Global water reforms must address issues of inequality and needs of poorest

30 October 2014

New analysis on the design and implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) policies in Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe argues that local needs, politics and realities must be placed at the heart of water reforms.

Women watering crops in Tanzania

The research findings from the Research Council of Norway funded Flows and Practices: The Politics of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in Africa project will be presented to an audience of water experts, gathered together at the 15th WaterNet, Water Research Fund of Southern Africa (WARFSA) and Global Water Partnership- Southern Africa (GWP-SA) symposium taking place in Malawi.

IWRM has been promoted by international donors, global water organisations and financers as the answer to the water crisis in the Global South. Yet findings from this research suggests that IWRM has not had the anticipated impact on long-term development outcomes and highlights a number of challenges which need to be addressed.

Politics matter

One critical issue is that IWRM has obscured the political nature of water resources. While IWRM has offered technical solutions, the process of its adoption and implementation in countries in Africa has failed to adequately recognise how local political, economic and social contexts need to shape reform. For example, in South Africa progress has been limited by a lack of political will and coordination at all levels which in turn has also led to widespread distrust amongst both large- and small-scale users. In Zimbabwe, processes of land and water reforms are closely linked, and when donors withdrew support for IWRM in Zimbabwe as a result of ‘fast-track’ land reform that happened in 2000, the negative impact on water governance and management was significant.

Whose priorities count?

More emphasis also needs to be placed on the needs and priorities of small-scale and rural users. In Mozambique water reforms were heavily influenced by international donors.  Pollicies were drafted by a small group of policy makers, all trained and supported by Dutch universities and international aid, and with little input from the broader population. In Tanzania, data from one area, the Wami/Ruvu basin office shows that 30 of the largest registered users use 89 per cent of the total volume of allocated water, with 930 other users left with access to just 11 per cent.

Addressing issues of gender inequality

The Dublin Principles that were established at the International Conference on Water and Environment in Dublin in 1992 acknowledged the role of women in the planning and management of water resources. Yet IWRM adoption in southern African countries has failed to recognise how women use and manage water, and how they acquire water and land through use and customary rights rather than formal land titles. It has also done little to address the fact that women are often marginalised from formal water management networks such as water user associations which often replicate broader societal power imbalances.

Overall, greater effort needs to be targeted at the long-term development of water infrastructure and broadening of access to water that has been lacking from the IWRM approach in southern African countries, which has too often promoted top-down blueprints rather than locally viable alternatives.

Read more in the journal article, The politics of IWRM in Southern Africa

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