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EADI ISS Conference 2021 | For the redistribution of water, framing matters!

In the face of increasing pressure on global water resources, a degree of inventiveness in finding just and sustainable ways to ensure access to water is required. The redistribution of water is one possible way in which this could be done. But ongoing research on elite responses to a recent water scarcity crisis in South Africa shows that the redistribution of water resources will not go uncontested by water elites and that existing narratives on the sharing of water are not creating the extent of solidarity needed. We need to frame this action differently, writes Lize Swartz.

Water is intricately linked to development, both to ensure or improve people’s quality of life, as well as to help secure livelihoods such as subsistence farming. But increasing pressure on water resources due to a changing climate, as well as an increased demand for water, amongst others, is making it difficult to even sustain current access to water, let alone provide new access to populations that are not yet connected to formal water networks.

Millions of people around the world are still waiting for the moment they can turn on a tap and watch water gushing from it, to be able to flush a toilet, or to bathe under running water. In light of the need to keep an expanding access to water and sanitation facilities, but also with the realisation that less and less water is available per capita, new ways of thinking about ensuring access to water are needed.

‘Sharing is scaring’

During a recent panel session on inclusive development and water governance linked to the 2021 EADI ISS Conference, the likelihood of having to share water came up toward the end of the discussion. Emanuele Fantini[1] suggested that it’s not as straightforward as ‘sharing is caring’ when it comes to water, pointing to the many complexities that would affect the governance of water redistribution by using the term ‘sharing is scaring’. Joyeeta Gupta[2], one of the panel convenors, observed that it is likely that “there will be no win-win situation; it will be a win-lose situation” when it comes to sharing water. As one of the main challenges, she recognised the need to convince water elites of the necessity of sharing water.

My ongoing research on elite responses to water scarcity shows exactly how difficult it will be to get ‘buy-in’ from those who are able to share water: I  investigate the way in which elite water users navigated the collapse of three urban water supply systems in South Africa in 2016. With ‘buy-in’ I mean that those who have sufficient water agree to share it, provided that they still have enough water to meet their own basic water needs. ‘Elite water users’ in the context of South Africa can be considered those who either have water and sanitation connections within their own homes, or who have access to non-municipal water resources such as groundwater (through boreholes) that can replace or supplement municipal water.

Some of the preliminary conclusions of my research are that:

  • Basic water needs are different for different socio-economic groups in South Africa. For example, irrigating private gardens to ensure that lawns remain green and plants continue to grow may be considered a basic need by those owning gardens, but not by those without gardens. This may be linked to the pride that is taken in being able to maintain ‘life’ by tending to an urban nature.
  • The way in which water is used is closely linked to the socio-economic and cultural identity and status of water users; water is much more than a product linked to hygiene, for example – having abundant water is a reminder of a high standard of living and prosperity. Swimming pools, fountains, and running water in general is considered part and parcel of a ‘good life’.
  • Water is closely linked to emotional and mental health; having sufficient water creates a sense of peace and safety among water users, which turns into anxiety when the threat of water scarcity or shortages looms. My research found that retaining a sense of water security seems to trump other considerations that may inform how water is used and whether and how it is shared.

Allegations of mismanagement stand in the way of viewing water scarcity as collective problem  

In addition to the symbolic importance of water that moves beyond the idea of water needs as largely material, political factors may also affect the willingness of water elites to share water. My research found, for example, that specific interpretations of the collapse of urban water supply systems as being caused by municipal mismanagement and water losses through leakages in general may prevent water users from seeing water scarcity as a collective problem and responding to it in a similar way. Those who hold such views are unlikely to cooperate with local governments to ensure that those without water are helped out of own accord. My research also shows that water is hoarded by households out of fear of not being able to access it in the future and is mostly shared with those elites’ own social networks.

Also, in the communities studied, distrust stretches beyond the local level and is rooted in perceptions regarding the legitimacy and accountability of the national government. A certain level of mistrust is based on its perceived disability to govern in the interests of water elites, who in South Africa for the most part are also socio-economic elites. This also affects the extent to which water scarcity is considered a collective problem requiring collective action, similar to the above observation.

Capping the water use of elites?

Thus, ensuring elite buy-in of the need to redistribute water will not be a simple task. The sharing of water may involve the limiting of water use for elites by imposing a maximum daily or monthly limit (‘holding back’ water) and making greater amounts of water available for other water users who have used less water. Another example is the redistribution of groundwater by pumping it into municipal water tanks that are accessible to all. But limiting the water use of some households and not others is likely to cause dissatisfaction and perhaps even resistance.

