management are not value free or removed from certain agendas. Those narratives are actually taking the argument rooted from the opponents of privatisation. However, the Bank and its compradors have been able to incorporate the opposite arguments, reframe the issue, and rewrite the concept into the same term, without excluding its own principal ideology. Thus, those narratives imply seemingly a solution, where in fact obscures the underlying capitalism ideology. This essay also validates Bakker’s (2013) argument that the Bank and its companions role in promoting neoliberal ideas in developing countries is more complex than a public and private binary debate. While this essay is not looking to answer the debate whether water should be perceived as a public or private good, it is argued that the ultimate objective in the war against privatisation cannot be achieved unless there are counter narratives which are manufactured to win public opinion.



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