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Interview with Larry Swatuk, author of Water in Southern Africa

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Water Institute member and professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, Larry Swatuk, is the author of a new book titled “Water in Southern Africa.” 

Larry lived for 14 years in Africa, primarily in Botswana, where he was a lecturer at the University of Botswana and associate professor of Resource Governance at the Okavango Research Institute. He has published extensively on issues pertaining to the ‘wise use’ of the resources of the Okavango River basin.

Partly due to his training in political science and international relations, Larry specializes not only in decision-making around the use of water resources, but in the training of decision makers for dispute resolution and negotiation on these same resources.

His current research interests focus on the unintended negative consequences of climate change adaptation and mitigation interventions, a concept he labels ‘the boomerang effect.’

In his new book – the first volume in the Off-Centre series which focuses on the social, political and cultural life of South Africa and the southern African region –  he argues that we must learn to see water and the region differently if we are to meet present challenges and better prepare for an uncertain, climate-changing future.

We had the opportunity to ask Larry questions about his new book, challenges facing the world water resources, and why interdisciplinary collaboration is important when it comes to tackling complex water problems. 

In your publication, “Seeing Invisible Water Challenges,” you talk about a ‘blue water bias’ that exists that makes a “majority of water professionals and policy makers blind to the significant amounts of green water available for human needs.” How can we better educate water professionals and policy makers on the concepts and applications of green water and virtual water?

There is a great deal of path dependence in science – and in life. We are all creatures of habit who grow comfortable trodding along the same path. Every once in a while there is a break from the routine, an idea or an insight emerges to shake us up. It is interesting to note that virtual water – a concept first articulated by Tony Allan for which he was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize some years back – has had greater purchase across the water world than has the idea of green water. Irrigation engineers, however, are well-versed in green water analysis, and rightly so, for most of the world’s food production depends on rainfall or, in Malin Falkenmark’s and Johan Rockstrom’s words: where the rain drop hits the soil.  But policy makers and the private sector remain enamored of blue water perhaps because there is more immediate political and economic pay-off to damming, diverting and draining available blue water.  Perhaps also, the systems in place have been designed by powerful actors interested in capturing the available resource which, historically, was the water we could see. Beyond the well-watered parts of the world, ‘developing’ states aimed to mimic their ‘developed’ counterparts by capturing water.

Water, in this context, is power: political, economic and social. In my view, powerful actors will continue to be blind to the benefits of green water, and to the potential hazards of living beyond their own water barriers because of current capabilities to import cheap food (i.e. virtual water). But their blindness need not lead us down the same dark path.

There are true advantages to seeing virtual and green water, particularly in terms of understanding limits, thresholds and untapped possibilities. Seeing water more completely reveals to us many options we hitherto knew nothing about.

It also reveals to us the fallacy of many claims pertaining to the state of the world’s water resources: that we are running out, that we are facing a water war, and so on.

In your new book, “Water in Southern Africa,” you do not shy away from the fact that the challenges for sustainable water management are immense. Drawing on the southern African experience, you argue that we must learn to “see water and the region differently if we are to meet present challenges and better prepare for an uncertain, climate-changing future.” Can you expand on this thought?

It is fitting that a pool of water acts as a mirror. For, in my view, the state of the world’s water resources reflects very accurately the state of our societies. How water is accessed, used and managed clearly shows us the problems and possibilities not only for resource sustainability, but for social inclusion, social justice, and sustainable development broadly defined.

Too much water use research commences from an ahistorical, asocial largely technical and economic perspective. Put differently, whoever has the money and the power gets the water. So, ‘shortages’ are not biophysical, but socio-economic and socio-political. Let me give you an example from Southern Africa, though it is hardly unique in this regard: the region is often portrayed as a ‘success story’ of inter-state cooperation on transboundary waters. At the same time, all countries in the region ‘struggle’ to provide adequate water for the needs of all of their citizens. Are these two separate phenomena? No, they are not, though they are often presented as such. In the case of the former, there is said to be ‘progress’ deriving from human resource capability, adequate finance and so on. In the case of the latter, there is said to be ‘limited or uneven progress’ deriving from the absence of the same. But, in my view, if we see where the water flows, how, to whom and for what purpose, we can clearly see that these conditions are two sides of the same coin. As the saying goes, the first law of hydrology is that water flows toward money. Without doubt, many water challenges may be met with the application of good science supported by adequate finance and appropriate forms of governance and management. But, as a cursory view of the water world shows us, too few people are served by our current approaches and practices.

The book puts forward several new ways of seeing water to help open up new avenues for discussion, debate and, one hopes, more fruitful action.

You recognize that significant challenges of the world water crisis are the socio-political and socio-economic limitations to agriculture policy and practice, acknowledging that governance plays a key role in this. In your opinion, what are some steps that can be taken to alleviate these challenges?

You know, the vast majority of our freshwater goes to irrigated agriculture, mostly to grow crops not for immediate consumption but as an intermediate input into global ‘food’ production processes. I put quotation marks around ‘food’ to highlight the fact that much of the world’s irrigated corn crop ends up in processed foods as high fructose corn syrup, the consumption of which is suspect to say the least. And I’m not just picking on corn. We would be right to question the utility of many crops – from soy to alfalfa to cotton – in relation to their contribution to human health and well-being. Authors such as Michael Pollan have made the argument eloquently, so I need not go into it here. But what to do about it? Typically, there are three potential points of intervention and action: state, private sector and civil society. While nothing positive can come from an unregulated system, I am loathe to argue that the way forward is a heavy-handed state telling us what to eat and farmers – or, big agriculture, really – what to grow. It is better, in my view, to begin at the other end: at the level of civil society.

As an educator, it is probably predictable that I would argue for better educating the public regarding the costs and consequences of the current global food system. (For a succinct overview of this, see Waterloo professor Jennifer Clapp’s book entitled Food.) You are what you eat, is a truism. But, as with water, so with agriculture: we are what we grow. How is it possible that malnutrition resides side by side around the world with ever greater crop production?

In my book, I argue that we must not take conventional arguments for granted. We must shatter these food myths with empirical evidence founded on better ways of knowing and seeing where our resources are being deployed.

Those of us interested in a better, fairer and more sustainable world must come down out of the ivory tower and be public intellectuals. We must challenge the forces of business as usual with sound arguments supported scientifically. I know there is an assault on science, on ‘the expert’, and in many cases rightly so. But no one said that moving away from practices that lead to social inequality, economic inefficiency and environmental unsustainability would be easy. In my classroom, I see a new generation who are already on board with such a perspective.

You have collaborated on research with a number of academics from different backgrounds. Why do you think interdisciplinary collaboration is important when it comes to water research and solving complex water challenges?

This is clearly a rhetorical question, for the answer is simple: what you see depends upon where you sit, and since no one sits in the same place, the view is always slightly different, depending on the vantage point. So, the value is clear: a complete answer depends upon a complete picture. The trick, of course, is how to do this, especially since a ‘complete picture’ of anything is something that can never be realized. It is something for which we can only strive. At the same time, it is not easy to bring social scientists together, let alone bring them together with their physical and biological and engineering sciences counterparts and ask them to understand each other. We speak different scientific languages, we focus on very specific things. The problems of the ‘inter-paradigm’ debate are well known. Nevertheless, what else have we to do?

There really isn’t any option but to keep trying, is there?

To this end, I find great utility in wishy-washy concepts – like IWRM and sustainable development. The true utility of these concepts is that they get disparate actors and interests together in the same room. In my view, that’s half the battle already won.