Does the State Need to Securitize Water Issue? A Case study of Water Shortage and Human Security in South Africa

Drought in Southern Africa 2015 -
South Africa Drought 2015. Courtesy:

[I wrote this research paper for Security and Conflict Resolution Studies Course  instructed by Professor Wilhelm M. Vosse in Peace Studies program of International Christian University on Autumn Term, 2014]


In this research paper, I will argue that environment issue, in this case, water scarcity issue, is not necessarily need to be securitized by government of particular state. I will contend that securitization over environment issue, particularly water issue may not be appropriate with environment characteristic itself. Meanwhile, securitization has been attached with traditional national security for a long time. The part of solutions that come to surface might be the policy products of government on public service management related to water by cooperation and partnership with regional and international community. I will examine South Africa water shortage and its connection to human security as the case study.

 Research question: Does the state need to securitize water shortage issue? A case study of South African water shortage problem

1.    Theoretical Background

1.1 Security

Security studies mainly focuses on how society dealing with threats that have some potentials to endanger their lives. Some threats can be traced back from the beginning of its occurrence as a risk, before this risk actualized itself into a kind of problem for the society. A set of problems can escalate and create certain crisis among the society. At this level, the society may perceive this situation as a threat for their society or individual lives in which more serious attention and concern are needed to mitigate it. In line to this understanding, Fierke argues that, “security is typically about survival and about an existential threat to a particular object. The problem of security arises from an emergency condition, which establishes the right to use whatever means are necessary to block a threatening development” (Fierke, 2007). Security studies, thus, is a set of studies that is dealing with the measures to prevent any possibility of threats and efforts to eliminate the danger of threat since the very beginning of its development. 

On the other hand, the Copenhagen School asserts that security is as a Speech act. Security as a Speech act means that it is the product of claims that made by certain party, usually the government or authority that determine particular risk as a threat for the society and by mentioning something as security, it is already a kind of act. As contended by Waever, “by saying it [security] something is done (as in betting, giving a promise). By uttering ‘security’, a state-representative moves a particular development into a specific area, and thereby claims a special right to use whatever means are necessary to block it” (Waever, 1995). This viewpoint portrays the ‘power’ of security in which when the authority claims something as a security issue than the authority can employ any measure necessary to block it. 

The object where the security refers to or the referent object is also important topic in security studies. According to Peoples and Vaughan-Williams, referent object means the entity that is taken as the focus for analysis in security studies (e.g. the state, the human, the ecosystem); or put differently, ‘that which is to be secured’ (Peoples & Vaughan-Williams, 2014). In short, it can be understood as ‘what thing needs to be securitize.’ There are many debates over what is actually considered as the referent abject of security, or on debate over whether particular thing should be securitize or not. 

The so-called, traditional security studies perceived state as the main referent object of security. And security measurement responding threat to the state is by using military actions. However, nowadays there are also debates on the broadening of referent object of security, such as human (human security), economy (economic security), resource (resource security) and so forth. The broadening meaning of the referent abject of security closely links to the idea of securitization (the process where particular issue somehow is categorized as security issue).

1.2 Securitization

According to Peoples and Vaughan-Williams, securitization means “shifting an issue out of realm of ‘normal’ political debate into the realm of emergencey politics by presenting it as an existential threat” (Peoples &Vaughan-Williams, 2014). Securitization requires degree of certain issue that is originally considered as the non-political issue, before it is politicized. When certain issue is already politicized, then the next step would be to securitize this. As Peoples and Vaughan-Williams shows this process in a simple chart below:

Non-politicised –> politicised –> securitised

(Peoples & Vaughan-Williams, 2014)

However, Fierke suggests that, any issue is can be applied of securitization if it is capable to be intensified at the degree whereby it is presented and accepted as an ‘existential threat’ (Fierke, 2007). When particular issue or problem has its potentiality as an existential threat, then it would be easier to be securitized. The question over ‘who does securitize?’ also needs to be considered. In most cases, the state ‘normally’ does securitization.

From the idea of securitization, the broadening referent object of security emerged. More issues, thus, can be securitized. As Biswas maintains that, this is as proposed by the Copenhagen School whereby broadening of security beyond traditional military issues by incorporating also economic, societal, environment, resources and energy security (Biswas, 2011). Moreover, in the globalized world context, the threats and security issues are more interconnected and interdependence.

Peoples and Vaughan-Williams, furthermore, propose the prospect for ‘de-securitization’ is some securitization theory variants. ‘De-securitization’ is perceived as process of moving an issue out of the realm of security and considered it back into the realm of non-political deliberation (Peoples &Vaughan-Williams, 2014). This ‘de-securitization’ process possibility will be analyzed further in this paper, in case this move is needed to reconsider water as the non-security issue.

