Skip to Content

NSF-LSS Research

Law and social transformation: comparative perspectives on water, sanitation, and environmental governance

Supported by U.S. National Science Foundation Award #1324248, Law and Social Sciences Division (awarded August 2013)

Co-Principal Investigators: LaDawn Haglund and Rimjhim Aggarwal

Project Summary:

This project explores the effectiveness of legal, institutional, and political mechanisms by which advocates attempt to translate social rights norms into practices. It integrates law and society literature with scholarship on human rights, sustainability, and urban water governance. We build on our previous work by analyzing the mechanisms, actors, and pathways (MAPs) by which human rights and sustainability objectives might be fulfilled. Our cases concern water and sanitation sectors of three rapidly urbanizing areas of the Global South: São Paulo, Brazil; Delhi, India; and Johannesburg, South Africa. Our objectives are to document and evaluate the role of legal and non-legal mechanisms in translating human rights and environmental norms to practices for water and sanitation; to analyze how well similar mechanisms operate across research sites and sectors; to document and evaluate the synergies, complementarities, and/or contradictions when multiple mechanisms are in operation; to evaluate the role of state and non-state actors in promoting (or failing to promote) social rights; to identify and comparatively analyze pathways toward rights realization; and to identify configurations of mechanisms and pathways that, overall, seem most clearly associated with effective norm translation. We employ multiple methods: comparative-historical analysis, interviews, and simple quantitative analysis. We seek to situate legal mechanisms within the context of wider socio-political factors and ecological realities in order to understand the realization of a key “social right” — the right to water and sanitation.

Intellectual merit:

This research evaluates legal accountability to water as a human right, simultaneously addressing pressing questions regarding sustainability. To date, scholarly approaches to human rights and sustainability have remained largely separate, despite the human dimensions of sustainability and the resource dimensions of economic and social rights realization. By bringing together human rights, state obligations, and sustainability, we simultaneously address several interconnected threads in the fabric of public policy. This project will allow mutual enrichment of the law and society and human rights literatures (which provide insights into mechanisms and processes of social transformation), and the sustainability literature (which deals with complexity and socio-ecological resilience). Not only will it contribute to theoretical advances in these fields, but also it will pinpoint practical strategies for making social rights a reality in countries where poverty, exclusion, and environmental degradation are particularly pressing concerns.

Broader impacts:

This project will interest those seeking to promote progressive social change through law and rights, particularly as they pertain to water governance. Water and sewage services fundamentally affect public health, social equity, and the environment. Water scarcity and climate change are severe challenges that are likely to worsen before they improve in megacities of the Global South. By studying the processes of rights realization in three such settings, we seek to broaden the impact of our research. As citizens and advocates turn more and more to judges to force states to comply with their legal and moral obligations, evaluation of law as a mechanism for social transformation–alone or in conjunction with non-legal mechanisms–becomes increasingly important. By determining whether or not citizens and advocates within these urban areas are mobilizing to gain rights and protections, which strategies are most promising, and whether their efforts are ultimately realized, we seek to uncover pathways to more sustainable and just cities. This project will expand international research networks through collaboration, information exchange, and dissemination of data and results. It will also foster curricular development; expose students to cross-national research; train students in concept development, coding, and multi-method analysis; and expand study abroad activities. Findings will be made available to all respondents, as well as to international development agencies and human rights advocates, via a web portal created for this purpose and in-country presentations. Further dissemination will occur through publications, panels, and collaboration and discussion among experts and students from both sustainability and human rights fields, as well as an eventual book on the complexity of social rights realization from a cross-national perspective.