Bottling Water Differently, and Sustaining the Water Commons? Social Innovation Through Water Service Franchising in Cambodia

Isaac Lyne

Until recently, bottled drinking water was a cause of concern for development in the Global South; now, however, it is embraced as a way to reach the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goal target 6.1 for "[u]niversal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all". Reaching SDG 6.1 through bottled drinking water is controversial as there are broad questions about how any form of packaged – and therefore commodified – water can be ethical or consistent with "the human right to water" that was ratified in 2010 by the United Nations member states. By examining a social innovation enacted by a Cambodian NGO, this research questions polarising narratives of marketised and packaged water. Teuk Saat 1001 operates a social enterprise service franchise delivering treated family-scale drinking water in refillable 20-litre polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles directly to customers’ houses. In contrast to literature focusing on the strategic development of such initiatives, this research combines a bottom-up view of community interaction with analysis of hybrid institutional arrangements and ethical debates about the role of states in water regulation. From a postcapitalist perspective, it considers the entrepreneurial subjectivities fostered by bottled water as a 'service' and asks if this mode of packaged water can – contrary to the general arguments – actually help to sustain the water commons. The paper also considers temporality and water ethics; it concludes that models like this require close monitoring, considering the general history of commercial non-profits.

Suggested citation

Lyne, I. 2020. "Bottling water differently, and sustaining the water commons? Social innovation through water service franchising in Cambodia." Water Alternatives 13(3): 731-751