1.3 Debate on Environmental Security

As the broadening of security beyond traditional military issues, hence, environment issue also is considered as security issue. However, debate over whether environment should be securitized or not appeared on the environmental security studies. The increasing concerns toward environment security can be traced back to the late 1980s.

As Sheehan contends that a scholar, such as Levy, could argue that there was a steady increase in political attention progress on environment degradation and environment security started in the late 1980s. Levy maintains that, “a groundswell of support for the core proposition that environmental degradation constitutes a security risk has encountered hardly any voices of dissent” (Levy, 1995 as cited by Sheehan, 2004).

According to Kichner, there were, at least, two major opinion of groups that concerned on relationship between environment and security in the 1980s. First is theenvironmental policycommunity that addressed security implications of environmental changes and security. And second, the security community that looked at new definitions of national security, particularly in the post-Cold War era. They examined the global impacts of environmental change, depletion of ozone layer and trans-boundary pollution have clear security implication (Kichner, 1999).

Sheehan points out that, the growing concerns upon environment security was intensified in the 1990s, in particular when the United Nations Security Council declared that threats to international peace and security could come from “non-military sources of instability in the economic, social, humanitarian and ecological fields” in 1992 (Sheehan, 2004). Since, the United Nations Security Council declared ecological fields as one possible threat to international and security, environment security was getting more attentions and concerns widely.

The environment security, as underlined by Buzan, deals with relationship between human activity and planetary biosphere. Meaning that, the dynamic of securitization of environment is related to the existential threat to biosphere, species or natural environment (Buzan et al., 1998 as cited by Peoples & Vaughan-Williams, 2014). Different viewpoint on environmental security also appears that sees environment security through human security perspective. It means that environment needs to be securitized since human live is highly dependent to nature. If the nature is threatened by some threats, it would also affect and threaten human being since human is the part of nature and live from nature. More specifically, environment security are applied in some crises related to environment, such as, water scarcity, air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, climate change, extreme weather, deforestation, species extinction, and so forth.

The environment crises may hamper human lives and potentially creates instability and insecurity in society and a wider regional and global world. Furthermore, contestation over natural resources, such as water, may lead into conflict. As Le Billon illustrates that the concept of environmental security can identify the ways in which the natural environment and its resources can contribute to the generation and prolongation of violent conflict (Le Billon as cited by Dannreuter, 2007).

Meanwhile, some scholars challenged the idea of environment security. As Homer-Dixon argues that, there is, in fact, virtually no evidence that environmental scarcity is a principle cause of major war among states. Homer-Dixon suggests that environmental factors are most likely the indirect cause of ethnic clashes and civil strife within states (Homer-Dixon, 1999 as cited by Peoples & Vaughan-Williams, 2014). Likewise Homer-Dixon, Kaplan maintains that global population growth would exacerbate the effects of disease, conflict and civil instability arising from environmental disruption. However, still, there are other factors interconnected that lead into demographic displacement rather than environment changes as such (Kaplan, 1999 as cited by Peoples & Vaughan-Williams, 2014). These scholars assert that environmental factors are as indirect cause of social clash, civil strife or demographic displacement that could lead into insecurity.

Deudney proposes some critiques on environmental security concept. Deudney’s critiques mainly emphasize the arguments as follow;

[a] Environment issues may affect human well-being but this is an insufficient basis for the definition of a threat to national security as such;

[b] There is nothing particularly national about the ecological problems because most ‘affect the global commons beyond state jurisdiction’;

[c] Inter-state violence reflects intentional behavior whereas environmental degradation is largely result of unintentional activity since ‘people rarely act with the […] goal of harming the environment’;

[d] While military threats necessitate the response of ‘secretive extremely hierarchical, and centralized’ organizations, environment concerns need to be met with altogether different approaches and institutions based upon global citizenly ‘husbandmanship’ (Deudney, 1999 as cited by Peoples & Vaughan-Williams, 2014).

Deudney, furthermore, argues that applying the concept of national security to the environment is a potentially dangerous development since it could lead to inappropriate militarization of environmental issues, which are more properly dealt with by political and economic, rather than security, institutions (Deudney, 1999 as cited by Dannreuter, 2007). Likewise Sheehan argues that, “[…] because a requirement for ecological protection is the alteration of everyday behavior over the long term, it may be better to keep the environment as an un-securitized “low politics” issue” (Sheehan, 2004). Securitization over environment issue may lead into different problem and disruption rather solves the environment crisis itself. One of the examples is the applying of military measures on environment crisis that may lead into bigger interstate conflict and alienate the crisis resolution by mutual cooperation and partnership.

