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A political economy of water in Southern Africa

Larry A. Swatuk
Programme on Environment and International Development, University of Waterloo, Canada;

ABSTRACT: Southern Africa is a region characterized by extensive socio-economic underdevelopment. Given water'€™s key role in social organization, water allocation, use and management in Southern Africa is embedded in deep historical and structural processes of regional underdevelopment. Gini coefficients of income inequality in several states of the region are the most extreme in the world. Recent data from South Africa shows that Gini coefficients of water inequality vary directly with income inequality. Recent attempts to improve water resources management in the region through IWRM have failed to consider these facts, focusing instead on a mix of institutional, policy and legal reforms. The results of these reforms have been poor. In this essay, I employ a modified version of Allan'€™s (2003) '€˜water paradigms'€™ framework to locate and assess the positions and interests of actors involved in water resources management in Southern Africa. The essay shows that Southern Africa'€™s history of underdevelopment has created a dense web of powerful political, economic and social interests linked by a shared technocentric understanding of and approach to water use: i.e. water for '€˜high modern-style'€™ development, or as labelled by Allen, '€˜the hydraulic mission'.€™ What is less readily acknowledged is the wide-spread societal support for this mission. For this reason, ecocentric approaches to water management most commonly associated with influential international actors such as the IUCN and World Wide Fund for Nature have limited local support and are of minor relevance to Southern African decision-makers. However, actors supportive of an ecocentric perspective demonstrate considerable ability to inhibit water infrastructure development across the region. In the face of abiding poverty and inequality, and vulnerability to water insecurity, widespread societal support for a technocentric approach to resource use offers a pathway toward broad-based social benefits through the capture of the region'€™s water resources. It is up to those with an ecocentric interest to ensure that these activities do not reproduce the environmental errors of the past.

KEYWORDS: Southern Africa; Southern African Development Community (SADC); underdevelopment; Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM); technocentric; ecocentric; hydraulic mission