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Fluid Governance: Scalar Politics in the South African Waterscape

Ramasar, Vasna. 2014. Fluid Governance: Scalar Politics in the South African Waterscape. . Lund University


This thesis offers a critical analysis of the scaling of water governance in South Africa and its implications for water access and allocation. As the complexity and severity of environmental problems increases, there is a growing tendency to look to environmental governance to offer solutions. I contend that water governance, as with all forms of environmental governance, is never an apolitical endeavour yet the antagonistic and collective decision-making aspect of environmental politics is often subsumed in a drive to foster sustainability. One of the ways that this de-politicisation occurs is through the uncritical application of scalar concepts.

Scalar configurations are an outcome of the perpetual flux of socio-spatial and environmental dynamics and scales are therefore transformed through social conflict and political-economic struggle. Politics of scaling are part of social relations. Four mechanisms of scaling can be identified as follows: scale framing; scale jumping; scale bending; and scale fixing. My research focuses on how the processes of scaling embedded in water governance affect prioritization in water access and allocations and ultimately, justice and fairness. Through my research, I examine how the production of scale and politics of scaling can be used to manipulate water access and allocation to the benefit and cost of different actor groups. The intertwined nature of society with water means that ecological, economic and political forces are constantly shaping the hydrosocial landscape. Three formal decisions by the government are examined to uncover how the politics of scaling has affected the access and allocation of water as well as the inclusion and exclusion of actors in governance. These decisions are the approval of the construction of the De Hoop Dam, water service delivery mechanisms employed in the city of Johannesburg and the decision to explore hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo. In analysing these decisions, I show how cross-scalar dynamics; production of scale; and four processes of scaling are used in governance processes as means of empowerment and disempowerment. The findings from the case studies show that historical patterns of privilege and disadvantage are perpetuated through processes of scaling.

Three main findings arise out of the research. Firstly, scaling processes are actively used by actors in water governance to empower some and disempower others – thus scaling processes are political processes. Secondly, politics of scaling influences and is influenced by social relations and material practices in South Africa. Thirdly, the theoretical development of scale can benefit from an interdisciplinary approach drawing from the different disciplines such as political science and human geography, working on scaling and governance.

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