Politics of Integrated Water Resources Management in southern Africa

For the past two decades, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) has been the dominant paradigm in water resources. It is the flagship project of global bodies such as the Global Water Partnership (GWP). It has also been actively promoted by a range of multilateral and bilateral donors which consider it to be the path to address water governance and management crises in the global south. Importantly, IWRM has been incorporated into many water laws, reforms and policies in the nations of eastern and southern Africa.

Thinking through the politics of IWRM

But how did IWRM spread so rapidly around the world, especially in Africa, and what have been the experiences on the ground?

These questions have been the drive behind The Norwegian Research Council funded project ‘Flows and Practices: The Politics of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in Africa‘.  The project explored at various levels how ideas of IWRM, as constructed at the global and European levels, have been and are being translated and adapted into narratives and practices in eastern and southern Africa.

In a dialogue hosted in September, by South Africa’s Water Research CommissionInstitute of Development Studies (IDS), International Environment and Development Studies (Noragric)International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), the team of this project came together to present its findings and also exchange ideas with the WRC and others engaging with similar issues.

The travel of IWRM

IWRM spread from the late 1990s due to a mix of coercion on the part of donors who encouraged water reform processes around the world, but also through cooperation and learning in regional and global networks.  This happened at a time when dams were very controversial on the international scene and global focus turned to ‘soft’ management issues instead of infrastructure development, something still badly needed in southern Africa.

In southern Africa, IWRM was picked up because of the importance of water in the Southern African Development Cooperation (SADC) region due to the many rivers running across boundaries. Water is something that could be galvanised as an arena of cooperation, instead of conflict. Moreover, the region has strong existing institutions and donor networks due to anti apartheid struggles. Water-related programmes and activities introduced by the Swedes, Dutch, Germans and Danes could build on these. The Global Water Partnership (GWP) and WaterNet are two successful networks, that are really driving IWRM in the region.

Notably, while there are signs of IWRM fatigue in Europe, IWRM has acquired a new life of its own in southern Africa. It is kept alive through the annual WaterNet meetings and Master’s programmes, alongside the activities of IWRM policymakers, practitioners, students and consultants. In our lively dialogue last month, most of us agreed that despite these activities, IWRM remains a rather abstract concept meaning different things to different peopleand difficult to implement.

How has IWRM worked in different countries?

In South Africa, IWRM was largely a home-grown enterprise and the new democratic state used it as a way to engage with international debates and actors. Despite much emphasis on creating new Catchment Management Agencies (CMAs), only two actually exist, as opposed to the planned 19, and many emerging farmers are still waiting for redress in terms of productive water users and management.

In Zimbabwe, despite a promising start, IWRM reform was destroyed by the land reform process and many irrigation systems are now non-functional and the usage of productive water has dramatically declined. IWRM in Zimbabwe was donor driven. After the land reform the donors left, only to return after the cholera epidemic of 2008. A new Water Policy explicitly mentions IWRM but yet it is nowhere in practice. The emphasis is now largely on urban water supply and there is largely a culture of non-payment for water due to deeply culturally engrained notions.

In all the countries, IWRM roll out took place through a mix of domestic and donor-driven forces and interests. Africa has been a laboratory for IWRM in the post cold war world where neo-liberal approaches began to reign supreme in the water sector due to influences of the World Bank that sought to privatise water services and introduce cost recovery mechanisms.

In the Wami Ruvu Basin in Tanzania, large companies succeeded in securing water licenses that grabbed a large chunk of the water resources in the basin from poor informal users and also closed the weir in the river.

In Mozambique, a small policy elite largely trained in the Netherlands has shaped the key policy episodes around IWRM roll out in the country. These include the National Water Act of 1991 and the National Water Policies of 1995 and 2005 which all combine World Bank/ IMF influenced market mechanisms with Mozambican domestic post-war concerns with both water supply and sanitation and water resources management. The colonial legacy of a centralised state however stunted efforts at creating truly participatory institutions and an emphasis on permits and fee collection has led to water grabs and the exclusion of informal small users who remain invisible in formal policies.

Even in water-rich Uganda, the focus was on regulating water and introducing neo-liberal reform, rather than on (re) allocating water to those who needed it the most. Across the region, women’s rights that are often enshrined in customary and informal arrangements were often lost. Moreover, messy political realities got in the way setting up new institutions operating in hydrological units.

What has IWRM meant for the region?

The IWRM approach highlights the need to move away from ‘silos’ in the water sector; include communities in decision making and other processes, and also integrate environmental, management and supply issues.  It has created a huge buzz in SADC and has in some cases created innovation, spaces of learning and new forms of citizen science.

In reality, there is evidently still a gap between what’s on paper and practice. In hindsight, the focus should have been on building capacity in existing institutions and being realistic of the capacity to implement IWRM and on integrating land and water reform and integrating the rights to land, water, food and livelihoods through IWRM. The focus on management tended to lose sight of the need to enlarge access to water for poor people and focused more on creating new complex institutional arrangements that that largely lacked accountability and legitimacy and were prone to elite capture.

What should the future hold for IWRM?

Future water management and development in the region needs to respect customary arrangements and direct attention to ‘primary water’ for multiple uses so crucial for livelihoods and subsistence. There is also the pressing need to develop water resources and create storage facilities to withstand uncertainties due to drought and seasonal variability. Perhaps it is also time to just tax and monitor the large users and polluters of water, rather than getting bogged down with registering smaller informal users.

The WRC dialogue helped highlight that it’s important for every country or locality to highlight its own priorities and respond them according to the capacity and resources available, whilst being aware of the political nature of water and the dangers of resource capture on the part of powerful players.