Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 18, Issue 6, pp 1693–1706 | Cite as

Scale and consequences: does the distribution of formal powers and functions affect water management outcomes in federal contexts in Southern Africa?

  • Mike Muller
Original Article


The management of water resources requires the effective performance of a diverse variety of multi-scalar functions if it is to achieve its public objectives. It is influenced by the overarching governance arrangements within which these functions are undertaken. This paper considers the extent to which federal governance arrangements affect water management outcomes. Since the distribution of functions and enabling powers within, between and across levels of government varies widely amongst jurisdictions, it is difficult to compare different approaches. This paper uses cases from Southern Africa where specific functions are performed in terms of powers allocated under broadly federal arrangements to consider whether and how federal arrangements have hindered or helped countries and communities to manage their water to achieve public goals. It finds that federal arrangements have sometimes contributed to positive outcomes, primarily by introducing a degree of ‘polycentricity’ and network governance, which ensure that decision-making is informed by a wider range of perspectives. However, the outcomes depend on the content of the federal regulatory framework and the quality of its application rather than the overall structure of the federal regime. Governance structures alone cannot substitute for effective management.


Water management Governance Drought Climate change Southern Africa Sustainable development Regional integration Federalism 


Arrangements for effective water governance and management are often complex, context dependent and not amenable to prescribed generic norms (OECD 2015). They must be sufficiently flexible to enable water managers to achieve their goals in changing social, economic and environmental contexts (Huitema et al. 2009; Pahl-Wostl 2009; Woodhouse and Muller 2017). To what extent do the wider structures of government affect the performance of water management systems?

One immediate challenge is that water resource management involves a diversity of functions, undertaken at a wide range of scales. Functions may be allocated to geographies that are administratively defined by constitutional arrangements, or undertaken in environmentally determined geographies such as river basins or ‘water-sheds’. Frequently, particularly for operational functions, ‘problem-shed’ (Mollinga et al. 2007) scales are adopted on a pragmatic basis.

The different criteria applied to determining the scale at which water management is undertaken raises the question which this paper addresses: Can federal arrangements, which formalise the distribution of powers and functions between scales, help or hinder societies to address their water management challenges? (Garrick et al. 2014). The paper uses specific cases from Southern Africa to explore the way in which some different water management functions are supported or constrained by federal structures.

Water management functions and the political economy of ‘networked’ governance

The overarching public goals of water management and the functions that have to be performed to achieve them vary greatly according to context. In a water-rich environment, the primary goals often relate to drainage and flood protection. In water-scarce jurisdictions, the priority may be to achieve and sustain an equitable and optimal allocation of available water between users. Where the resource is very variable, the focus is often to ensure reliable water availability as well as to protect societies from extreme events through careful planning and infrastructure development. In areas with a high density of population and economic activity, the primary goal may simply be to maintain the quality of local water resources within tolerable limits through regulatory action, while in wealthy areas, environmental restoration and protection is often the most important goal.

This wide variety of context-dependent management functions is the primary reason for the diversity and complexity of water governance arrangements. The diversity of functions introduces a further complication since many functions depend on the activities of other institutions, which may be considered together as constituting a governance network (Rhodes 2007). Such networked arrangements make it difficult to hold individual institutions accountable for sector-wide performance (Skelcher 2005; Papadopoulos 2007). Adding to the complexity, the goals of water management change over time as societies evolve and their preferences change.

A municipal supplier of potable water may need other agencies to assure the availability and quality of the water resource in the shared systems from which it draws its supplies. Attempts to hold a municipality accountable for its performance (see, for instance, Muller et al. 2008) may be difficult if the planning, development and management of larger resource systems is the responsibility of a separate public utility operating at a different scale. The utility may in turn depend on effective performance by national government of its mandate for overall environmental management as well as coordination with neighbouring countries over the use of shared water resources.

The detailed definition of operational arrangements may be contained in a Constitution or subordinate legislation. It may be the outcome of systematic analysis or a gradual, evolutionary process. But often, neither analysis nor evolution can fully anticipate the extent of future changes in climate, population, economic activity or social preferences. And, whatever the management structure, water management is invariably a political process, as has been demonstrated in Southern Africa (Swatuk 2008).

