Seminar: Neoliberalism, Socionature and Water Problems: The Multiple Scarcities of Lima, Peru

The Essex Sustainability Institute  is hosting  a new seminar series, Sustainability Contested, at the Wivenhoe Park campus. The seminars are open to staff, students and members of the public. All are welcome, and attendance is free! Please spread the word! If you would like to meet the speakers on the day, please email Bryony Pound, at balpou (at) The final seminar for the Autumn term is on the 4th of December, 12:30 – 2pm, Room 5N.3.2.

Neoliberalism, Socionature and Water Problems: The Multiple Scarcities of Lima, Peru  
Antonio Ioris (University of Edinburgh) and Rafael Kunter Flores (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)  

Abstract: The presentation will discuss the failures of water services and the growing scarcity of water in Lima, the capital of Peru. Institutional reforms and large-scale investments in the water sector in the city have been strongly influenced in recent decades by wider economic adjustments and the reconfiguration of the national state. The modernization of the water sector is described as a multifaceted, highly idiosyncratic phenomenon that depends on three interrelated processes: techno-environmental improvements, the marketization of water management and the search for political legitimacy. A condition of water scarcity goes beyond the physical insufficiency of resources, but vividly contains the inadequacy of social institutions responsible for the allocation and use of water. Scarcity is never a single phenomenon but develops into unavoidably associations with other manifestations of shortage and deprivation. The multiple features of scarcity are not only interconnected, but are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

Water reforms represent a privileged entry point into the kaleidoscopic interlinkages that constitute the socio-politics of the city. Based on three case study areas in Lima (Pachacútec, Huaycán and Villa El Salvador), the interconnection between investments, selective abundances and persistent scarcities will be examined. The presentation will examine why the inversion of money and technology in the water sector in the last two decades has failed to offer a solution to the metabolism of scarcity. Although the modernisation of water services has been based on fleeting investments and on the business-like management of the public utility and of alternative water systems (e.g. micro-credit schemes), the responses to water problems remain centred on the appropriation of scarcity as a key productive force. In the end, the material and symbolic production of scarcity in the Latin American metropolis continues to be predicated upon practices of spatial exclusion and social discrimination.

Overall, the complexity of the institutional reforms in Lima suggests that the metropolitan water sector has travelled a long journey since the introduction of a new regulatory apparatus and calls for environmental governance promoted by multilateral agencies in the 1990s. Successive programmes have included a discourse of public participation, environmental sustainability and even social justice, but also incorporated incentives for the circulation of capital and the maximisation of private profits. In that sense, the case study of Lima intensely encapsulates the growing sophistication of water reform strategies, but also represents a relevant illustration of the intricate urban policies adopted in recent years. Substantial sums of money have been invested in infrastructure and management – which has attracted more international operators than the company can actually handle – while less attention has been dedicated to creating specific solutions to the concrete reality of water problems in different parts of Lima. The insufficiencies and contradictions of the water governance initiatives are becoming increasingly more evident and the allocation and use of water in Lima remain highly contested. Genuine alternatives will require further efforts in terms of public engagement and shared decision-making, as well as reforms in urban policies and the promotion of a more equitable basis of national development.

Antonio Ioris is Lecturer in Environment and Society at the School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh. His main academic interests are related to the political ecology of water policy-making and urban water management, with an emphasis on multiscale conflicts over the allocation and use of natural resources. Recent publications cover empirical work done in Portugal, Brazil, Peru, and Great Britain on the implementation of water institutional reforms, the politico-institutional dimension of climate change, and the influence of economic development demands in the expansion of water services. Recent and ongoing research projects include the reform of the water industry in Lima (Peru), the search for environmental justice in the Glasgow area, climate change and institutional weaknesses in the Paraguay River Basin (South America), integration of water management and agriculture systems, the adoption of digital technologies for the communication of hydrological data and the interface between ecosystem services and poverty alleviation in Brazilian and Bolivian sections of the Amazon River Basin. He is the editor of the book “Tropical Wetland Management”, published in 2102 by Ashgate.

Rafael Kruter Flores is a PhD Student in Administration at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil. He is currently based at the University of Essex for a three month period, working under the supervision of Professor Steffen Böhm. His PhD thesis focuses on contemporary theoretical approaches and the contributions of Marxism to understanding the political economy of water. He is a member of the Organization and Liberation Praxis research group, based at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, and has published the group’s first book, which has the same name. His research interests are water property and social struggles; mining and corporate practices in Latin America; political economies of management and organization; organization of resistance and social movements.