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Participatory water services: Venezuela’s radical experiment

by Rebecca McMillan, Susan Spronk and Calais Caswell – May 8, 2014

In Caracas, Venezuela, community residents and the state water utility are redefining what it means to make water services public. 
 
Since 1999, the country’s poorest residents have been working with the government to build a “people-centred” water service. While publicly owned and operated, Venezuela’s utilities historically prioritized serving the wealthy. Now, thanks to citizen participation and strong state investment, Venezuela boasts 96% piped water coverage – one of the highest rates in Latin America.
 
The secret to Venezuela’s success? Its over 9,000 “technical water committees” or mesas técnicas de agua (MTAs). Neighbourhood residents form committees and work with the public utility to plan infrastructure improvements. Through regular meetings with utility staff, participants also hold the company accountable, proving that they – not government “experts” – know what’s best for their communities.
 

Caracas: Water apartheid

“Water apartheid” aptly describes Caracas’s water system. Wealthy, mainly mestizo and white neighbourhoods in the city’s East benefit from high quality public water services – ample to supply their pools and fountains.  
 
Providing water to Caracas’s hillside barrios such as Antímano is no easy feat. Photo: Rebecca McMillanFurther west, in the poor and largely afro-descendent settlements (barrios) crawling up Caracas’s hillsides, daily life is organized around securing water. As Hidrocapital community coordinator Victor Diaz told us, before 1999, Caracas’s public water utility wouldn’t even set foot in the barrios and residents were forced to build their own makeshift water systems. The mounting water crisis peaked in the early 1990s, with poor residents only receiving piped water every two months! 
 

Towards a people-centred service

In response, progressive Caracas mayor Aristobulo Istúriz (1992-1995) successfully piloted the MTA model in two neighbourhoods. The committees were disbanded after Istúriz’s 1995 electoral defeat, but the experiment left a lasting impression.
 
When leftist President Hugo Chávez assumed office in 1999, his government set out to revolutionize the water sector. Their first step: to revive the MTAs and establish community management offices in all of the country’s water utilities. In 1999, the technical water committees were implemented across Caracas. In 2000, they became national public policy.  
 

Radical participation: More than a technical solution

To date, the MTAs have implemented over 1,500 infrastructure projects. They have also fostered information-sharing and accountability between citizens and utilities, which has translated into better quality services.
 
An Antímano resident explains her water problems to Hidrocapital officials. The most remote households still go 21+ days without water. Photo: Rebecca McMillanMore importantly, the committees have empowered many people – especially women – to become politically active.
 
In our view, the Venezuelan model has been successful because it directly challenges poverty and inequality, that is, it proposes a “radical” approach to participation.
 
For example, the MTAs follow an educational methodology aimed at raising political consciousness, not just delivering services. The government also increasingly plans investments according to social need.  
 
Together with other neighbourhood-level committees, the MTAs are part of Venezuela’s aspiration towards a fully participatory democracy.

The MTAs thus differ from neoliberal “partnership” approaches, in which community involvement too often legitimizes government spending cuts that aren’t in the public interest. In neoliberal systems, the poor’s “voluntary” labour often serves to reduce infrastructure costs – a “bandaid” technical solution that sidesteps the hard political questions.
 

The challenges of politicized services

But politicizing services also has its risks.
 
Some observers such as long-time water justice advocate Santiago Arconada worry that the MTAs’ increasingly partisan nature may make poor residents who do not identify with the governing party uneasy.
 
More significantly, it’s unclear what will happen if and when the political winds of change sweep a new government into office.  
 
This question has been top of mind for community activists as Venezuela’s Bolivarian Process faces some of its most serious challenges yet: the death of then-President Hugo Chávez in 2013 and the recent intensification of right-wing opposition.
 
MTA participants stress the need for continuing to support the revolutionary government, while building a degree of autonomy to keep advancing their work with or without the state. Long-time MTA leader Carmen Rojas expresses a sentiment current among Venezuela’s grassroots: “no one’s going to give us power, we need to take it for ourselves.”
 
The authors would like to thank the University of Ottawa and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for supporting this research.
 
Rebecca McMillan was in Caracas from August to December 2012 conducting field research on the “mesas técnicas de agua” and sanitation politics for her MA in International Development at the University of Ottawa. She is now a PhD student in Geography at the University of Toronto.
 
Susan Spronk is an associate professor of International Development at the University of Ottawa. Spronk leads a project comparing local water management in Bolivia and Venezuela that is funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada.
 
Calais Caswell is an MA student in International Development at the University of Ottawa. Her research explores gender politics and women’s participation in the mesas técnicas de agua” (MTAs) and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Process.