When privatization of public services swept the developing world in the 1990s, it was part of a seemingly unstoppable tide of neoliberal reforms aimed at reducing the role of the state and reorienting economies toward market-led policymaking. Water privatization, one of the more unpopular policies of the neoliberal development paradigm, sparked a particularly fierce debate and gave rise to a movement of self-proclaimed “water warriors” who advocated for legal recognition of water as a basic human right to be protected and fulfilled by states.
Complicating this debate, Madeline Baer questions whether either approach — the market approach or a human rights-based approach — leads to improved access to water. More specifically, Baer explores how the human right to water and sanitation is fulfilled in different contexts, whether neoliberal policies like privatization pose a threat to the right to water, and whether rights fulfillment leads to meaningful social change. Using two case studies — Chile, the most extreme case of water privatization in the developing world, and Bolivia, the birthplace of the global movement for the human right to water — Stemming the Tide uncovers the conditions under which the right to water and sanitation can be fulfilled, as well as the obstacles to fulfilment. Ultimately this book argues that deepening mechanisms for citizen participation, strengthening accountability, and creating alternatives to the state/market binary can help achieve meaningful social transformation in the water sector.