What complicates matters further is that the amount of water used in informal urban areas is generally far lower than that of the amount used in formal urban areas – while the redistribution of water is likely to reduce the amount of water used by water elites, water use may not increase in areas where there are different water needs and priorities and where the majority of residents still share taps and toilets. This may thus not create the impression that water has been distributed more equitably so that everyone gets ‘more or less the same’.

The overall reduction of water on the other hand may be beneficial in countries like South Africa where the water supply is under severe stress. But convincing water users that it is possible – and desirable – to use less water will be a challenge.

In light of this difficulty, the redistribution narrative – and indeed a narrative of ‘sharing is caring’ – will need to be reconsidered. A reduction in the amount of water used by water elites that frees up water for a municipal ‘reserve’ may be achieved more easily if it is framed in light of the need for a water reserve to prevent the water scarcity and corresponding water use restrictions – the idea of ‘using less water now so that there will be water in the future’. This de facto would free up water that is needed elsewhere in urban areas. Elite water users may have to be convinced that limiting their water use will benefit them in the future, and that this sacrifice is worth making.


[1] Senior Lecturer in Water Politics and Communication at IHE Delft

[2] Professor of Environment and Development in the Global South at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research of the University of Amsterdam and IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in Delft

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Lize Swartz

Lize Swartz is the editor-in-chief of ISS Blog Bliss and a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she researches political dynamics of socio-hydrological systems. She is part of the newly formed Transformative Methodologies Working Group situated in the Civic Innovation Research Group

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

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The noise never stops: life in Palestine during the Israeli occupation – a conversation with Rana Shubair

The noise never stops. The sky is filled with the buzzing of drones, echoing on and on, and with the sound of buildings collapsing as they are bombed. It’s not safe anywhere. There’s nowhere to flee to. And amidst a crumbling country and the chaos that is life in Palestine, people are trying to keep themselves upright. Rana Shubair in this article talks about life under the Israeli occupation and how parents have to stay strong as they watch their children face the hardships the occupation and grow up before their eyes.

A woman holds a Palestinian flag during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border fence in Gaza October 19, 2018 [File: Mohammed Salem/Reuters] Credits: Al Jazeera, available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2019/3/30/how-the-great-march-of-return-resurrected-palestinian-resistance

Since the 1948 Nakba, Palestinians have been resisting colonial aggression from Israel at the cost of risking their lives. Over the past decades, the intensity of violence by Israel appears to have been rapidly increasing. The Israeli aerial bombardment of Palestine, especially of Gaza, has claimed many lives of innocent Palestinians. For example, the 2008-09 air attacks and ground invasion by Israel led to at least 1,100 Palestinian deaths. The 2014 air attack and ground invasion resulted in the killing of 2,100 Palestinian civilians in Gaza. And the aerial, sea and land bombardment that happened weeks ago ended in the killing of 254 persons in Gaza, including 39 women and 66 children.

These numbers are important for revealing the extent of violence and brutality on Palestinians by Israeli occupation, but it should not diminish other aspects of the daily struggle of those Palestinians who live under siege and occupation of Israeli forces. Apart from these killings and air attacks, Palestinians resist, struggle against, and experience everyday aggression, restrictions, and sanctions that affect their economy, wellbeing, health, and every other aspect of their life. The most vulnerable among them are children and women. This piece thus focuses on the life and struggles in Gaza and learns from the lens and perspective of a Palestinian woman, Rana Shubair, whom I interviewed about her lived experiences of the conflict and life in Gaza.

Rana Shubair is a survivor of latest aggression of 2021 in the Gaza Strip. She is an activist, mother of three, and author of two books. Her first book ‘In Gaza I Dare to Dream’ recounts details of her own life under the Israeli Occupation and the Gaza Siege. She presents Gaza as “a land where joy and grief are entwined, yet its people dare to dream, dare to love and struggle to gain their basic human rights”. Her second book, ‘My Lover Is A Freedom Fighter’, is a historical fiction that reflects about romance in Palestine while living under occupation.

While her narrative and personal experiences are heartfelt and reflect the hardship of Palestinians in present, in this interview she also reveals how Palestinians express their agency and determine their resilience and their power of resistance. You can listen to the entire interview (in English) at Global Development Review Podcast or watch it here. A shortened version of the interview follows.

