Folder Issue1

June 2008



Water, politics and development: Introducing Water Alternatives


François Molle, Peter P. Mollinga and Ruth Meinzen-Dick


Water, politics and development: Framing a political sociology of water resources management

Peter P. Mollinga
Department of Political and Cultural Change, ZEF (Center for Development Research), Bonn University, Germany;

EDITORIAL PREAMBLE: The first issue of Water Alternatives presents a set of papers that investigates the inherently political nature of water resources management. A Water, Politics and Development initiative was started at ZEF (Center for Development Research, Bonn, Germany) in 2004/2005 in the context of a national-level discussion on the role of social science in global (environmental) change research. In April 2005 a roundtable workshop with this title was held at ZEF, sponsored by the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft/German Research Foundation) and supported by the NKGCF (Nationales Komitee für Global Change Forschung/German National Committee on Global Change Research), aiming to design a research programme in the German context. In 2006 it was decided to design a publication project on a broader, European and international basis. The Irrigation and Water Engineering Group at Wageningen University, the Netherlands joined as a co-organiser and co-sponsor. The collection of papers published in this issue of Water Alternatives is one of the products of the publication project. As part of the initiative a session on Water, Politics and Development was organised at the Stockholm World Water Week in August 2007, where most of the papers in this collection were presented and discussed. Through this publication, the Water, Politics and Development initiative links up with other initiatives simultaneously ongoing, for instance the 'Water governance -€“ challenging the consensus' project of the Bradford Centre for International Development at Bradford University, UK. At this point in time, the initiative has formulated its thrust as 'framing a political sociology of water resources management'. This, no doubt, is an ambitious project, methodologically, theoretically as well as practically. Through the compilation of this collection we have started to explore whether and how such an endeavour might make sense. The participants in the initiative think it does, are quite excited about it, and are committed to pursue it further. To succeed the project has to be a collective project, of a much larger community than the present contributors. All readers are invited to comment on sense, purpose and content of this endeavour to profile and strengthen critical and public sociologies of water resources management.

KEYWORDS: Water control, politics, development, political sociology, public sociology, social power, governance


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


Water rights arenas in the Andes: Upscaling networks to strengthen local water control

Rutgerd Boelens
Irrigation and Water Engineering Group, Wageningen University, the Netherlands;

ABSTRACT: The threats that Andean water user collectives face are ever-growing in a globalizing society. Water is power and engenders social struggle. In the Andean region, water rights struggles involve not only disputes over the access to water, infrastructure and related resources, but also over the contents of water rules and rights, the recognition of legitimate authority, and the discourses that are mobilized to sustain water governance structures and rights orders. While open and large-scale water battles such as Bolivia'€™s 'Water Wars' or nationwide mobilizations in Ecuador get the most public attention, low-profile and more localized water rights encounters, ingrained in local territories, are far more widespread and have an enormous impact on the Andean waterscapes. This paper highlights both water arenas and the ways they operate between the legal and the extralegal. It shows how local collectives build on their own water rights foundations to manage internal water affairs but which simultaneously offer an important home-base for strategizing wider water defence manoeuvres. Hand-in-hand with inwardly reinforcing their rights bases, water user groups aim for horizontal and vertical linkages thereby creating strategic alliances. Sheltering an internal school for rights and identity development, reflection and organisation, these local community foundations, through open and subsurface linkages and fluxes, provide the groundwork for upscaling their water rights defence networks to national and transnational arenas.

KEYWORDS: Water rights, legal pluralism, cultural politics, social mobilization, peasant and indigenous communities, translocal network alliances, Andean countries


River-basin politics and the rise of ecological and transnational democracy in Southeast Asia and Southern Africa

Chris Sneddon
Department of Geography and Environmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College, USA;

Coleen Fox
Department of Geography, Dartmouth College, USA;

ABSTRACT: In recent years, debates over 'deliberative', 'transnational' and 'ecological' democracy have proliferated, largely among scholars engaged in discussions of modernization, globalization and political identity. Within this broad context, scholars and practitioners of environmental governance have advanced the argument that a democratic society will produce a more environmentally conscious society. We want to make a volte-face of this argument and ask: to what extent does engagement with environmental politics and, specifically, water politics, contribute to processes of democratization? After reviewing some of the contributions to debates over 'ecological' and 'transnational' democracy, we explore this question within the context of conflicts over river-basin development in Southeast Asia and southern Africa. We argue that there are multiple pathways to democratization and that, in some cases, the environment as a political issue does constitute a significant element of democratization. But notions of 'ecological' and 'transnational' democracy must embody how both 'environment' and 'the transnational', as mobilized by specific social movements in specific historical and geographical circumstances, are politically constructed.

