Integrated water resource management: panacea or problem?


Integrated water resource management (IWRM) became the buzzword for water resources policy gurus in the 1990s. The donors poured millions into projects, plans, programmes and many, many workshops and consultancy exercises. The idea was seemingly neat and simple. Water resources had to be managed locally at catchment level through an inclusive process involving all water users. Water as a scarce commodity should in turn be priced and paid for through tariffs charged on level of use. This would pay for the management systems, and also for improvements, as well as investments in environmental sustainability. The ‘Dublin principles’ – a worthy list developed at a big conference in 1992 – guided the approach, and included all the buzzwords of the time: participation, gender, decentralisation, good governance market efficiency, and more.

Zimbabwe became one of the test cases. In the 1990s it too had its share of consultancies and workshops, and eventually an Act of Parliament – the 1992 Water Act. This overturned the old colonial legislation that was based on ‘riparian rights’, or the ability to draw water depending on the location of your land. Water and land were thus separated – different ministries, legislation, administrative units and governance arrangements. The aim was to rid the country of the inequitable distribution of the past, now with all water users potentially having access if they could pay. For those who could not pay or access a permit, such as communal area farmers and small-scale irrigators, allocations of water in government dams were made. A new independent, quasi private authority – the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) was established to oversee all water issues, including the market basis of the new regime. The authority was supposed to be funded from the revenues. Catchment councils, as the new forum for managing water, were planned for seven catchments. Different donors became involved, each supporting a different area. It seemed like a dream solution, perfectly suited to the neoliberal age, but with participation, decentralisation and women’s empowerment thrown into the mix.

And then land reform happened. The rapid, largely unplanned unfolding of the land reform from 2000 quickly unravelled the carefully laid plans for the IWRM revolution in Zimbabwe. The donors who were funding the whole operation all withdrew, and the catchment councils mostly ceased to operate. The mismatch between the original design and the new agrarian reality was stark, requiring some major rethinking. Three new papers in the open access journal Water Alternatives document this story, and examine the consequences for IWRM after land reform. These come from a major Norwegian-funded project on IWRM in Southern Africa. The papers by long-term observers of the water scene in Zimbabwe, including Emmanuel Manzungu and Bill Derman, offer some fascinating insights into the history and some of the contemporary challenges of IWRM in Zimbabwe, echoing earlier findings by Sobona Mtisi, Alan Nicol and others.

Changing land use, changing water use

Only one of the papers offers data for the post-land reform period, and this focuses on some A2 farms in the Middle Manyame sub-catchment area near Harare. This is an area where there were previously massive large-scale commercial tobacco and wheat farms (including irrigated winter wheat). They had impressive infrastructure, with large scale water abstraction and irrigation systems, including massive centre pivots that irrigated the huge fields throughout the year. This was really water-intensive farming, despite efforts at improving irrigation efficiencies in the last few decades.

Following land reform, these farms, with a few exceptions, no longer operate, and nearly all have been subdivided into both A1 and A2 plots of varying sizes. All these are much, much smaller than the original properties. The consequence is that the previous irrigation infrastructure is largely redundant; it is mostly inappropriate for the current land sizes or too expensive to run. Much irrigation equipment was removed or vandalised during the tumultuous land reform period too.

Most ‘new farmers’ on the resettlements have also switched their cropping mix. Summer white maize and soy beans are now common, and tobacco is also grown in increasingly large quantities, through contract farming arrangements. Most of this is not irrigated and the only intensive irrigation tends to be on relatively small horticulture plots, reflecting a growth in small-scale market gardening.   In their study of 18 A2 farms near Mazvikadei dam, Hove and colleagues found that although about 60% were irrigating, the new farmers were reluctant to pay the fees for water use to ZINWA. Many claimed that they were not doing irrigation, or if they were did their own abstraction through boreholes or small-scale river pumps. The result has been a massive decline in officially-recorded water use, especially from ZINWA controlled dams, making the market-based response to water scarcity that IWRM offered largely meaningless.

Ignoring politics: IWRM as a technical-market fix

IWRM was a technical-market fix and (especially in Zimbabwe) explicitly ‘apolitical’. It therefore failed to address the underlying political economy of water use and control. While the Water Act abandoned the riparian rights approach in favour of an open market approach, this made little difference in practice. For access to markets for irrigated agricultural water was directly correlated with ownership of land, and the capital invested in it, especially irrigation equipment. And guess who had the land and the capital before 2000? Just the people who had benefited from the colonial legislation – the (mostly) white large-scale farmers and the commercial estates. The result was that catchment councils were dominated by this group as they had a vested interest in maintaining their access to water, and preventing reallocations elsewhere. Through the assessments that they commissioned, they could also influence water pricing, crucial to the overall commercial viability of their farming operations. Derman and Manzungu document in detail the membership of the Mupfure, Mazowe and Manyame catchment councils and the participation in the meetings in the period 1993-2001. The councils were not inclusive, participatory, decentralised and democratic, but were captured by elite interests, making use of their existing assets to leverage further resources at relatively low cost under a new mechanism, backed substantially by (international) public money. Earlier studies have shown this pattern elsewhere, for example in the Save Catchment. Rather than a model of good development, in many ways it was a scandal. Inequalities of power and control over water, reproduced by a neoliberal technical-market fix, were however overturned by land reform, creating a new rural politics of water.

Reviving the catchment councils or a more radical rethink of water resource governance?

So what is happening today? With some funds trickling back through various routes there are attempts to revive the catchment council system and institute payment systems for the new farmers, as suggested by the World Bank backed 2013 Water Policy. But, as already mentioned, there is resistance. The rhetoric of the land reform that ‘land is for the people’ (and so free) is replicated for water. Why should we pay for water? This is the government’s, or indeed God’s, resource, and part of the heritage that has been reclaimed through the land reform.