The case studies presented in this paper seek to illustrate how the overarching political and institutional framework (and specifically its federal characteristics) as well as the underlying political economy impact on what may appear to be specialised and technical water management decisions.

Perspectives on federalism and water management in Southern Africa

Globally, many public functions are performed at decentralised levels by formally established sub-sovereign governments such as provinces, states and municipalities. In such federal systems, the division of functions, and the powers required to exercise them, between national and sub-sovereign units is defined, often in a national Constitution. A broader federalism may see powers and functions distributed between geographical scales according to more immediate, pragmatic and flexible criteria (Hueglin 2003).

In addition, sovereign states may enter into ‘confederational’ arrangements in which they voluntarily agree to undertake certain functions jointly, ceding their powers to other entities. While they accept super-sovereign governance of those specific functions, they retain their right to withdraw from the arrangement; this is ‘treaty federalism’ rather than ‘constitutional federalism’ (Hueglin 2013). The European Union is sometimes cited as an example of such a broadly federalist system (Moravcsik 2002; Fossum and Jachtenfuchs 2017).

These approaches are relevant to water management in Southern Africa. South Africa is a de facto federal state although not formally described as such due to a historical political commitments to a unitary state. However, specific functions and the powers necessary to execute them are constitutionally allocated to different autonomous ‘spheres’ (as opposed to hierarchical levels) of local, provincial and national government. These include powers and functions related to water management; in particular, the function of potable water supply is allocated to the municipal sphere (Republic of South Africa 1996; Muller 2014).

The Southern Africa region can be considered as an emerging confederation. The sovereign member states have delegated certain powers and functions, including the resolution of disputes, to the supra-national Southern African Development Community (SADC 1992). Amongst these is oversight of water resource management in the region’s various 15 ‘shared’ rivers in terms of the Shared Watercourses Protocol (SADC 1995, 2000). The Protocol sets out overarching principles and processes that member countries shall follow in their management of shared rivers.

SADC’s official water sector website currently states that ‘These river basins are managed by 12 river basin organisations or basin management authorities’ (SADC 2017). However, a radical revision in 2000 of the original 1995 Protocol, now simply encourages member states to ‘establish appropriate institutions’ whose functions would ‘be determined by the nature of their objectives’ (SADC 2000). It retains other prescriptions, including an obligation for states to share information and definition of the processes to be followed in the development of new infrastructure.

Most water resource management functions in the region continue to be undertaken by national governments with significant delegation to sub-national bodies. The supra-national authority plays mainly an advisory and facilitating role. Countries still coordinate their activities with their neighbours through river basin commissions or inter-governmental committees. Specific investment projects are usually initiated and managed by the countries concerned, which rarely involve all countries in a basin. While there are some formally constituted ‘River Basin Organisations’, these are funded mainly by external ‘development partners’ and are only tenuously linked to actual management functions, resource allocation and decision-making (Muller et al. 2015).


Cases were chosen to include different water management functions performed within two overarching federal frameworks. The relevant functional objectives and context of each case is presented and the challenges encountered are described. Key actors are identified and an analysis made of the nature and impact of their interactions. The outcomes, and the extent to which federal arrangements contributed to them, are then reviewed.

To understand the challenges of coordinating and performing the functions selected, a simple political economy approach is applied. Political economy analyses of institutional performance are supported by work in the related field of economic geography (MacKinnon et al. 2009) and in analysis of the practice of federalism in particular (Hueglin 1990). It is assumed that the generic purpose of federal approaches is to share power and resources between different groups across different regions in a manner that reduces conflict and supports the execution of public functions (Anderson 2008).

Such analysis of interactions between actors is consistent with Ostrom’s approach to polycentricity in the management of a common pool resource (Ostrom 2010) as well with the concept of ‘network governance’ (Rhodes 2007). It also reflects research in the water sector which shows that successful network governance depends as much on the quality of interactions between stakeholders as on the performance of managers of institutions in the network (van Meerkerk et al. 2015). Related approaches have been applied to understand the water sectors of developing countries (DFID 2009) and regional organisations such as SADC (Vanheukelom et al. 2016) and a practical framework for such analyses developed by Mcloughlin (2014).