KEYWORDS: Ecological democracy, transnational democracy, Mekong river basin, Zambezi river basin, environmental politics


Lost in translation: The participatory imperative and local water governance in North Thailand and Southwest Germany

Andreas Neef
University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, Germany;

ABSTRACT: Water management in Thailand and Germany has been marked by a command-and-control policy-style for decades, but has recently begun to move slowly towards more inclusive and participatory approaches. In Germany, the push for public participation stems from the recently promulgated European Union Water Framework Directive (EU WFD), while participatory and integrated river basin management in Thailand has been strongly promoted by major international donors. Drawing on case studies from two watersheds in North Thailand and Southwest Germany, this paper analyzes how the participatory imperative in water governance is translated at the local level. Evidence suggests that in both countries public participation in water management is still in its infancy, with legislative and executive responsibilities being divided between a variety of state agencies and local authorities. Bureaucratic restructuring and technocratic attitudes, passive resistance on the part of administrative staff towards inclusive processes, and a trend towards the (re)centralization of responsibilities for water governance in both study regions undermines community-based and stakeholder-driven water governance institutions, thus calling into question the subsidiarity principle. State-driven participatory processes tend to remain episodic and ceremonial and have not (yet) gone beyond the informative and consultative stage. Meaningful public participation, promised on paper and in speeches, too often gets lost in translation.

KEYWORDS: Water governance, command-and-control, public participation, North Thailand, Southwest Germany


Men, masculinities and water powers in irrigation

Margreet Zwarteveen
Irrigation and Water Engineering Group, Wageningen University, the Netherlands;

ABSTRACT: The aim of this article is to provide an informed plea for more explicitly identifying, naming and unravelling the linkages between water control and gender in irrigation. The fact that power, expertise and status in irrigation tend to have a strong masculine connotation is by now quite well established, and underlies calls for more women in water decision making, engineering education and professions. Yet, the questions of how and why water control, status and expertise are linked to masculinity, and of whether and how such links work to legitimize the exercise of power, are seldom asked. To date, associations between masculinity and professional water performance have largely been taken for granted and remained unexamined. The resulting perceived normalcy makes mechanisms of (gendered) power and politics in water appear self-evident, unchangeable, and indeed gender-neutral. The article reviews examples of the masculinity of irrigation in different domains to argue that exposing and challenging such hitherto hidden dimensions of (gendered) power is important for the identification of new avenues of gender progressive change, and for shedding a new and interesting light on the workings of power in water.

KEYWORDS: Irrigation, water, gender, politics, masculinities, engineers


Nirvana concepts, narratives and policy models: Insights from the water sector

François Molle
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), UR199, Montpellier, France;

ABSTRACT: Analysis of water policy shows the importance of cognitive and ideological dimensions in the formulation of policy discourses. Ideas are never neutral and reflect the particular societal settings in which they emerge, the worldviews and interests of those who have the power to set the terms of the debate, to legitimate particular options and discard others, and to include or exclude particular social groups. This article focuses on three types of conceptual objects which permeates policy debates: nirvana concepts, which underpin overarching frameworks of analysis, narratives -€“ i.e., causal and explanatory beliefs -€“ and models of policies or development interventions. It successively reviews how these three types of concepts populate the water sector, investigates how they spread, and then examines the implications of this analysis for applied research on policy making and practice.

KEYWORDS: Water management; water policy; policy making; IWRM; narratives


Distilling or diluting? Negotiating the water research-policy interface

Frances Cleaver
Bradford Centre for International Development, University of Bradford, UK;

Tom Franks
Bradford Centre for International Development, University of Bradford, UK;

ABSTRACT: This article examines some of the tensions in the generation of knowledge about water governance and poverty, and the translation of this knowledge into policy and practice. It draws on the experience of the authors in developing a framework for understanding water governance and poverty, their work on a project in Tanzania and their attempts to engage with policy makers. The authors propose that the negotiation of knowledge is a political process shaped both by power relationships and (often implicit) normative values. Such negotiation may be impeded by the contrasting positions of academics as uncertainty creators and policy makers seeking unertainty reduction. The authors critique instrumental approaches to the generation of knowledge and policy based on the amalgamation of perceived success stories' and 'good practice'. They favour instead approaches that attempt to understand water governance arrangements and outcomes for the poor within widerframeworks of negotiations over the allocation of societal resources. This implies the need to rethink the research-policy relationship and to build reflexive knowledge generation into the research‐policy interface.

KEYWORDS: water governance, success stories, research-policy interface.



Modern myths of the Mekong: A critical review of water and development concepts, principles and policies. (Kummu, M.; Keskinen, M. and Varis, O. (Eds). 2008).
Rajesh Daniel