Water, Sanitation and the Modern City: Colonial and Post-colonial Experiences in Lagos and Mumbai

•The technological and political arrangements for the provision of water and sanitation that emerged out of the chaos of the nineteenth-century industrial city can be characterized as the “bacteriological city”. This ideal type, which reflected the design principles of leading engineers, involved the development of centralized, universal and public water supply and sanitation systems in preference to chaotic, expensive and unaccountable private sector provision. 

•Although this universal model became the norm throughout the developed world in much of what is now referred to as the global South the bacteriological city was never fully implemented for a mix of political and fiscal reasons. Most colonial cities only provided adequate water supplies to elite enclaves or to predominantly middle class districts. With respect to sewerage and drainage infrastructure these disparities in service provision were even worse leading in many cases to severe and repeated outbreaks of infectious disease. With rapid urban growth in the post-colonial era many of these inequalities in access to water and sanitation infrastructure have substantially deteriorated, a situation exacerbated by poor public finances, economic instability and deficiencies in metropolitan government. 

•By the 1970s and 1980s the state dominated model of the bacteriological city found itself under sustained political and economic pressure in developed economies leading to an enhanced role for the private sector in the funding and provision of basic services. Since the mid-1990s there has been an attempt to export this “privatization” model to many cities in the global South but this has had a marginal and in some cases deleterious impact on the water and sanitation crisis. The current policy debate is shifting towards a recognition that large-scale divestment programmes cherry picked by global water companies will not benefit the poor and that a combination of local solution such as municipal bonds combined with a detailed exploration of best practice rather than externally imposed solutions may provide the best way forward. The state, whether as coordinator or direct provider, will continue to play a central role not least through its connection to the democratic arena and wider processes of rebuilding the public realm and extending citizenship rights for the urban poor. 

The two case studies presented here — Lagos and Mumbai — share important features: a majority of the urban population in both cities lack direct access to municipal water supplies; the urban poor are largely reliant on exorbitantly priced private sources such as tankers and street vendors; and the municipal sector faces formidable fiscal, organizational and political challenges. In both cities there is intense debate over how to improve services and widespread scepticism towards externally imposed privatization programmes. There is a high level commitment in both cities to improve the efficiency, transparency and equity of service provision but this rests on securing sufficient capital for investment, employing high calibre dedicated staff and re-building public confidence in municipal government.


Executive summary


1.The emergence of the bacteriological city 

1.1The development of new forms of scientific analysis for urban problems 
1.2Political and economic demands for improved water supplies 
1.3The creation of new forms of public finance 
1.4The rise of modern individualism and changes in the domestic sphere 

1.5The development of urban and regional planning 
1.6The shift from private to public water supply systems 
1.7The development of new forms of technical and managerial expertise 

1.8The limits to the bacteriological city 


2.1Colonial Lagos and the emergence of dual governmentality 
2.2The post-colonial metropolis 
2.3The search for a new governmental paradigm 
2.4Conclusions and reflections 

3.1Colonial and post-colonial antecedents 
3.2Hydrological dystopias 
3.3Delineating a globalizing metropolis 
3.4Conclusions and reflections 



List of figures

The development of water and sanitation infrastructure is now the focus of a vibrant debate that combines the established insights of urban history with emerging perspectives drawn from other fields such as architecture, critical theory and urban studies. Emphasis on the administrative, technical and political dimensions to urbanization since the nineteenth century has been supplemented by a greater emphasis on the micro-spaces of the modern city — in particular the body and the domestic interior — along with an expanded theoretical discussion of themes such as the ideological rationale for urban governance, the role of public works projects in the construction of a functional public realm and the social, cultural and economic implications of technological networks in urban space (see, for example, Gandy, 2004; Graham and Marvin, 2001; Heidenreich, 2004; Kaïka and Swyngedouw, 2000).

Implicit within this current debate is a sense that a relatively stable period extending from the mid-nineteenth century until the last quarter of the twentieth century has been partially supplanted by a new set of socio-technological developments. This report begins with an exploration of the movement towards of a distinctive constellation of space, society and technology that is referred to here as the “bacteriological city” in order to differentiate this historical phase from the early industrial era and also from a range of developments over the last thirty years associated with the emergence of neo-liberal approaches to public policy. Placing an extended period of urban history under one conceptual frame risks a degree of elision between different developments but it does help to identify some of the commonalities and anomalies that have characterized processes of capitalist urbanization since the middle decades of the nineteenth century. This urban epoch has been variously referred to in the literature as the “hydraulic city”, the “sanitary city”, or the “modern infrastructural ideal” but the term “bacteriological city” is deployed here to denote a distinctive set of interrelated developments ranging from science and technology to new forms of municipal administration.

In exploring the development of water infrastructure the first part of this report examines the transformation of the modern city as part of an interrelated set of developments that transcend the interventions of individual engineers, planners or medical advocates. The relatively stable urban form that emerged out of the chaos of the nineteenth century is presented as a historical compromise that emerged in order to enable the modern city to function more effectively. Yet in circumstances where the modernization process was never fully completed — most notably in a colonial context — the underlying weaknesses of the bacteriological city as a universal ideal are sharply revealed. The colonial experience is explored in the report using the examples of two megacities in the global South — Lagos and Mumbai — and deploys findings from two international research projects entitled Cyborg urbanization and Rethinking urban metabolism funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council. We find that the current crisis in the provision of water and sanitation in these cities cannot be understood without reference to the historical development of inadequate infrastructure systems and the current political and economic constraints on investment in the physical environment. A core argument articulated is the need to combine an understanding of water infrastructure with the development of citizenship rights and the construction of the public realm as a tangible expression of collective social and political goals.

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Ugwu, A. (2018). Water, Sanitation and the Modern City: Colonial and Post-colonial Experiences in Lagos and Mumbai. Afribary. Retrieved from https://afribary.com/works/water-sanitation-and-the-modern-city-colonial-and-post-colonial-experiences-in-lagos-and-mumbai-3003

MLA 8th

Ugwu, Anderson "Water, Sanitation and the Modern City: Colonial and Post-colonial Experiences in Lagos and Mumbai" Afribary. Afribary, 29 Jan. 2018, https://afribary.com/works/water-sanitation-and-the-modern-city-colonial-and-post-colonial-experiences-in-lagos-and-mumbai-3003. Accessed 23 Jul. 2024.


Ugwu, Anderson . "Water, Sanitation and the Modern City: Colonial and Post-colonial Experiences in Lagos and Mumbai". Afribary, Afribary, 29 Jan. 2018. Web. 23 Jul. 2024. < https://afribary.com/works/water-sanitation-and-the-modern-city-colonial-and-post-colonial-experiences-in-lagos-and-mumbai-3003 >.


Ugwu, Anderson . "Water, Sanitation and the Modern City: Colonial and Post-colonial Experiences in Lagos and Mumbai" Afribary (2018). Accessed July 23, 2024. https://afribary.com/works/water-sanitation-and-the-modern-city-colonial-and-post-colonial-experiences-in-lagos-and-mumbai-3003