1.4 Water Security

As an integral part of environment security, water security also has become prominent concept, especially among the policy makers, at local, national and international level. The United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) defines water security as “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability” (UNU-INWEH, 2013). Meanwhile similar to this definition, Grey and Sadoff contend that, water security is “the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks” (Grey and Sadoff, 2007 as cited by Development Bank of Southern Africa, 2009). The idea of water security that emphasizes the capacity of population to safeguard acceptable quantity and quality of water is similar to the idea of resilience. Resilience itself is the capacity of community to cope with the changes that hamper their lives.

Grey and Sadoff assert that the definition of water security does not focus on security with so-called, the “big-S” of national security that relates to threats of violence or war, even though in some cases, for instance, water supplies contamination or water resource dispute may become risks to national security. Rather this water security definition aims to address organizational requirements at local government level to achieve “small-s” security through supply of water services for household level (Grey and Sadoff, 2007 as cited by Development Bank of Southern Africa, 2009). This viewpoint underlines that the definition of water security is likely different with security in general (big-S of national security). Water security that government and community attempt to achieve is more likely through policy and management that reach out until the household level.

The UNU-INWEH suggests that, many factors contribute to water security in which not only relates to biophysical, but also connects to infrastructure, social, policy, financial, and political realm. Most of the factors mentioned are out of the realm of water itself (UNU-INWEH, 2013). Therefore, to achieve water security requires collaboration of interdisciplinary sectors, communities and political or even state borders. This interdisciplinary approach opens more opportunities for cooperation and partnership, thus, competition and potentiality of conflict may be reduced.

2. Water Shortage Problem in South Africa

In general, water is a highly important factor for human lives and activities. In the state level, water has prominent role that could influence the economic growth and, moreover, the gross domestic product (GDP). As the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) stated that, water is at the heart of development objectives across most sectors, including health, energy, agriculture, environment and social protection (AMCOW, 2012).

Water issues are closely related to the climate and weather conditions. Food and Agriculture Organization suggests that the changes on frequency and intensity of rainfall affect the increased incidence of droughts and floods. The intensity of extreme weather events, increasing irregularities in seasonal rainfall patterns, rising sea level and water-related natural disasters have immediate impact on food production and food distribution infrastructure (FAO, 2008 as cited by WWF, 2014).

People and Vaughan-Williams state that globally fresh water supplies are under stress. In 1997 there were 430 million people living in areas with water scarcity; the FAO and UN-Water predict that on current trends 1.8 billion people will be living in part of the world with absolute water scarcity by 2025. On the other hand, there are already 250 million cases of waterborne disease reported each year leading to 10 million death annually (Peoples and Vaughan-Williams, 2014).

Water is a serious issue in South Africa nowadays. South Africa is facing water scarcity risk. As Webb notes that, the low rainfall and limited underground aquifers forced South African government to import water from neighboring countries. The water supply is declining with current trends of inefficient use, leakage and wetland destruction (Webb, 2013). Water Stress Indicator released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2004 depicted the water condition in South Africa land as “heavily exploited” and “over-exploited”. This figure can be seen at the diagram below:

Diagram 1 Water Stress Indicator

Water availability per capita in most of South African lands are considered as “stress” by the UNEP in 1999. In the 1990s, water availability per capita of South Africa was ranging from 1500-1700 m3/person/year. Meanwhile, water stress category of water availability per capita is from 1000 to 1700 m3/person/year. The UNEP predicts that the water availability in South Africa will deteriorate by 2025 with only less than 1000 m3/person/year. Hence, the UNEP considers South Africa as a country with water scarcity in 2025. The diagram of UNEP water availability can be referred below:

Diagram 2 Water Availability per Capita

The African Ministers’ Council on Water also considered South Africa on water risk measurement ranging from moderate to high risk of water. As can be seen in the Water Risk Atlas released by The African Ministers’ Council on Water in 2012 below:

Diagram 3 Water Risk Atlas

(The African Ministers’ Council on Water, 2012)

In term of water withdrawal percentage, South Africa will be facing water crisis by 2025 with more than 40% of the water available withdrew.

Diagram 4 Water Withdrawal Percentage

Webb demonstrates that South African’s water demand for agriculture, industry and growing urban centers are expected to rise by 52% over the next 30. If the water problems are addressed properly, Water Resources Group (WRG) estimates there will be a water supply-demand gap of 17% by 2030 (Webb, 2013).

International Water Management Institute warns South Africa as in the edge of physical water scarcity (International Water Management Institute, 2007). And in term of natural water resources availability distribution, Basson et al. point out that the availability of natural water resources in South Africa is very unevenly distributed, with more than 60% of the surface flows arising from only 20% of the land area (Basson et al. 1997 as cited by Suzanne Carter and Manisha Gulati, 2014). Water scarcity and uneven distribution are the major concerns of water crisis in South Africa.

