A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: Water Security in Southern Africa

By van Wyk, Jo-Ansie | New Zealand International Review, May 2000 | Go to article overview

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: Water Security in Southern Africa


van Wyk, Jo-Ansie, New Zealand International Review


Jo-Ansie van Wyk argues that water will increasingly shape international relations and security arrangements in Southern Africa.

It is not insignificant that the English words `rival', and `river' are derived from the same Latin word rivalis -- one who uses the same stream. Enmities founded on access to and use of water are ancient and deep. Understanding threats in the twenty-first century requires a broader approach. The end of the Cold War contributed to the rise of so-called new security issues such as water.

A river knows no boundaries. What happens at its source will reverberate through its course until it reaches the ocean. Very few of the world's major rivers are contained within the borders of a single state. Water is the most likely renewable resource to generate conflict. Three aspects shape its role in potential international conflicts. No society can survive without adequate water supplies. Water is required for the operation of an economy (even an agrarian one). It is usually associated with a particular territory over which states may fight for control. Water often crosses international boundaries, so access to water is increasingly a potential source of conflicting international relations. Third, water resources tend to be unevenly distributed. These aspects contribute to a profitable trade in water, while they simultaneously contribute to the politicisation and securitisation of water. A state like Lesotho is poor in natural resources, but income derived from water trade earns the country valuable foreign exchange. It is also not insignificant that Lesotho heads the Water Sector in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Despite this, there is no unanimity of what water is really worth. Water is a migrant commodity with a variable value.

A common theme runs through conflicts over water. They are produced in fixed locations but traded to distant places. Since rivers often pass through more than one state they are constant sources of potential political tension. States upstream may not only pollute the water but as a political measure may threaten to dam the river as a means of coercive diplomacy. In the case of Botswana, for example, 94 per cent of fresh water originates outside its border, contributing to the vulnerability of the state. As in the Middle East, water issues are especially important in Southern Africa, where water resources are unevenly distributed and where supplies often cross international borders.

Human security

The notion of human security suggests that security can be viewed as emerging from conditions of daily life -- food, shelter, health, public safety, employment and water -- rather than downward from a state's foreign relations and military strength. The water situation in Southern Africa is no exception. Water issues pose three challenges to security policy-makers in the region. These relate first, to water shortage and availability and second, to water supply and quality. Rapid population growth, cross border migration and urbanisation also pose threats. Third, the maintenance of water quality remains an issue. The facts of the matter are:

* Southern Africa's water inventory is characterised by several contradictions: South Africa is home to one-third of the region's population. While South Africa accounts for 80 per cent of Southern Africa's water use, only 10 per cent of the total water resources is available in South Africa.

* The overall picture that defines the region's water profile is that of scarcity. At least three of the region's states (Botswana, Namibia and South Africa) are acutely short of water.

* Resource geo-politics in Southern Africa has long been neglected. However, water is now recognised as a fundamental political weapon in the region. This article will attempt to show that despite the `peace dividend' in the region, water will increasingly shape international relations and security arrangements in the region. …

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