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EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

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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

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EADI/ISS Series | The Battle is on: Civic Space & Land Rights by Barbara Oosters and Saskia van Veen

Defenders of land rights all over the world struggle with shrinking civic space. The more that space for people to peacefully claim their land rights is restricted, the more intense land disputes become. In 2017, Global witness recorded that globally an unprecedented number of 197 land rights defenders were killed. A recent Oxfam Novib learning lab identified strategies for associations working in the area of land rights to deal with an environment of shifting and shrinking civic space.


My (Barbara)’s fascination and interest for the issue of civic space started in Indonesia. Local organisations struggled with the introduction of a vaguely framed law for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), warning them not to work on issues going against ‘’Indonesian’’ values. A few years later I found myself supporting initiatives in more than 15 countries spread across the globe, struggling with shifting and shrinking civic space. Although this is just a fraction of countries facing a reduced space to assemble, associate and speak up freely, it enabled me to learn from a variety of contexts on how people resist, adapt and reclaim civic space. To me the key to win this battle is exactly this: learn from and connect those who face similar challenges fast and on a wide scale. Our opponents are doing exactly the same. We need to become faster and smarter in connecting and learning.

The civic space you have as an individual or organization depends very much on the issue you want to address. Some battle grounds are fiercer than others. Land rights are such a hot potato, touching on the interests of many. Small farmers or indigenous communities who defend their century-old reliance on forests find themselves in front of large agriculture or extractive investment projects. Concerned that land disputes can fuel social disorder, local and national governments limit the space for civil society to assist affected communities. The more that space for people to peacefully claim their land rights is restricted, the more intense land disputes become.  In 2017, Global witness recorded that globally an unprecedented number of 197 land rights defenders were killed.

How to tackle land rights in a complex environment?

In 2019 we at Oxfam Novib scoped the interest of some of our offices and partners working on land rights to document their strategies, successes and brilliant failures to remain influential in a shrinking civic space context. We also looked for Oxfam country offices facing a similar shrinking space while fighting for land rights and looking for inspirational ideas forward. Our vision: bringing them together in a unique participatory learning way in order for all parties to gain from this exchange. As an end-product we envisage a toolbox with actionable tactics that help to resist, adapt and reclaim civic space while working on land rights.

Oxfam country offices, partners and allies from Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar took part in this learning lab on land rights and civic space. Cambodian and Vietnamese Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have had documented some successful outcomes of their land advocacy before, and are having a close look at the adaptive strategies that made these positive gains possible. Over the past number of years, Myanmar has been marked by shifting and shrinking civic space. How to tackle land rights in such a complex/changing environment? Indonesia was added as fourth country because of its exemplary way of bringing a diverse range of civil society together and bridge differences for a common cause.

Avoid naming and shaming

What were some of the successful approaches identified? Monitoring tools for robust land re-allocation and smart collaboration between local and national organisations and their combined strategies enabled change in one country. In another it was more a change of tactics (from confrontational to a more collaborative one) that enabled the participation of hundreds of communities and local CSOs in first ever consultation workshops on a land related law. Naming and shaming tactics were avoided as well as fights in the media. Direct feedback via closed-door meetings proofed more effective.

The need for alliances came out strongly in many aspects. Local organizations fighting for land rights are a fragmented group, with conflicting demands and needs as they all want to defend their rights. Uniting them in solidarity strengthens their common voice for change. It also builds their credibility and highlights their overall size as a force that needs to be acknowledged.  Staying close to one’s constitution is also a key requisite for both success and resilience. Strong solidarity networks to mitigate risks to single organizations proved a successful and necessary tactic throughout.

The Myanmar team, together with partners, is at this moment experimenting with some interesting ways forward, as identified and listed above.  The other participating country representatives are in the process of reflecting on their learnings. On the basis of this experience, we would like to encourage everyone who is struggling with land rights in a shrinking civic space context to join us on this exciting learning road to remain influential on land rights despite all odds. Many have proved that it is possible.


This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the authors:

Barbara Oosters is Policy Advisor civil society space and strengthening at Oxfam Novib – she is supporting the learning lab on land rights and civic space from her expertise on civic space.

Saskia Veen is an Impact Measurement and Knowledge specialist at Oxfam Novib – she is supporting the learning lab in terms of methodology of documentation and learning strategy.


Image Credit: Rainforest Action Network on Flickr