Webb asserts that, water management is not well-maintained by South African government. According to Webb, for instance in Emfuleni local municipality that located 70km in southern Johannesburg, loses 44% of its water annually or equivalent of more than 14,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools per year (Webb, 2013). Meanwhile, water supply in the Orange-Senqu and Vaal River System which supplies water to 60% of South Africa’s economy and a large part of the population in Gauteng Province is already overwhelmed and the demand exceeds the sustainable supply capacity (Webb, 2013).

3. Water and Human Security

Water scarcity directly affects human lives and activities since water is a vital need more for human. Any water crisis or disruption, such as, water scarcity, water pollution and water-related disaster would directly hamper human security. For instance, the intensity of flood in between dry season in African countries induces the spreading diseases such as cholera. The spreading of cholera closely related to poor water management, especially in slum pockets. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that, cholera had almost disappeared globally by the mid-1950s, but it reappeared and spread throughout the world during the last few decades (WHO as cited by UNEP, 2008).

Climate change and declining socio-economic conditions in the poorest part of the population, will contribute to an increasing spread of the disease due to poor water management. As can be seen in diagram below, cholera was spreading from time to time from the 1950s. In the 1950s-1960s, cholera epidemic was almost disappeared globally in the world (only found in South Asia and China). Following in the 1960s-1970s, cholera epidemic spread in most South Asian and South East Asian Countries. Then in the 1970s-1990s, cholera epidemic has spread globally in almost all over the world. Even more, in the 1990s to 2004, cholera epidemic still can be found in all over the world.

Diagram 5 Water and the Spread of Cholera 1950-2004

The figues above shows that the number of cholera cases found in South Africa were increasing from 10,000 to 100,000 in 1970-1990 and more than 100,000 cases in 1990-2004. The poor water management, hence, directly affect human security particularly in the case the spreading of epidemic disease such as cholera.

4. Some Foreseeable Solutions: Improvement of water resources modelling of the Orange-Senqu Basin-South Africa

In regards with water supply shortage particularly in Orange-Senqu Basin, South African government is employing a trans-boundary water management program. This program is also supported by the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit under the Orange–Senqu River Basin Commission (ORASECOM). This program uses regional strategy action plan on integrated water resources development and management in collaboration with the African Development Community’s (SADC) (AMCOW, 2012). Cooperation and partnership with other African countries, international organizations and private sectors is selected by South African government to tackle water supply shortage in relatively large area.

The South Africa Strategic Water Partners Network (SWPN), a partnership between the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) and Water Resources Groups (WRG), works with private sectors such as SABMiller, The Coca-Cola Company, Nestle, PepsiCo, and Sasol to address three priorities: improving the efficiency of water use and reducing leakage; reducing water use in the agricultural supply chain; and creating partnerships (Webb, 2013). This partnership is a cross-sectors public-private global network approach supported by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the International Finance Corporation that also in general focus on water conservation, demand management and developing more sustainable management of groundwater resources (WEF, 2014). This partnership is expected to able to mobilize stakeholders from the public and private sector, civil, society, center of academic expertise and financing institution to help the governments to catalyze sustainable water sector transformation integrated with the governments’ economic growth plans (WEF, 2014).

4.1 Water Resources Management

Water resources management (WRM) approach is likely more effective responding water scarcity in South Africa. WRM is far for the realm of security. As noted by Development Bank of Southern Africa, WRM broadly involves among other activities, developing infrastructure to store and transport water to users; allocating the resource to different users; implementing incentives for its efficient use; and protecting it. It also involves the financing and ongoing operational management of all the activities (Development Bank of Southern Africa, 2009).

The WRM approach that applied by South African government is using cross-sectors integration concept. This approach comprises enabling environment, institutional roles, and management instrument. The water allocation encompasses different sectors, such as water for people, water for food, water for nature and water for industry and other uses.

Diagram 6 Cross-sectors integration of water resources management

(UNEP, 2009)


Environmental security as such remains as a contested issue by some scholars in security studies, environment studies and international relations studies. The main objection that proposed by some scholars who oppose environmental security idea is the security paradigm may not be applicable to environment. Security has been attached into national security and militaristic characteristics for decades. Hence, applying the same measure of “Security” (big-S, as in national security) may lead into ‘redundant’ securitization of militaristic measures that has risk for greater crisis and conflicts. Therefore, some scholars suggest “small-s” for water security in a way that water security is addressed by center and local government through proper policy and management on water. This effort is also underpinned by cooperation and partnership with cross-sectors public-private network both in regional and international level that may improve positive relationship in the region. In this sense, securitization of water scarcity issues might not be needed. []


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