Reform and regression: Discourses of water reallocation in Mpumalanga, South Africa

Rebecca Peters
School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK; rebecca.peters@ouce.ox.ac.uk

Philip Woodhouse
The Global Development Institute, School of Environment, Education and Development, The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK; phil.woodhouse@manchester.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: This paper traces the implementation of reforms in water resource management in the Inkomati catchment, South Africa, since the National Water Act of 1998. It focuses on the ways that the predominant water users – white commercial farmers – have negotiated competing demands for water, particularly from black farmers and from growing urban water supply systems. The paper argues that existing commercial agricultural interests have largely succeeded in maintaining their access to water. We investigate this outcome using a cultural political economy perspective which focuses on an analysis of discourses of water allocation and explores how different discourses are reinforced by social practice and through their adoption by, and diffusion through, institutions of water governance. The research has identified three principle narratives that underpin discourse: scarcity, participation, and rights. It focuses on the ways in which calculative techniques for quantifying water use and economic value have been used to reinforce discourses rooted in narratives of water scarcity, and how these narratives ultimately structure water reallocation by agencies of water governance. The paper also identifies the wider political and economic dynamics at play, and the processes that may shift the current discourse of water reallocation.

KEYWORDS: Water reform, South Africa, cultural political economy, discourse, water re-allocation