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How colliding cultures cause water shortages


Rainmakers and civil servants, specialists and farmers understand water policies in markedly different ways. This is why international policy instruments for managing water resources do not succeed, and the consequence is water shortage. This is shown in a dissertation in political science from Göteborg University in Sweden.

Every year five million people die because of the lack of clean water. This is not because we lack the knowledge to manage water or even because there is not enough water, but because of how we regulate and organize water resources. Therefore, international experts have developed a coordinated policy for water management, combining ecological, market, and democratic principles. More and more countries and international organizations are subscribing to this so-called ‘Integrated Water Resource Management,’ (IWRM).

Is IWRM thus the solution to the extensive misuse of water?

Political scientist Patrik Stålgren’s dissertation examines what happened with IWRM when the policy was implemented in Zimbabwe. He points out how various water users have different conceptions of water. They inhabit different worlds of water.

“If various players have different interpretations of IWRM, their cooperation is hampered. For an international policy instrument like IWRM to be able to support national decisions, we must first understand how it is interpreted by national and local water users,” says Patrik Stålgren.

When IWRM is implemented, it is reinterpreted by water users from the perspective of their respective water worlds. IWRM will therefore mean different things to different players. Patrik Stålgren develops an analytical model for understanding how these reinterpretations occur and how this impacts the outcome of IWRM. The model is based on international political theory and is elaborated with the help of number of interviews from Zimbabwe, one of the first countries in the world to reform its water policy in keeping with IWRM. Today the policy is advocated by the UN, and all international assistance donors use IWRM as a basis for supporting water management in developing countries.

Stålgren’s analysis shows that there are four worlds of water in Zimbabwe. Each one interprets IWRM differently. “Water as Zimbabwe” is embraced by the government and is based on a striving to build a unified nation-state, but at the same time it includes powerful racial categories that fuel the interpretation of IWRM. “Water as Gold” characterizes the commercial farmers’ reinterpretation, based on a historical notion of how the white man brought the fruits of civilization to the black Africans.

The third perspective, “Water as Science,” is typical of the engineers that administrate water in Zimbabwe. Patrik Stålgren shows how IWRM caused a series of conflicts among various groups of engineers, which led to this reinterpretation.

He interviewed several so-called ‘rainmakers’ and spiritual mediums about their views on IWRM. Their world, “Water as a Gift from the Gods,” is based on the idea that the spirits of their ancestors govern the distribution of water. They reinterpret IWRM so as not to let it threaten their world view and social positions.

“If rainmakers, civil servants, and international assistance workers understood each other’s world views better, then water management would function better. We have to factor this into Swedish and international assistance policies if we are to be in a position to help save those who are dying today because of a lack of water,” concludes Patrik Stålgren.

Title of dissertation: Worlds of Water: Worlds Apart

| alfa
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