Case Studies

After coming to power the ANC affirmed in wonderful prose that water is a fusion of political and physical processes:

The history of water in South Africa cannot be separated from the history of the country as a whole and all of the many factors that went to create both one of the darkest and one of the most triumphal chapters of human experience. The history of water is a mirror of the history of housing, migration, land, social engineering and development.

(DWAF 1995)

By contrast, consider how geographic and economic discourse may be used:

South Africa is not a well-watered country...Water from costly schemes has been supplied only to economically viable enterprises in mining, industry and agriculture and to urban communities, which support them.South Africa's water supply situation is therefore one of contrasts: a first world standard in the greater urban complexes and a countryside as third world in character as many of the remote regions of the continent of which it is part.

Water mega-projects built in the heyday of Afrikaner statism and nationalism helped produce a sense of white national pride, racial superiority and conquest of nature:

[N]ew mega-dams demonstrated conquest and control of nature's most unpredictable element. They were a metaphor for social change where Afrikaner corporate society had displaced the unruly frontier.They celebrated a specifically Afrikaner contribution to industrial society and the modernization of agriculture. They were a major factor in shaping the country's social geography.

(Beinart 1994:170)

With an average national rainfall of less than half of the world average, only 500 mm per annum, South Africa is regarded as a "water stressed" country. Rainfall is uneven across the country with a largely arid western region. Over 519 dams with a total capacity of 50 billion cubic meters control the seasonal flow of rivers, 53 percent of which is used for agriculture. Most of the major rivers have been dammed. Aside from mega dams built in the 1970s, the most pricey and controversial water project in recent times is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project which cost over $8 billion. The physical production of water (capture and storage) is complemented by water boards. Fifteen water boards provide bulk water to local and metro councils.

South Africa's water development has had a Promethean flavour. The country's apartheid system illustrates precisely how social and political aims can construct a second nature, a built environment and new socio-nature to realise certain social relations.

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