Sharing the Incomati Waters: Cooperation and Competition in the Balance


This case study deals with the Incomati river basin, which is relatively small but has some interesting features, both in terms of socio-political developments and water use. The basin is situated in a part of Africa that over the last forty years has experienced a dynamic, sometimes turbulent and volatile, political history. Water use is intense, with at least 50 percent of the water generated in the basin being withdrawn, in a context of recurring droughts sometimes alternated by dramatic floods. These factors might have led to confrontations over water between the three countries sharing the basin, namely Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland, yet these did not materialise. The central question raised is: why did cooperation prevail?

To answer it, the case study presents information about the natural characteristics of the basin, its political history, water developments, the legal framework, and the negotiations that took place during the period 1964–2002.

It is concluded that cooperation prevailed, first, because there is an apparent pressure on neighbouring countries to behave as good neighbours, even when political ideologies diverge. This is possibly linked to the fact that such countries comprise people who share a common space and a common history. Furthermore, there are outside pressures on nation-states to act responsibly, and to honour regional and international conventions. A second cause relates to the particular political developments in both Mozambique and South Africa. Just when the need for an agreement was highest, the cold relations between the two countries started to thaw, allowing an important agreement to be reached in 1991. Third, there was a third riparian country whose role as broker was accepted by the other two due to its particular political and hydrological position vis-à-vis them.

Finally, potential conflicts were evaded by allowing more water to be abstracted and more dams to be built. The negotiations so far can therefore be considered non-zero sum games. However, as the Incomati basin fast approaches closure this situation is bound to change. Water sharing will increasingly be a delicate balancing act between cooperation and competition. The hypothesis that water drives peoples and countries towards cooperation is supported by the developments in the Incomati basin. Increased water use has indeed led to rising cooperation. When the next drought comes and Mozambique, South Africa, and Swaziland enforce the new agreement of 2002 and voluntarily decrease those water uses deemed less essential, then the hypothesis will have to be accepted.

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