With a shift in crop mix, a change in irrigation systems towards small-scale gardening operations, and lack of capital to rehabilitate defunct water supply and irrigation systems on larger farms, the demand for water has dropped, or at least shifted to different sources (see last week’s blog). The consequence is that the incentives to invest in water management are just not there. It is not appropriate to berate the land reform for this outcome. A return to water intensive large-scale agriculture, and with this the IWRM catchment approaches, is not appropriate. With a restructured agricultural sector in terms of farm size, cropping pattern and level of capital investment, a radical rethink of water resource issues is required. This cannot take its cue from the past. The challenges are many, but they are different to the past, and so require new institutional and governance solutions.

Certainly, water resource issues have been largely ignored during land reform – in part due to the organisational, legislative and administrative separation that the 1990s IWRM system instituted. But this is not to say that they are not very significant. In fact, water provisioning for agriculture is one of the most important priorities for investment in the new resettlements, as I have argued many times on this blog. New investments should not be large-scale dams nor centre-pivot irrigation installations, but more of a focus on water harvesting, small dams/tanks, and micro-irrigation and pumping – the farmer-led irrigation systems described last week. This is revolutionising how irrigation is practised on the ground. Unfortunately, this thinking by farmers has yet to permeate through to the planners, consultants and donors.

In our work in Masvingo on new horticulture supply chains, we have observed some new water management challenges emerging. These are of two sorts. The first is the competition for pumped irrigation water from perennial and seasonal rivers and streams. There has been a massive growth in market gardening especially near Masvingo, but also other growth points and towns. This has been spurred by investment in small-scale pumps, as well as market demand. This has resulted in some severe competition between water users in particular areas. There have been the beginnings of some local initiatives to regulate use, but this has not be institutionalised. Indeed, this has been made more difficult by the existence of ZINWA and the fear of control and water charging. The result has been that the new irrigators have continued under-the-radar, but without the ability and encouragement to develop new institutions to manage the resource sustainability. Rather than an elaborate top-down, market-driven catchment council system, some more local water user associations for such areas are clearly needed, and should be allowed to flourish and assisted in doing so.

Where a larger-scale response is required is across the catchments (both Save and Runde) in the region, and in relation to water destined for the sugar and citrus estates in the lowveld. The use of water from Mtirikwe dam as well as Bangala, and now Tokwe Mukorsi, has long been controversial. The financial and political backing of the estate companies has always been important for the politics of water. This was not a resource that was going to be open to inclusive management of any sort. This remains the case. Yet the demands for water in and around these dams is growing, especially as farms expand and demands to improve productivity increase. Why should it all go to the lowveld when demands are local too? Why should we rely on an old colonial division of water that backs (white, in this case South African) capital against small-scale black farming? Why can’t water reform follow form land reform and we take back ‘our water’?

Here again an IWRM solution will not deal with these high water politics. Indeed such a solution, as before, will likely simply reinforce existing inequalities, but with a market gloss. Instead, a wider political solution is required to the politics of resource access across areas, relating to land for agriculture of different sorts, urban areas, wildlife zones and so on. This requires more than a technical land-use planning exercise based on notionally ideas of land suitability, or simplistic community management solutions, but a political negotiation about equitable access and sustainable productivity.

Water resource challenges are going to increase with growing agricultural intensification combined with climate change in the coming years. New institutions and mechanisms, and likely new legislation, will be required. Outdated and inappropriate technical-market fixes such as IWRM that simply replicate inequality and fail to deal with emerging challenges in the new agrarian system need to be rejected.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and appeared on Zimbabweland


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3 responses to “Integrated water resource management: panacea or problem?

  1. Nick James

    Hi Ian, did you see this? Loftus, Alex (2015) ‘Water (in)security: securing the right to water’ The Geographical Journal, Vol. 181, No. 4, pp. 350–356.
    Critical re-reading ‘water security’ literature finding – “the failure to adequately politicise the processes and relationships that reproduce water inequalities.”

  2. Richard Jolly

    This research driven evaluation of IRWM and the World Bank driven Dublin Principles is important and very interesting. As a senior UNICEF at the time, I am tempted to say, “we told you so”. In fact, although I went to Dublin in 1992 to present the UNICEF position, which was “community focused, small scale, no charges, no privatisation as a rule” , somehow the Bank and other organisers could find no opportunity for me to speak in the main conference – so I was given 5 minutes to say a few words over drinks during one of the receptions. The simple truth was that the Bank and other organisers didn’t want to hear a contrary UNICEF position, which in fact was based on much world-widenexperience in the 1970s and 1980s, including an OXFAM evaluation of the devastating, poverty increasing effects of charging for basic health services in Zimbabwe in the 1980s.
    Had the ideas behind IWRM been less dogmatic and ideologically driven, there were elements in the concept of integrated water management which were and could still be sensible. But 25 years of narrow market interpretation has set back much water development in many countries. What a waste of effort, with the poorest people often bearing e brunt of these misguided efforts.
    Sir Richard Jolly, Deputy Executive Director ( Programmes) UNICEF1982-95.

  3. MrK

    What if someone put a billion dollars into permaculture projects?

    Water Harvesting Swales – from Geoff Lawton

    Very cheap to do, and even more effective incombination for forestation. Forests hold water higher in the landscape and raise water tables. (See the Amazon rain forest.)

    Second Nature – African permaculture forest systems in West Africa

    Incredible stuff. People create forests – when people disappear, forests disappear.

    Rainwater Harvesting Basics from Brad Lancaster, whose methods are hugely inspired by Mr. Phiri.

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