The analytical framework applied identifies the interests and powers of the actors, distinguishing between strong and weak power and strong and weak interests. Power over major decisions is considered to be strong where the actor’s decision-making is relatively unconstrained—a Minister of a national government or a funding agency, for instance. Actors with weak power include civil society organisations that can influence but not take decisions and regional governments that have no direct function but can influence decisions through consultation processes.

Strong interests are those that directly and immediately benefit an actor—a Minister, who may be dismissed if a crisis is not resolved or a CEO whose position depends on performance. Similarly, private companies that may profit from a regulatory decision and officials who may obtain financial inducements to make that decision have strong interests.

Weak interests do not involve substantial direct benefits—citizens and private sector actors have only weak interests as long as their services continue to function; the performance of political parties is judged on a wide range of issues over lengthy time periods, not on single decisions. External funding organisations are potentially powerful actors by virtue of their financial support and its associated conditionalities but may have limited direct interests (Muller 2013; Dube 2015).

Two different federal governance regimes are considered. Cases under formal constitutional federalism (characterised as ‘intra-state’) are drawn from South Africa while confederal examples (‘inter-state’) are drawn from SADC countries. Information on the intra-state cases is drawn from an extensive universe of publicly available information (see, for instance, DWS 2017). Information on the inter-state cases is drawn from work on SADC (Muller et al. 2015), research on water and regional development for the African Development Bank (Muller and Wright 2016) and on the political economy of regional organisations (ECDPM 2017).

Analysis: the cases

The first case (of intra-state water resource planning under a federal regime) is presented to contextualise the other intra-state cases and illustrate the application of the methodology. The remaining cases are selected to enable a comparison of the performance of two water management functions (infrastructure development and system operations during drought conditions) under each governance regime. The cases provide different perspectives on similar governance regimes and include both positive and negative outcomes.

The ‘intra-state’ cases are drawn from South Africa. The confederal ‘inter-state’ cases involve Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The location of the cases is shown in Fig. 1 and the conclusions drawn from them are summarised in Table 1.
Fig. 1

Southern Africa: Overlapping countries, river-basins and ‘problem-sheds’ (Insert: Integrated Vaal River system)

Table 1

Case studies – Water management issues, outcomes and impacts of federal arrangements



Water Governance



Impacts of federal arrangements

5.1 Resource planning: Intra-state – South Africa’s for Vaal System & major cities

South Africa

National government responsible for resource development; cities for distribution (and funding through user charges)

Planning of timely and cost-effective bulk supply investments

Objectives generally achieved. Interests and incentives balanced across federal spheres

Positive interaction between national and local actors maintains a focus on the evolution of demand, concomitant need for augmentation and the identification of cost effective interventions. Constitutionally determined roles legitimate and encourage the interactions between different ‘spheres’.

5.2 Infrastructure development

 5.2.1 Intra-state - bulk supply for large cities

South Africa

National and local government and agencies

Implementation of supply investments

Objectives achieved

Balance of power and interests between national and local governments, intermediated by technical agencies, supports positive outcomes

 5.2.2 Inter-state –Integrated Vaal River System

Lesotho/South Africa

National governments; SADC Protocol; Joint commission to oversee implementation

Implementation of timely and cost-effective bulk supply investments

Objectives achieved.

The interaction between the two sovereign (if highly unequal) states has been driven by mutual self-interest – cheaper water for SA and revenue for Lesotho. 2nd phase currently delayed in part because SADC has no generic policy on local preference. The Orange River RBO has had marginal impact.

 5.2.3 Inter-state - Hydropower development

Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, other SADC states

National water and electricity sectors in Mozambique., Zimbabwe, Zambia; S. African power utility. Private sector partners in PPP structure

Implementation of financially sustainable hydropower investment

Failure to achieve agreements between countries and with private partners

The development of the Zambezi’s hydropower resources has been an agreed SADC (and SADCC) priority since 1980. However, these confederational structures have not provided sufficient structure or incentive to drive the implementation of the various potential projects.

