Research projects

ESR 12: Understanding the evolution of informal water markets in Eastern Africa

Early Stage Researcher: Gina Gilson
Host institution: University of Oxford, United Kingdom
Principal supervisor: Prof. Dustin Garrick
Co-supervisor: Prof. Nadine Reis 


Informal water markets have proliferated in response to rapid urbanisation and increasing competition for freshwater. From Kenya to Kathmandu, tanker operators, packaged water vendors, and other small-scale water enterprises operate in diverse settings, ranging from small towns to mega-cities. Despite their prevalence, informal markets are virtually uncharted, particularly their governance and patterns of cooperation, conflict, and competition. Myths dominate in the absence of evidence, fuelling perceptions that informal markets prey on the poor and lead inexorably towards inequality and unsustainable outcomes. This study will examine the institutions and political economy of informal water markets in eastern Africa using a mixed-methods approach. The project will start with a systematic review of the institutions governing informal water markets. The study will chart new ground by comparing the emergence, evolution and impacts of informal water markets in Eastern Africa.

This research project will:

  1. Establish an analytical framework for examining the emergence, evolution, and performance of informal markets
  2. Conduct a meta-analysis or systematic review of informal water markets that characterises the institutional arrangements
  3. Develop longitudinal studies in two to four sites in Kenya and Tanzania, covering a rapidly growing town and large city in each country
  4. Identify and assess the institutional arrangements governing informal markets, examining patterns of collective action and the shifting boundaries of the state, market and community in water access and allocation
  5. Explain the emergence and evolution of informal markets in the context of different patterns of decentralisation and urbanisation.

Expected results:

  1. Theoretical contribution to our understanding of collective action in market-based water governance, including hypotheses regarding the dynamics of institutional development and change
  2. Analytical contribution to conceptualise, measure and compare the design and performance of institutional arrangements underpinning informal water markets
  3. Empirical contribution through the development of longitudinal observatories of water markets across different levels of decentralisation (Tanzania versus Kenya) and levels of urbanisation (intermediate-sized cities versus rural towns)
  4. Training contribution through the multi-method, interdisciplinary and field-based research into informal markets and institutions.

About Gina Gilson

Gina is studying the governance of informal water markets in East Africa, with a particular focus on property rights, collective action, and resource sustainability. She has a BS in Environmental Science and Biology from Creighton University and an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation, and Management from the University of Oxford. Originally from Nebraska, she has lived and worked in the western United States, Costa Rica, and Austria.

LinkedIn profile: Gina Gilson


Gina Gilson
NEWAVE Early Stage Researcher, Ph.D. Candidate
University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Prof. Dustin Garrick 
Associate professor of environmental management
University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Dr. Nadine Reis
Professor at the Center for Demographic, Urban and Environmental Studies (CEDUA)
Colegio de México, Mexico