Can participation change the geography of water? lessons from South Africa

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In water-scarce regions, access to and exclusion from water and its planning and management are determined by relative power relations within society. South Africa—a semiarid country with uneven power relations—provides the case material for this study, with special focus on the Inkomati Water Management Area dominated by irrigated agriculture. Under apartheid, investments in water engineering favored the white minority population, and this “produced” environment allowed a form of geographical inertia to develop and persist. South Africa's democratically elected government embraced the new paradigm for water management. Its pioneering 1998 National Water Act looked to decentralized participatory governance as a route to achieve redress. This empirically based article will show how the potential of participation to change the geography of water has been stifled in the Inkomati. The legacy of apartheid, with resultant power imbalances and the determination of the existing elite to preserve their relative advantage, have combined to ensure that the reallocation of water has been negligible. It is high time for development practitioners to break free from the shackles of participation and promote sustained political pressure for state-led reallocations. This could be achieved within a more acceptable time frame than the participatory approach is offering.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)271-279
Number of pages9
JournalAnnals Of The Association Of American Geographers
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2013


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