Urban water governance as policy boosterism: Seoul’s legitimation at the local and global scale

Blog post by Ricardo Martinez

1 Jun 2022, 12:37 p.m.
Ricardo Martinez



As we live in a globalised urban world, it has become a truism for both practitioners and scholars that cities, and to be precise city governments, increasingly venture beyond their national borders in order to learn from each other and join forces through collaborative endeavours. This has brought about two engaging challenges for the scholarly community: i) catching up with a constantly changing empirical reality and bringing analytical light to it; ii) developing modalities of social science inquiry that have traditionally separated the macro-analytical study of the international action of nation-states and the micro-analytical perspective on the very local dimension in which our (often) urban lives unfold.

In addition to the largely studied efforts carried out by governmental actors to boost their cities’ economic competitiveness, city governments are increasingly investing significant resources in raising their own profile as local administrations. The article studies the international promotion of Seoul’s water governance by its city government – Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) – focusing, in particular, on Seoul’s tap water Arisu (dubbed after the old name of the local Han River) as a central element of SMG’s international strategy on policy knowledge transfer and decentralised development cooperation.

SMG’s international dynamism is underpinned by entwined political and business interests that blend solidarity- and profit-based drivers. In this logic, the local and global scales feed continuously into each other. Focusing on the global scale, the construction of Seoul’s water management as a policy model seeks to transform its enhanced reputation into a source of economic revenue as it aims to sell the expertise and technology of its water-related domestic industries in foreign markets. Concurrently, there is a genuine globalist positive-sum will to help other peer cities in an urbanising world, which is all the more relevant since solidarity, as the expression of a broad shared value, is a source of legitimacy per se and can help SMG enhance its international political reputation in a global governance arena in which cities seek to expand their role. Focusing on the local scale, rather than a rent-seeking agenda steered by corporate actors, the promotion of Arisu constitutes a self-legitimation strategy carried out by SMG to increase public preference for municipal tap water by the Seoulites. Against the expanding share of the global bottled water industry where local resources are often commodified by multinational corporations, the promotion of Arisu is rather the crystallisation of the responsibility of a public service provider. In this attempt, receiving a United Nations (UN) Public Service Award for the water quality service seeks to target the local population by drawing upon the UN as a fundamental institutional source of legitimacy at the global level.

The article makes the theoretical case for the analytical purchase of legitimacy as an interdisciplinary (yet understudied) common ground between the body of literature on policy mobilities in urban geography and the body of literature on practices and sources of legitimation in international studies. This, in turn, allows us to unveil how the processes of legitimation are simultaneously local and global. The extra-local, be it the comparison with another city, the export of a specific policy solution, or the resort to a source of legitimacy beyond local borders, is constantly present in the promotion of Seoul’s water management policy as both a cause and effect and this, in turn, is deeply related with inherently local dynamics.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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