Academic journal article Human Organization

Value of Water: Political Ecology and Water Reform in Southern Africa

Academic journal article Human Organization

Value of Water: Political Ecology and Water Reform in Southern Africa

Article excerpt

Our study draws attention to the multiple ways water is "valued" in international, national, and local discourses and how these different dialogues are used by actors to position themselves and their interests in Zimbabwe's water reform process. It raises questions concerning the liberatory nature of Zimbabwe's supposed populist political agenda in land and water reform. Water reform in Zimbabwe serves as a means of demonstrating the grounded, decentered, and engaged approach of political ecology. Focusing only on one pervasive discourse, such as neoliberal economic policy or the growing scarcity of water, and studying its effects on people and the environment, misses much of the complexity embodied in the reform. Our emphasis draws attention to the role of multiple actors, history, ambiguities, and contestations. We have found that the old systems for managing water are no longer functioning while the new systems are not in place. This means that the years of careful planning and implementation of water reform are now in jeopardy due to unforeseen events and processes.

Key words: political ecology, water reform, Southern Africa, Zimbabwe

At the September 2002 World Conference on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, water was at the center of contestation and debate. Water was variously characterized as a scarce resource, an economic good, a human right, a matter of national and international security, and an environmental right. In this article, we examine the process of water reform underway in Zimbabwe. The complex interplay of environmental, economic, social, and rights-based discourses and practices related to this essential natural resource provides a terrain from which to consider current debates surrounding how the "political" is conceptualized in political ecology.

First, our study draws attention to the multiple ways water is "valued" in international, national, and local discourses and how these different dialogues are used by actors to position themselves and their interests in Zimbabwe's water reform process. Second, the case study raises questions concerning the liberatory nature of Zimbabwe's supposed populist political agenda in land and water reform. While the reforms ostensibly aim to increase racial equity by providing black communal area farmers with access to water, the emerging realities on the ground are quite different. As with Zimbabwe's "fast-track" land reform program, it appears that the major beneficiaries will be middle- or upper-class black entrepreneurs and political supporters of the Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) rather than black land- and water-short communal area farmers. The notion of "people" thus is a highly contested category in present-day Zimbabwe.

We begin by outlining our conceptual framework and describing the methodology used in the study. While set in a political ecology framework, we draw on Arce and Long's (2000) concept of counterdevelopment to illustrate how local understandings are used to comprehend and reshape global discourses and how, in turn and less frequently, the local influences global discourses. We then present the case study of water reform in Zimbabwe as a means of demonstrating the grounded, decentered, and engaged approach of political ecology. Focusing only on one pervasive discourse, such as neoliberal economic policy or the growing scarcity of water, and studying its effects on people and the environment, misses much of the complexity embodied in the reform. We identify different and often competing actors and describe their conceptualizations of the value of water. Our emphasis thus draws attention to the role of multiple actors, history, ambiguities, and contestations.

Political Ecology: Research Issues and Methods

This study was an interdisciplinary, collaborative, and comparative project involving faculty and graduate students at the Center for Applied Social Science at the University of Zimbabwe; researchers and graduate students at Chancellor College, University of Malawi; a colleague at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard, and ourselves at Michigan State University. …

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