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Watershed: Place, policy and environmental crisis

- Lenore Manderson

Global water crises, and drought, desertification, water shortage and pollution, in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, are not new.

However, intermittent extended local droughts, extreme flooding and heatwaves, changes in temperature and precipitation, and consequent changes in water reserves, have all impacted human settlement, agriculture and food production, and human health. This will continue to be the case as global warming presents challenges to governments at national, local and regional levels.

Water is a shared resource, but volatile political and environmental landscapes complicate its availability. National and provincial governments, in association with neighbouring countries and local water authorities, need to address water access and its governance to ensure sufficient water to sustain life.  Water is a human right, and its precariousness, in association with climate change, is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

From 10-21 September, the University of the Witwatersrand is hosting a university-wide programme, open to the public, entitled Watershed: Art, Science and Elemental Politics. The programme is designed to highlight contributions to and ways of understanding earth systems and elements, and to stimulate conversations and identify opportunities for collaborations across the natural and social sciences, humanities and the arts. It is a celebration of the work done across the University, and through the participation of others within South Africa and beyond, of global efforts to address climate change and mitigate environmental damage.

As the title suggests, the particular focus is on water. The title derives from the fact that Wits sits on a watershed, at the high point of the hill on Yale Road, as pedestrians cross from the east campus to the west. Water flows from one side, through river systems, into the Indian Ocean; on the other side, the water flows to the South Atlantic. The term references both topography and hydrology.

But “watershed” is also a common metaphor to speak of a critical moment of decision-making or action. We have that kind of moment now; a turning point when we must take seriously the local and global implications of climate change, population density, and economic wellbeing and sustainability. Watershed at Wits is an opportunity to reflect on place and to explore how art and science – across a wide array of disciplines and practices –  help illuminate the challenges we face now.

Water is everywhere, and yet it is visible only through its impurities, refractions of light and reflections of solid images, and, perversely, in its absence. Water’s absence threatens all life forms. Life on Earth is vulnerable precisely because water is increasingly unstable and unpredictable. Changes in the quantity and quality of water threaten human and animal populations, plant life, health and wellbeing. This was clear in 2017-18 as Cape Town’s water scarcity devolved into questions of policy and politics around desalination plants, private boreholes, and equity.

But the precarious supply of and access to water is even more critical in smaller towns, townships and rural areas, where the lack of a regular, reliable access to water and poor sanitation is endemic. In these places, people must routinely manage with limited, sometimes dangerously polluted, water. People – usually women – often need to walk long distances to ensure the minimum amount water for their households’ daily needs.

Watershed at Wits brings together a variety of approaches to water, offers insight into how industrial and human action influence water quantity and quality, and raises questions around legal rights to water, the governance of water resources, and the innovations needed to sustain life. In one panel, to take place in the Chamber of Mines Building on West Campus on Friday, 14 September, South African artists, academics, and climatologists who have played lead roles internationally, discuss how mining has dominated Johannesburg’s history. The panellists will discuss how mining has affected the environment, including groundwater and run-off, and ask how the management of resources has changed – or might need to change –in the 21st Century.  What challenges do we face, as scientists, policy makers, consumers and members of the public?

Watershed highlights our understanding of earth systems and the elements, environmental change, knowledge and communication, and national and local policies – hence the idea of “elemental” politics. The programme offers a rich variety of ways to think about water: scholarly posters and lectures; guided walks; installations and performance art; the formal presentation of papers; and lively roundtable discussions. These approaches are intended to encourage dialogue among policy makers, artists, scientists, people from NGOs and civil society. The aim is to support critical thinking to address one of the most complex problems of our time in innovative, engaging and inclusive ways. 

Lenore Manderson is the Director of Watershed. She is Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology, School of Public Health and Medical Anthropology, at Wits University, and at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown University, Providence. This article was first published inn Voices 360.