5.3 Operations: Drought management

 5.3.1 Inter-state -Komati and Mbuluzi Rivers

Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland

Water sharing agreements, Komati under SADC Protocol, Mbuluzi prior to Protocol

Minimising impacts of drought on water users in each country

Komati successfully avoided acute local impacts; Mbuluzi failed to sustain urban supplies

The management of the Komati under stress saw good cooperation between the riparians at operational level, as provided for under Incomaputo Agreement. Mbuluzi management revealed weaknesses of SADC Protocol, which played a part in weak response and poor outcomes.

 5.3.2 Inter-state - hydropower drought management on Zambezi River

Zimbabwe, Zambia

National governments; bilateral management institutions; SADC Protocol

Optimally using available water to sustain generation during drought

Failure to follow operating rules led to unnecessarily early curtailment of generation

Despite the existence of both confederal oversight (SADC Protocol and ZAMCOM RBO), the advice of the formal bilateral management organisation (ZRA) to reduce generation (and outflows) to extend operations through the drought period were not followed. This led to extreme curtailment of generation as the drought persisted.

 5.3.3 Intra-state - urban systems at different scales

South Africa

National responsible for regional bulk infrastructure operation and resource monitoring. Cities responsible for efficient distribution management.

Municipalities responsible for operating local sources and managing distribution in small communities.

Optimally managing systems to maintain water availability during drought

Objectives generally achieved in large systems through structured drought restrictions.

Many failures in smaller towns due to absence of timely restrictions.

The federal framework within which the distinct responsibilities of monitoring and managing bulk water availability (national agencies) and managing demand (large local metropolitan municipalities) created a positive dynamic within which drought threats were identified and responded to at an early stage. The engagement of a number of large water users contributed to the positive outcomes.

In smaller municipalities with local responsibility for management of their own water sources, distribution and management of water demand, drought risks were often not identified and responded to early enough to avoid severe restrictions. Non-mandatory advisories from national agencies were often ignored, local politicians were initially reluctant to introduce restrictions and other actors had limited powers to intervene.

Resource planning: intra-state—South Africa’s Integrated Vaal River System

Water for approximately 40% of South Africa’s population and 60% of its economic activity is supplied by the Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS) which extends across six of South Africa’s nine provinces and includes three of the country’s eight metropolitan municipalities. This interconnected system of dams and pipelines draws water from four separate river basins (Limpopo, Komati, Thukela, Orange) and discharges waste to two of them.

Major water resource infrastructure is developed and operated by the national government’s Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS); some large industrial users are supplied directly; other municipal and industrial users are supplied by a regional bulk water supply utility (Rand Water); individual municipalities distribute water to domestic and commercial clients; and some agricultural users and their autonomous water user associations draw water directly from the system.

Water resource planning is undertaken by the DWS using demand information on water use from the regional utility, municipalities and major industries. Demands are ‘reconciled’ with supply options through hydrological systems models that identify the measures needed to meet high-demand scenarios with the desired reliability. Options include water reuse and demand management as well as projects to increase supply.

Recommendations for operational rules and infrastructure development derived from the systems models (DWAF 2009) are regularly updated, informed by consumption trends and revised hydrology and included in the country’s National Water Resource Strategy and have generally been implemented. Every 6 months, major users and the DWS review system status, consider development plans and make operational recommendations. Despite significant droughts, this region has not suffered serious water restrictions since the 1980s.


The DWS is the most powerful actor in the water planning process since it has the legal mandate to make decisions and the budgetary resources to implement them. Its leadership has a strong interest in identifying appropriate investments since sustaining national water security is the key objective by which their performance is measured.

Other actors include major industries and metropolitan municipalities, which have strong interests in ensuring reliable supplies and cost-effective development and operation of system infrastructure. The municipalities have power because they fund new investments through user charges and strong interests because they are accountable to retail users for service reliability. Municipal political heads have significant power and influence as leaders of major economic centres. Technical professionals have weaker ‘expert power’ through their pronouncements on technical options and a reputational interest in producing proposals that deliver the outcomes sought.

Organised agriculture is an actor with limited power but strong interests since, in the event of supply restrictions, industrial and urban users are given priority over farmers. The interests of private sector construction contractors are relatively weak because there is limited scope to promote projects from which they may benefit.

