Floods, droughts, 6,000 babies dying daily due to waterborne diseases and growing sanitation problems in booming peri-urban and urban centres. No act of terrorism generates devastation on the scale of the crisis in water and sanitation. Despite growing global attention to water and sanitation, this paper demonstrates that there still remains a big disconnect between global rhetoric and the everyday realities of poor and marginalised people. Dominant framings of water and sanitation problems and their technical solutions may have little to do with local users’ rights and interests and questions of social relations, power and control. Consequently, they continue to fail. Moreover, significant problems in sustainable access remain while new uncertainties arise due to rapid urbanisation and climate change.
This paper argues that access to water and sanitation is determined by the complex and dynamic interactions between many different social, technological and environmental processes operating across multiple scales and timeframes with uncertain consequences. Here, we begin to develop a ‘pathways’ approach bringing together social, technical and environmental dynamics, bridging conceptual and disciplinary divides. Governance processes and social appraisal processes are key to our approach. We demonstrate that discursive framing of problems lead to certain material attributes of water and sanitation systems which in turn influence governance and design issues. And we conclude by formulating a research agenda that attempts to bring together the socially constructed aspects of the water problematic with biophysical complexity.
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