Environmental Cooperation for Regional Peace and Security in Southern Africa
A geographical and historical overview of southern African is a necessary starting point for discussing water issues in the region. Dr. Swatuk pointed out that the pre-colonial settlement structure of the region was focused along rivers, that regional patters of trade followed the course of these rivers and generally remained within the geographically defined 'basin structure.' This structure was disrupted with the colonial era. State boundaries were overlaid on these natural structures to create political zones of exclusivity based on mineral and physical resource wealth. Infrastructure development and settlement patters were then re-focused to support extraction and exploitation. The colonial state attitude toward the environment was based on the attitude that resources determine borders, so that the more valuable the resource, the stronger the state. This attitude continued with many post-colonial governments. Each historical era has thus moved further away from the early settlement patters around water resources, and each era has posed new challenges to the human populations and state structures within the region.
History has thus created certain realities within the southern African region. Centers of population have been focused on areas of mineral extraction and are often located in areas that have insufficient natural resources to support these populations. This mismatch and shortfall is particularly apparent when one examines settlement patterns in relation to water availability. Population bases, in many cases, are far away from water sources, creating in some instances the need to literally make water run uphill. Historically South Africa has been the dominant state in the region, and that dominance continues today with South Africa accounting for 93% of the regional GDP. There is a high level of inequality within the region and within the individual states in the region. Some states are more urbanized, some states have a more developed civil society, and many states still rely on the production of primary products to fuel their economy. All of these realities must be understood in order to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the various proposals for environmental cooperation and the potential effect of that cooperation on regional peace and security.
Having set the historical, geographical and political stage, Dr. Swatuk then briefly examined two examples of regional cooperation around the essential resource of water. In the cases of both the Okavango and the Zambezi basins, cooperation has emerged in a fairly ad-hoc manner, driven by the response to a crisis rather than by an overarching desire to cooperate. In both cases, the water resource is shared across several countries. Dr. Swatuk outlined some of the institutional bodies that have evolved around these basins, but pointed out that none of them has been particularly strong in developing, agreeing and implementing legal or institutional management structures. He also pointed out that the growing importance of tourism has brought additional non-state actors into the forum including non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In the case of the Okavango, these NGOs are proving the most vociferous campaigners for cooperation and are driving the decision-making structure because of their relative international strength in comparison with the states themselves. Thus, in that situation, there is an essentially 'accidental' conservation based on the ability to generate income and development from the tourist industry.
Dr. Swatuk concluded by stating that the increased activity of the traditionally weaker states in international discussions around the environment, and specifically water was one way in which they were building statehood. He tabled the idea that perhaps this type of internationally-driven resource cooperation could form the basis and framework for wider, more formal efforts to integrate environmental cooperation into the region as part of a larger effort to build peace and security.
This meeting was co-sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Project and the Africa Project.