Hydro-Social Permutations of Water Commodification in Blantyre City, Malawi

  • Isaac Tchuwa

Student thesis: Phd


Despite years of investment in urban water infrastructure, and the state-a supposedly benign public entity-being the major actor in governing water, many poor residents in global south cities such as Blantyre experience unprecedented water-related problems. The neoliberal narrative unequivocally advocates privatising water; it frames the water problem as symptomatic of the unravelling of non-economic means of distributing this basic necessity of life while revering the free market as a panacea to this long-standing challenge. This thesis draws from the production/urbanisation of nature/space literature to contribute towards framing an alternative and more just political ecological water narrative. Through a radical critique of capitalist urbanisation, it argues that the contemporary urban water condition is the outcome and symptomatic of the unjust historical geographical legacies of modernist/capitalist means of producing water. It problematises the neo-liberal "tragedy of the commons" discourse that attributes these problems to the non-commodity nature of water. Through a case study of Blantyre City, the thesis frames this critique through two claims (1) that there is no such a thing as non-commodified produced water in contemporary Blantyre; (2) that the commodification of water is nothing new, it is a histo-geographical process deeply rooted in logics and contradictions of capitalist production of nature and space. It traces a critical moment in the capitalist remaking of hydro-social relations to colonial modernisation. British colonisation (late 1850s-early 1960s) inserted money and modern techniques at the heart of human-water interactions thereby significantly transforming traditional modes of accessing water. During this period, water began to change from being a common good to an economic resource that could privately be enclosed and harnessed as a means to economic/private ends through modern techniques. Institutions created to mediate this emergent modernist water architecture were dominated by vested private settler interests, depended heavily on external financing and revenue generated from exchanging water through money. British colonisations then sow first seeds in inserting monetary exchange, class and social power as mediators of the human-water interchange thereby entrenching social inequalities in Blantyre's waterscape. The post-colonial political transition in 1964 did little to radically reconfigure these colonial logics and their contradictions; in fact, albeit in qualitatively different ways, these dynamics intensified. The thesis establishes that these historical geographical dynamics continue to reproduce conditions through which underprivileged residents are alienated from water, and this basic need is commodified in contemporary Blantyre. In locating alienation and commodification within the wider historical geographical context of capitalist urbanisation, this thesis aims to critically engage with debates on neo-liberalisation of water. It takes issue with a particular ahistorical manner commodification of water is read and the failure of these debates to engage critically with the historical/colonial genesis of the present urban water condition in global south cities. The thesis hopes to contribute to academic and practical projects concerned with generating alternative understandings and finding just solutions to persistent water problems in the global south.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorTomas Frederiksen (Supervisor) & Maria Kaika (Supervisor)


  • Urban Water Infrastructure
  • Water Governance in Malawi
  • Water Governance in Southern Africa
  • Colonial Water Governance
  • Capitalist Production of Nature and Space
  • Commodification of Water
  • Political Ecology
  • Water Access Inequalities

Cite this