Critically, many of the actors who are water users and/or system managers know each other, are aware of each other’s behaviour and share this information. It is suggested (Muller 2012) that informal interactions within this group of actors approximates that of the small groups of users in Elinor Ostrom’s experimental cases of the management of common pool resources (Ostrom 2010). The cooperative (as opposed to hierarchical) behaviour between the representatives of the parties is an example of ‘network governance’ (Rhodes 2007). These relationships survived the major political transitions of 1994 as well as changes of political control in some IVRS municipalities in August 2016, as demonstrated by the adoption of consensus positions in the December 2016 operational review meetings.

Because government actors are from autonomous national and local spheres, no direct hierarchical power can be imposed and political power may only be exercised where actors are from the same party. This structural federalism, with each sphere having different but complementary functions, promotes coordination and cooperation between the functionally distinct activities of resource planning, bulk infrastructure development and water service provision. Where government actors are from different political parties, formally defined roles in each sphere of government help to maintain accountability for the performance of the specific functions for which each is responsible.

Infrastructure development

Intra-state: bulk supply for large cities

Reliable supply of bulk water to rapidly growing urban areas is a challenge for all eight of South Africa’s metropolitan municipalities. None can fully meet its water requirements from freshwater sources within municipal boundaries (desalination is still more expensive for coastal cities than freshwater). They are thus dependent on cooperation with the national sphere of government to develop supply infrastructure.

Cooperation starts in the planning phase, described in the IVRS case (5.1 above). Subsequent infrastructure development is then usually undertaken either by the DWS or by a regional utility. The national Minister can give a mandate to the Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), a parastatal financing agency, to raise limited recourse loans for such projects (TCTA 2011), which are then repaid by water users. The municipalities (and other bulk users) thus have a clear interest in the process and their cooperation is necessary to mobilise finance. This system is associated with successful outcomes, such as augmenting supplies to Ethekwini/Durban (Mooi-Umgeni transfer) and Cape Town (Berg River dam) as well as to IVRS projects (TCTA 2011; Muller 2018).


Where direct responsibility for bulk supply is delegated to regional water utilities which report to the national Minister, cities retain significant power because they have a statutory right to nominate members of the utility boards; this offers governance oversight as well as technical engagement. Where the national Government implements directly, the TCTA is a significant actor. Its lenders are another important set of actors whose interests TCTA ensures are reflected in decision-making.

The funding process must demonstrate that potential (local) water users concur with the proposed project since the users’ guarantees of payment provide the primary security for loans. The system has thus distributed powers and interests between national and local institutions in a system with in-built incentives that promote coordination and cooperation and an interest in cost-effective outcomes.

Inter-state—Integrated Vaal River System

An important source of supply to the IVRS is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), a cooperative project between South Africa and Lesotho, both members of the SADC ‘confederation’. This project diverts water by gravity from the Orange-Senqu River in Lesotho directly to the Vaal system in South Africa. Since this is cheaper than pumping it from where the river flows into South Africa, Lesotho is paid a royalty of over 50% of the savings. The initial phase (LHWP1A) of an envisaged five phases was built in terms of a 1986 Treaty between South Africa and Lesotho (Lesotho/South Africa 1986).

The Treaty delineated the responsibilities of each country. Most of the project infrastructure was built by Lesotho agencies, with oversight from an inter-governmental Commission to ensure quality and efficiency since South Africa was paying almost the entire cost of the project. Finance was raised through the TCTA, initially established as a special purpose vehicle for the LHWP. Its borrowing is underpinned by supply contracts with key water users and an implicit South African government guarantee.

With a democratic government in South Africa in 1994, the Treaty was revised to strengthen governance by giving the joint Commission oversight of the institution responsible for the operation and expansion of the project (Ashton et al. 2005). The next project, LHWP1B, was successfully implemented in this framework. Subsequently, the IVRS planning process confirmed that the further phase (LHWP-2) was the best option to ensure continued reliable supplies (DWAF 2009).

However, between 2015 and 2017, South Africa’s Minister of Water delayed LHWP2 in order to change procurement conditions. She also replaced key members of the South African side of the Commission, allegedly to favour her preferred partners (City Press 2016). These acts and omissions, together with political instability in Lesotho, contributed to delays. The outcome is that the project will only be completed in 2025, leaving IVRS users vulnerable to supply restrictions in the event of a drought (DWAF 2009).


