Access to water remains a source of frustration and potential conflict in many regions across the globe. Wilson Center Fellow Meredith McKittrick is researching current conflicts over shared water resources in the six major river systems in Southern Africa from a historical perspective.

For McKittrick, water flowed as a natural progression from her research on Africa and religion. She had been researching the history of religious change in Namibia, focusing on why most Namibians converted to Christianity.

Her first book, published in 2002, To Dwell Secure: Generation, Christianity and Colonialism in Ovamboland, Namibia, incorporated the re-emerging theme of water's centrality to the life, history, and religion of the country.

"Historians, including me, had for so long mostly ignored the importance of water in a region with so little of it," said McKittrick, an associate professor at Georgetown University.

In pre-colonial times, Namibians prayed and made sacrifices to bring rain, believing in rainmakers. When the European colonizers arrived, they brought science-based ideas on water management, seeking to replace the Namibian people's mystical beliefs about water. Subsequently, when Namibia, like other colonized African countries, gained its independence, water issues continued to hold symbolic weight. Water has become intricately tied to their notion of national identity and sovereignty in these fledgling democracies.

Within Africa, some countries are reluctant to rely on electricity from another country's dam or accept help from outside sources. Instead, they build dams as monuments to their sovereignty. McKittrick said, "These countries want to prove national self-sufficiency to defy their historic legacy of colonialism."

McKittrick's research shows the nexus between history and policy. The history of the region and its people, resources, and culture affects current debates among national governments and local communities over control of, and access to, water sources.

"People base their livelihoods on the rivers," McKittrick said. "Water conflicts occur at the local level as people have different ideas on usage and their relationship to the river is different than that of the government or an outside [donor] agency."

During colonial rule, the government often resettled residents to make way for major water projects and offered little or no support. Meanwhile, the relocated populace often lacked adequate resources to prosper in their new location. One example was the 1950s Kariba Dam project on the Zambezi River, which required large-scale resettlement in both Zimbabwe and Zambia. Many of the displaced had economic and spiritual attachments to the nearby rivers.

Currently, Southern African governments are seeking less populous dam sites and efficient alternatives to avoid displacing populations to prevent social upheaval. Yet displacement still occurs as in the case of the Lesotho Highlands Water Projects and residents' complaints are strikingly similar to the complaints of those who lost their land to Lake Kariba decades ago.

"While conflicts over water have remained at the local level, they sometimes grow violent and the risk exists for them to spill over into the international arena," McKittrick said.

To prevent conflicts over water escalating to that point, river commissions comprising representatives from each country meet to discuss challenges and propose areas for cooperation.