Jaffer: How do you experience of being mother in Gaza at present, and what does it mean to be a mother in Gaza?

Rana: A mother in Gaza is a hero. We are stereotyped in the Western world as having domestic roles, but this is not the case. Mothers, wives, daughters, sisters – they all have a critical role in the Palestinian society and Palestinian resistance. So when I first had my children, I had hoped that by the time they grew up, this occupation would have ended. But I found myself confronted with new realities and much harsher ones. I grew up under occupation, but it wasn’t as brutal as the occupation my kids and their generation are witnessing. Because there was no aerial bombardment at that time.

So as my children grew up, they started asking me questions that sometimes I couldn’t find answers to.

One of my most famous entries I wrote in my book is when my two daughters were arguing with each other. One was saying, “we live in Gaza” and other was saying, “no we don’t live in Gaza, we live in Palestine”. I overheard it and my heart was broken because my own kids who live in their own country don’t know where they are located. They think that Palestine is a foreign land. They learn about Palestinian cities in their schools. But they have never seen those cities and were never allowed to go and visit their own country. So there was this dilemma that if we are living in Gaza, if we are living in Palestine, how come we can’t see it? As a mother I have come across situations where I can’t explain to them why we can’t go there.

This was one issue. Another issue that they were faced with the issue of Palestinian prisoners. One day my son came and wanted to make a poster that teachers often ask children to do for extra credit. When he came back, he brought a poster that was about a girl Wafa who was recently released from Israeli prison. And my son asked me innocently why she went prison. So I had to explain why they were in prison.

When we are walking down on the street, we see pictures of martyrs that are pasted on the walls. And they would ask you who these people were. Then you would have to say them that they are martyrs and explain what a martyr is. So one day my son came home and said, ‘mom I wanna go and see the hole where they put the martyrs in’. I was really shocked, because I don’t know where he got the information from.

For me, you can’t prevent your children from going outside. And this is something that is very painful for us as parents and as mothers. They don’t go through the normal phases of childhood that other children go through. They can tell you what kind of warplane is flying over them or what kind of rocket or missile is being launched. So as a Palestinian parent, you have to be strong, you have to be resilient, and you have no choice. It’s a heavy burden that we shoulder.

Jaffer: When people’s houses are destroyed, where do they go?

Rana:  Those whose houses are targeted – the one that were recently targeted – were not as lucky as those who were prewarned. People living in the tall towers were warned. They could flee from their homes, some of them going to nearby relatives and some of them going to UNRWA schools (United Nations Relief and Work Agency Schools). And I believe that many of them took refuge in UNRWA schools because it is presumably safer, as it was assumed that Israel would not target a UN school. But in 2008 and 2014, Israel did target schools and they killed people who took refuge there. There is no safe place. If I want to leave my home and go to another home, it doesn’t mean that I am going to a safer place. Because what happened to two families that I know is that one of the women went to her parents’ house and she was killed there. So it’s like another displacement in the Gaza Strip and these people really have nowhere to go.

I would like to say that ordinary Palestinian life here is not ordinary. Israeli drones don’t leave our skies. And these drones are the surveillance drones, but they can also shoot and kill. So it’s not safe. So you think that it’s a surveillance drone, but a few years ago children were playing at the nearby park and they were killed and targeted by the drone on the spot. So by day and night, you can’t ignore the noise; you can’t pretend that it’s not there. I can’t really pretend that nothing is going to happen. So life here is very unstable and unpredictable.

Jaffer: As an international community, how can we support Palestine or how can we stand in solidarity with the Palestinians?

Rana: What I see is that the media outlets in the Western world is that they block the Palestinian narrative or twist the facts. So number one, I think we need to promote awareness about the Palestinian cause, no matter how small your role is. For me, connecting through this kind of online webinar or meeting between you and I is one way in which to do so.

In the recent attacks on Gaza, I have seen dozen of protests across the world, such as in America, in Britain, and even in Arab countries. They were people who responded to the protests and they are people who still protest to this day. And this is something that is very crucial. I think we have to keep making noise. Tell your government to keep making noise and keep being vocal about what the Palestinians are going through.


This article comes as a collaboration between Jaffer Latief Najar and Rana Shubair with an aim to spread awareness about the life and struggles in Palestine, especially Gaza. The collaboration was in the form of interview with Rana Shubair.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Jaffer latief Najar is a PhD researcher at International Institute of Social Studies, and Rana Shubair is a Palestinian survivor, activist and author of two books.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.