The key actors in this arrangement are the national governments of South Africa and Lesotho. Both have strong state power combined with strong interests: water security for South Africa’s economic heartland and royalties that funded up to 15% of Lesotho’s budget. Citizens of both countries have weak interests since, although project decisions support activities that improve their water security (South Africa) and income (Lesotho), these impacts will only occur in the medium term.

Other riparian governments, Namibia and Botswana, are weak actors with weak interests. Downstream Namibia already has (bilateral) guarantees that its future needs from the river will be met (Shilomboleni 2006); Botswana’s claim is weak since its portion of the basin is virtually uninhabited and it has access to three other large regional rivers (Zambezi, Okavango and Limpopo). The Orange River basin organisation ORASECOM is only advisory with no formal power and its interest is to maintain good relations with the governments to protect its tenuous mandate and funding.

Significant financial actors such as the World Bank and African Development Bank can impose conditions on poorer developing countries but South Africa has not been dependent on their finance. This limits the power of environmental actors who lobby Banks and donor governments to oppose infrastructure development. However, the TCTA can recommend governance conditions to reassure funders of project probity.

Other strong actors are politicians and businesspeople in Lesotho whose interests are to maximise both the cost of the project and the proportion of benefits that accrue to Basotho nationals. The impact of this was demonstrated when both project officials and international construction companies were found guilty of corruption in phase 1A (Darroch 2003).

The delays caused to phase 2 by governance changes and procurement conditions suggest that private actors continue to seek to capture project benefits. Political factions and business actors in Lesotho and South Africa were reported to be cooperating to ensure that project decision-making favoured their interests (City Press 2016). This emergence of regional (rather than national) families of private actors may become significant (see 5.4 below).

This challenge highlights the limited scope of SADC sectoral cooperation. While water resource cooperation is regulated, there are no generic provisions to support and regulate regional business cooperation and SADC’s trade protocol (SADC 1996a) deals primarily with trade liberalisation. The federal arrangement thus failed to support effective cooperation and to constrain attempts by private actors to ‘capture’ the benefits of public investment and ensure that they did not delay the project.

Inter-state: hydropower development

A different set of challenges faces the countries of Southern African in their long held objective of exploiting the region’s hydropower resources (Nsekela 1981), primarily the opportunities on the Zambezi river. Two large reservoirs built by colonial administrations (Kariba and Cahora Bassa) can provide regular and predictable flows for new projects without construction of significant additional storage. Two sites for new generation have been identified in Mozambique and one on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border which, together, could generate almost 10% of Southern Africa’s electricity requirements.

A framework for this development was provided by the 1996 SADC energy protocol, whose objectives include to ‘harmonise national and regional energy policies, strategies and programmes’ and ‘to cooperate in the development of energy and energy pooling to ensure security and reliability of energy supply and the minimization of costs’ (SADC 1996b). However, there has been no progress on the development of these cooperative hydropower schemes although they continue to be prioritised by SADC (SADC 2012).

In Mozambique, after public sector-led efforts failed, Brazilian and Chinese consortia were given mandates to develop the Mphanda Ncuwa project but neither was successful. Similarly, Zambia and Zimbabwe have yet to find willing partners for the proposed PPP to develop their joint Batoka project (NEPAD 2013).

The primary obstacle is that project promotors have not been able to negotiate power purchase agreements with users in South Africa, the region’s largest electricity market. Progress has also been hindered by the unwillingness of donor partners (on whom Mozambique and Zimbabwe are dependent) to support hydropower project preparation because of generic environmental and social sensitivities. One consequence of the failure to proceed was a power shortage that significantly slowed regional economies between 2008 and 2016.


Key actors in this process are the SADC member states, specifically Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique as the power generators and South Africa, which could provide the initial market for much of the power generated. While all have some decision-making power, Zimbabwe and Mozambique are heavily dependent on donors who are thus important actors.

