Worlding Water Supply

An uncomfortable reflection on my positionality: confronting my own ‘northern’ theorization of geographies of differentiated access to water in Jakarta.

Good research often starts with discovering ‘productive paradoxes’. That is, the reality we observe seems to contain contradictory elements: what we expect to see is the opposite, different, or altogether absent from what we actually observe. For example, the observation that bottled water is a ‘pro-poor’ water service for low income residents of Jakarta. Intuitively, this does not seem to make sense given the high per unit volume cost of bottled water, and limited purchasing power of urban poor households – and so we begin to dig deeper, asking why, how is this so? Interrogating this paradox is the topic of a paper I am currently writing, but not the topic of this blog post, so let’s move on.

Moments where nothing seems to make sense, or when we are confronted with what to us doesn’t make sense, can be both simultaneously very exciting and very frustrating turning points of our research. I recognize this from my own PhD research, as a long time ago when I landed Jakarta to explain how the privatization of the city’s water supply network reproduced urban inequalities, only to discover that the ‘urban poor’ residents I spoke to had very little interest connecting to the piped water system. My population of “thirsty poor” struggling for water justice in the face of global corporations did not exist, or not the degree which I had thought. In fact, neither the very rich nor the very poor were connected to the recently privatized piped water supply. As you can imagine, this was an anxious moment for a PhD researcher whose entire study was set up on assumptions which were revealed to be inaccurate.

Thirsty poor and connected rich? (Credits: Michelle Kooy)

But because I was too stubborn, and too fascinated by the city of Jakarta, to abandon my studies, I had to find new explanations for what were obvious inequalities in access to water, and give new explanations for relationships between water infrastructure and socio-spatial differentiation. That is why these are termed productive paradoxes. If we don’t give up, they lead us to question the assumptions we made (often implicitly) when approaching a particular problem or context. Confronted with the fact our assumptions are false, or inaccurate, we search for more relevant or accurate explanations: why are things this way? What is happening here? What concepts are most useful for understanding x? And – how does this ‘speak back’ to those theories from which I originally based my assumptions? In my case, assumptions as to the relevance of global political economic processes on urban water service provision for creating – or exacerbating – differences between spaces and populations in the city were inaccurate, and ahistorical. As Aiwah Ong (2006) has written about extensively, there are sites at multiple scales where the impact of neoliberalism is muted, if present at all. As I found in Jakarta, the privatization of the city’s piped water supply seemed to have very little impact on how low income households did or did not access water. Moreover, the use of a neoliberal frame can conceal other – more important – processes in contemporary southern urbanism, if we assume that processes that appear neoliberal necessarily result from neoliberalization (Parnell and Pieterse, 2010; Parnell and Robinson, 2012).

In 2004 this led to me to look for other explanations for socio-spatial differentiation in access to water, one which accounted for the historical role of infrastructure in fragmenting urban space and the inequalities built into the original water supply systems through race and then class based social differentiation. My conclusions as to the ambivalence of neoliberalism as a ready explanatory framework given the presence of other technologies of governing (Kooy and Bakker, 2008), is also reflected in research which shows the potential for neoliberal policy to result in infrastructural improvements in opposition to the northern experience (Gopakumar, 2012), and the lengthy history of cities with technologies and practices that have come to be equated with neoliberalization (Acevedo et al., 2015).

“Discovering” these paradoxes can also – should also – push us into reflection: where do these assumptions come from, where does ‘received knowledge’ challenged by what we find in reality come from? From whom are we receiving it, and does this have a relationship to its inaccuracy? Parnell and Robinson (2012) argue the realities of southern cities are often overlooked through the blanket application of analytic frames, like neoliberalism, which come from north experiences. They posit that Northern theorists may confuse the application of their lived experience and their long-term observations of their own city, a sort of internalised empiricism, with theorizing beyond the local.

This leads me to a difficult confession, or an uncomfortable reflection on my own northern (should I call it neocolonial?) – perspective. Although it would make a much stronger opening sentence to this post, I bury this (admittedly hyperbolic) statement half way down because it makes me uncomfortable. I am a scholar who argues for decolonizing science – I believe in pluralizing knowledge, legitimizing different knowledge systems, and destabilizing the role of western science for explaining ‘elsewhere’. But is this actually exactly what I have done in my PhD research? Did I, after all, explain the relationship between water infrastructure, urban space and social relations of power from my Northern perspective? Were my assumptions of the role of the centralized piped network in sociospatial differentiation in access to water drawn from my own lived experience in a (privileged) western context? Why exactly was I so fixated on the centralized piped water infrastructure in trying to explain the politics of the city? It certainly was not the dominant mode of provision – then, or now, or ever. The majority of residents in Jakarta are not connected to the piped water network, some of them by choice. Bottled water is now the most universally used supply in the city, and groundwater has historically provided the largest per unit volume supply for the city’s demand (residential, commercial, industrial).  Shallow groundwater is readily accessible, and – though problematic for its contamination with wastewater and heavy metals – provides a more equitably distributed supply in terms of volume and cost. Finally – given the diversity of water sources used in households of all income levels, and the overlapping systems of supply providing these, is fragmentation a useful way of how inequalities are (re)produced? If so – how do we make sense of a city that seemingly has a million fragments – or archipelagos within the archipelagos of provision? What if connections – between urban areas, across groundwater, wastewater and piped water systems, between formal and informal systems of provision, are more relevant than fragmentation for explaining inequalities in access to water?

