Biopolitics Gone to Shit? State Narratives versus Everyday Realities of Water and Sanitation in the Mekong Delta

Panagiota Kotsila, V. Subramanian Saravanan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


© 2017 Elsevier Ltd This article examines the discourses, politics, and everyday practices shaping the implementation of water supply and sanitation (WSS) development programs in Vietnam. Biopolitics is used as a theoretical framework to demonstrate how these programs can constitute tools of governance and forms of domination, independent of their success or failure. We explain why, in the case of Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta, access to sustainable WSS remains highly unequal and problematic. We draw on qualitative and quantitative social and health data collected during a ten-month fieldwork period. Our study identifies false narratives of WSS success based on portrayals of rurality and poverty as backward and miasmatic; misleading reporting tactics of local cadres; and misplaced faith in technical indicators. These success narratives legitimize the Vietnamese state as a triumphant bearer of “high modernity” while obscuring the needs and desires of those at risk of disease. We argue that interrogating power/knowledge imbalances on both micro and macro scales can help unravel the nature of persisting problems in WSS coverage. A focus on power/knowledge helps to dispel notions that improving WSS facilities is enough to prevent diarrhea. A health-promoting WSS sector, we conclude, needs to be context-specific, embracing local culture and having social equity at its core.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)374-388
JournalWorld Development
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2017


  • biopolitics
  • diarrhea
  • everyday politics
  • Mekong Delta
  • sanitation
  • water supply


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