In Mozambique, other actors include private sector concession holders with obvious commercial interests in achieving commercially viable schemes. These concessionaires were in partnership with politically connected Mozambican private sector actors whose interest is to achieve early commercial returns. The Zimbabwe/Zambian project has a similar cast. While South Africa has an interest in energy security, it has many competing domestic interests promoting coal, gas, nuclear, wind and solar energy options all of which have strong interests and weak but significant lobbying power. Mozambique too has actors with interests in other energy sources, notably gas and coal.

Local and international environmental activists have a strong interest in obstructing these hydropower projects and weak but significant ability to do this by lobbying donor agencies. They have discouraged climate activists who might otherwise seek to promote hydropower as an alternative to hydrocarbon-based generation.

Weak political and inter-sectoral (water, energy and trade) coordination in SADC has contributed to the failure to implement these projects. There is no structure through which SADC institutions can engage politically to promote cooperative projects, even where they are an agreed priority. In contrast to the Lesotho case, there has been limited cooperation between private actors across national boundaries to promote a regional scheme.

Operations: systems management under drought

Inter-state: Komati and Mbuluzi

Different approaches to operational management of two neighbouring river systems during recent droughts provide an important practical test of overarching water governance. These droughts posed significant challenges to system operators in many systems in Southern Africa, and as this case illustrates, small differences in the institutional arrangements led to significantly different outcomes.

The Komati/Incomati River flows from South Africa through Swaziland into Mozambique. It is heavily utilised, with a number of dams providing system storage to support irrigation, power and domestic consumption in South Africa, and irrigation in Swaziland and Mozambique. Water is allocated between users under the IncoMaputo Agreement (see Mozambique-South Africa-Swaziland 2002) between the three countries which provides for reductions during drought periods.

The Mbuluzi/Umbeluzi River rises in Swaziland and flows into Mozambique. It is also heavily used, primarily for irrigation in Swaziland, while in Mozambique, it is the main source of water for the capital Maputo as well as serving some irrigation farmers. A formal water sharing agreement between them was signed in 1976, to enable the construction of the Mnjoli Dam in Swaziland (completed in 1978) and the Pequenos Lebombos Dam in Mozambique (completed in 1987).

Mozambique did not formally acknowledge the drought that affected the Komati in 2003/4, since that would have authorised a reduction in cross-border flows. However, then and in 2014/16, it joined an operational group which ensured that critical needs were met in all three riparian countries. In contrast, during the drought that began in the Mbuluzi catchment in 2015, flow from Swaziland ceased completely and Mozambican commentators complained that Swaziland was providing no information. When the drought broke in 2017, Swaziland’s main Mnjoli dam began to fill but little water was released; Mozambique had to stop all irrigation and city water supplies continued to be severely restricted in 2018.


Actors in the Komati case are the governments of the countries concerned, which have strong interests in the river’s waters and the power to control water use within their borders. Other actors include major water users. Large irrigation farmers and the sugar companies in South Africa and Mozambique are well organised with strong interests. Swaziland’s irrigation farmers, almost all in sugar, use around 90% of the water abstracted in that country and have strong political voice—much of Swaziland’s sugar industry is controlled by the royal family and government. In all three countries, there are small-scale farmers with strong interests in reliable water supplies and increasingly effective voice (Terry and Ogg 2016).

On the Mbuluzi, the national governments of both countries have strong interests in sustaining reliable supplies for their agriculture and, in Mozambique’s case, to supply its capital city. As the upstream country, Swaziland has the power to control downstream water flows to Mozambique.

The IncoMaputo Agreement provides that, when there is a drought, flow across the South Africa/Mozambican border may be reduced below the agreed daily minimum. On the other hand, the Mbuluzi Agreement only allocates the average annual flow between the countries and does not provide for minimum flows during drought periods.

A number of authorities warned that the Mbuluzi Agreement was defective (Ferraz and Munslow 2000; Vaz and van der Zaag 2003). The SADC Protocol requires notification and consultation when a party takes deliberate action, so during the filling of the Mnjoli dam in 1979, Swaziland acted on Mozambique’s complaints about flow reductions (Vaz and van der Zaag 2003). They were less responsive during the recent drought for which they were not directly responsible. The SADC Protocol was of little assistance, offering no guidance on the principles to be applied in the case of drought nor any process to address such urgent operational issues.

