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In Zimbabwe: water flows uphill to power

- By Buhle Zuma

A conversation with environmental historian, Professor Mucha Musemwa, takes place amid ongoing concerns that water could be the possible cause of wars and future tensions in governance.

The UN and other agencies have warned that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions, almost every major river dammed and diverted whilst facing continuing threats to water quality from agricultural inputs and industrial wastes; and mounting variability of climate including threats of severe droughts and flooding across locales and regions.

Musemwa, who has an abiding interest in water history, says that these statements started decades ago. “I want to believe that the so-called Third World War around water may not even happen. If people read what has been happening in history around struggles over resources in general, people ought to learn how to manage resources to pre-empt the eventuality of having a large-scale war”.

For Musemwa, the water conflicts that concern him are the ones that are happening daily – on the streets of Mothutlung or Majakaneng in the North West, or Makokoba or Chitungwiza in Zimbabwe. His view is that: “Instead of waiting for that big imagined war to happen – the demonstrations on the streets of Phiri township in Soweto, over pre-paid meters – those for me are the most critical issues of conflict that are happening at a local level and need to be attended to rather than expending our energies thinking and speculating about future wars. We need to contain the possibility of conflict over water and carefully  examine the power relations and configurations that govern the allocation distribution and access to this critical resource. How do we use water, are we using it sustainably and ensuring that we leave something for generations to come?”.

As it was in the past, as it is today, and will be in the future, Musemwa argues that the problem of water scarcity is not necessarily about the absence or inadequacy of water per se, but power lies at the heart of the problem – it is about how water is distributed how those who wield political and economic power allocate a greater fraction of resources to themselves than to the socially marginalised. That is what leads to war, to social and political protest. In short, “most shortages are man-made,” he says.

The topic of water, history and politics is the subject of Musemwa’s recently published book titled Water, History and Politics in Zimbabwe: Bulawayo’s Struggles with the Environment, 1894-2008. The book has been hailed by scholars as a new chapter in understanding Zimbabwean urban history.

Briefly, the book examines the city of Bulawayo’s struggles with the environment from 1894-2008, given its location in the perennially semi-arid region of south-western Matebeleland, Zimbabwe. Its fundamental argument is that water scarcity in Bulawayo, especially as it affected Africans, for the most part,  was a result of both biophysical conditions and man-made policies which were linked to deep-rooted struggles over access to, and management of, water resources in both colonial and postcolonial Zimbabwe.

In an  endorsement of the book, former Professor of International History at Sheffield University, Ian Phimister writes that the book is “the first major study of the politics of water Southern Africa. The monograph is the “best book by far on Bulawayo, on urban struggles and on the political economy or water”. “Post-independence, the ruling party has continued to use water to discipline what it perceives to be a ‘dissident’ city in Matebeleland, an area constantly perceived as a threat to ZANU-PF’s political power,” says Musemwa.

By refusing to allocate water development resources the state managed to rein in the “politically errant” city and this has been noted in the water struggles experienced by communities which favour the opposition party.

Musemwa’s interest in water history peaked when, as a doctoral student, he enrolled for a graduate seminar titled Damn! the Dams: The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams. “As we read and discussed a number of articles on this subject I was particularly struck by how ordinary people often preponderantly bore the social and ecological costs, each time they were displaced to make way for a large dam in many parts of the world. They were strikingly also severed from their ecosystems upon which they depended for their livelihoods, among others. I soon learnt that power was at the centre of all this. I have proved it in the Bulawayo case-study.”

Having studied conflicts around resources, Musemwa throws in words of caution: “Communities need to be vigilant that their access to resources is not controlled by politicians. We must never allow a situation where politicians are allowed to control critical resources like water without ordinary people having a stake in the management of their water.”

Clearly, the interlocking themes and narratives in this book attest that, “as a socio-environmental historian”, Musemwa “has a visceral understanding of the human experience of water.”

The book is available at Africa World Press and Amazon.