Of course, all knowledge is always partial, and (almost) all scholars that I know cringe when reading their earlier writing. We grow as scholars, as people, and this is a good thing. We rethink positions, find new theory, and build on or discard our previous analyses. But part of this reflection, and part of the process of deep or slow scholarship, should also be an uncomfortable reckoning with one’s biases and what structural inequalities – or systems of colonized knowledge – it helps to unconsciously perpetuate.  So – maybe it needs to be uncomfortable.  My reflection on my previous analyses has been uncomfortable, but also productive – and fun, as I was working with co-author Kathryn Furlong.  In our article I revisit my analyses of sociospatial differentiation in access to water and try to displace – or decenter – the city’s centralized water infrastructure as the axis on which inequalities are produced. Out of this reflection we argue the theorization of waters’ urbanization needs to be ‘worlded’, using Jakarta as an example to show why (Furlong and Kooy, 2017). Through this, I’ve re-thought some of my previous conclusions and uproot the assumptions – and the western knowledge – these were made on.

What is this paper then about, beyond self-castigation? Well, to “world” is to challenge the assumed universality of theories derived from experiences in the north. This follows Chakrabarty’s (2000) call for a “provincializing” of Europe, acknowledging that insights from Europe are reflective of a part of the world but not of the world as a whole. European explanations, like theories from the north, are partial. Ananya Roy and others have shown how this is also true for urban theory (Roy, 2009). In order to develop explanations which better reflect the experiences of a broader range of cities, northern cities must be displaced from the centre of theorization (Robinson and Parnell, 2011). Thus, our paper seeks to “world’ our understanding of water’s urbanization – the process of water’s socionatural transformation through which social inequalities are reproduced. We review literature on urban water politics to show why we need to put how water is metabolized and accessed in southern cities at the centre of theoretical development. And then we try to do this, drawing concepts from southern urbanisms, political ecology, and STS to demonstrate how it can be done. This involves decentering the theoretical role of infrastructure networks, focusing instead on what water supply is for the majority: neither the centralized piped-water network nor its absence, but the range of practices and technologies that unite people, nature, and artefacts in a complex socio-ecological politics of water. Through this, we show how water’s urbanization refers not only to its metabolization through infrastructure networks, the standard of northern cities, but also to the range of processes more common to southern cities – such as private extraction, transportation and sale – that together continually reproduce uneven urban waterscapes.

Groundwater distributed through spaghetti pipes (Credits Michelle Kooy)

Why this theoretical sophistry? Well, we are academics – we work with concepts, theory, to provide explanations, identify patterns, and explain phenomena – like inequalities in access to water. But – more than that, there is a deeply practical concern and consequence which follows. Our emphasis on the connections between flows of water and power seeks to draw attention back to the importance of the uneven exposure to environmental hazards in cities in which neither water nor nature are wholly contained by infrastructure. In other words – inequalities in access to water go far beyond the piped network, and the piped network is not (in the case of Jakarta but also many other cities) central in the production of these inequalities. Inequalities in access to water outside the network may be more significant than inside. Or – as we show for Jakarta – the uneven production of water flowing outside the network (groundwater, wastewater) has a deep impact on uneven distribution of water within the network. This is why we posit that connections are in fact a more useful way of explaining differences in access to water – not fragmentation, or splintering. While in the article we are writing for fellow academics, our conclusions are relevant – if perhaps not completely revelatory – for water supply engineers, for development practitioners, and for governments.

Now, over to my fellow scholars in Water Governance at IHE, and to my co-authors, to add their own reflections on knowledge production.


Works cited

Acevedo T, Furlong K, Arias J, 2015, “Complicating neoliberalization and decentralization: the non-linear experience of Colombian water supply, 1909–2012” International Journal of Water Resources Development 1-17.

Chakrabarty, D. (2000) Provincializing Europe : Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Furlong and Kooy (2017) Worlding Water Supply: Thinking beyond the network in Jakarta. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41(6): 888-903.

Gopakumar G, 2012 Transforming Urban Water Supplies in India : The Role of Reform and Partnerships in Globalization (Routledge, London & New York).

Kooy M, Bakker K, 2008, “Technologies of government: constituting subjectivities, spaces, and infrastructures in colonial and  contemporary Jakarta” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32, 375-391.

Ong A, 2006 Neoliberalism as exception: Mutations in citizenship and sovereignty (Duke University Press, Durham & London).

Parnell S, Pieterse E, 2010, “The ‘Right to the City’: Institutional Imperatives of a Developmental State” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 34, 146-162.

Parnell S, Robinson J, 2012, “(Re)theorizing Cities from the Global South: Looking Beyond Neoliberalism” Urban Geography, 33, 593-617.

Roy, A. (2009) The 21st-century metropolis: New geographies of theory. Regional Studies 43. 6, 819-30.


Featured image

“Ciliwung river flowing by demolished low income riverside settlement of Bukit Duri, South Jakarta”. Credit: Bosman Batubara

Cite this blog post
Michelle Kooy (2018, January 26). Worlding Water Supply. FLOWs. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from

Michelle Kooy

Michelle is an Associate Professor of the Politics of Urban Water at IHE-Delft Institute for Water Education. Her research is concerned with how inequalities in access to water and exposure to water related risks in and across urban spaces are mediated through water infrastructure.

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1 Response

  1. Andriani says:

    Hello, interesting insight. Have you ever considered that the city spatial policy (RTRWK) and landed house tradition, as one key factor that resulting in water supply problem ? Have you ever review the cost of maintaining and effort to decrease pipe leakage in Jakarta?
    Thank you.

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