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The notion of sewage as waste: a study of infrastructure change and institutional inertia in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Vancouver, Canada

Gunilla Öberg, University of British Columbia
Maria G. Merlinsky, University of Buenos Aires
Alicia LaValle, University of British Columbia
Margaret Morales, University of British Columbia
Melina M. Tobias, University of Buenos Aires


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The need for a radical shift to more iterative and adaptive solutions in sewage management is increasingly recognized, but our ability to achieve such a shift is constrained by inertia to change. Here, we describe planning in two metropolitan areas that are upgrading their sewage systems, based on interviews with central actors and official documents. Using new institutionalism and concentrating on changes in normative, regulative, and cognitive patterns, we analyze if obstacles to the uptake of innovations can be understood in light of how these patterns counteract institutional change. Our aim is to understand obstacles to reformers implementing a wider vision of sewage management. Our study suggests that even though both Buenos Aires and Vancouver emphasize the need for integrated water management, it does not seem likely that either will implement a solution that challenges the end-of-pipe paradigm. We conclude that the main obstacle to change is the deeply rooted cognitive notion that sewage is waste. Framed as waste, sewage becomes something a community needs to get rid of, the faster the better. The notion of sewage being a worthless burden means that it is expected to generate costs, not revenues. When sewage is foremost framed as waste, the conventional linear end-of-pipe solution becomes the most logical way to manage it. We argue that this notion permeates the entire institutional structure and that its power is not recognized. We speculate on whether a shift toward iterative and adaptive solutions might be facilitated if sewage were redefined outside the water management umbrella and instead understood as resource management (for example, energy and nutrients), and if organizations responsible for delivering sewage services were reorganized accordingly.

Key words

inertia to change; sewage management; waste vs. resource; wastewater; water management

Copyright © 2014 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087