Inter-state: Kariba hydropower drought management

The 2014/16 drought reduced Zambezi flows to half their average levels, threatening hydropower generation at Kariba Dam, which is shared by Zambia and Zimbabwe and managed by the joint Zambezi River Authority (ZRA). The dam ‘rule curve’ required discharges (and power generation) to be reduced in February 2015 (ZRA 2017). However, because of power shortages in the region (see 5.2.3 above), politicians directed that generation should continue at full capacity. It was only reduced in early 2016 with storage at 19% and water levels just 2 m above the generator intakes. Despite better rain in 2016/17, storage remained substantially below ‘safe’ levels. In the interim, Zambia contracted a ‘power-ship’ which docked in Nacala, Mozambique, and supplemented supply through the regional grid at high cost.


Three primary actors in this operational management were the governments of Zimbabwe and Zambia and the ZRA operators; the other actor was SADC’s energy sector and its Southern African Power Pool (SAPP). The ZRA informed both governments of the risks of operating beyond the rule curves but had no power to enforce the rule. Because of their critical economic situation, the primary interest of the governments was to continue generating at full capacity despite the longer-term risks and they gave instructions to do this.

Neither SADC nor the inter-state Zambezi River Commission had any significant involvement in these operational decisions. SAPP observed the situation with concern (personal communication) but was not operationally involved, save to enable the transmission of power from the ‘power-ship’ in Mozambique to Zambia.

Intra-state: urban systems in South Africa

Drought also tested the management of South Africa’s large systems for which the monitoring and modelling processes (5.1 above) provides operating rules. During the 2014–2016 drought in the IVRS, system rules were generally applied. After discussion in the review committees, consumption restrictions were introduced in the three Gauteng metropolitan municipalities served by the IVRS (as well as in the Ethekwini region) When voluntary consumption reductions had not achieved the desired quantums in the IVRS, the DWS instructed the regional utility to reduce supplies, forcing municipalities to interrupt supplies to reduce consumption. Cape Town initially rejected planning recommendations to increase supply or impose restrictions ahead of their current (2015–2017) drought, choosing instead to focus on demand management. But continued drought forced authorities to reverse that position and accelerate new infrastructure provision (Muller 2017).

In contrast to the relatively effective drought responses in large systems, a number of smaller systems encountered difficulties. Many of these depend on limited local sources (often surface storage in dams), and a significant number ran dry. In most cases, restrictions were only introduced when the system had already reached a critical point and it was too late to prolong a limited supply until the next rainy season could replenish storage. These supply failures impacted negatively on local people and their economies.

In most cases, technical information was available and drawdown curves had been provided by DWS to indicate when restrictions should be introduced; while many small towns have inadequate supply capacity, there is limited control over consumption and demand management is generally ineffective or non-existent.


A critical factor in the success of the operational decision-making process for the large urban areas was information sharing and discussion in the monitoring committees. In the IVRS, strong industrial actors, concerned about their reliability of supply, called for early action and counter-balanced initial resistance from municipal and national government to politically sensitive supply restrictions. The municipalities also warned that the administrative and behavioural challenges of imposing restrictions required some months’ notice before implementation. In Cape Town, the initial failure to introduce restrictions and augment infrastructure reflected the influence of environmental civil society actors whose advice against new infrastructure investment was welcomed by political actors who had the power to set spending priorities.

In small towns, the state of the resource is generally visible to politicians, technicians and citizens. The primary actors are political heads, local administrative and technical officials as well as local residents and businesses. While all have strong interests in maintaining reliable supplies, the political heads usually have effective decision-making powers over operational decisions. Reasons for delayed action include a lack of understanding of the timeframes and the likelihood of the system running dry; an already inadequate supply, making it difficult to introduce further restrictions and introducing a sense of fatalism; unwillingness of political leaders to introduce unpopular measures; and hope that it would rain in time to resolve the issue.

These cases demonstrated that, in the large urban centres, the involvement of national and local spheres as well as large economic actors provided checks and balances on the behaviour of individual institutions, contributing to positive outcomes. In smaller urban centres, the interests of national government are weaker, their power to intervene is limited and there are fewer countervailing forces. As a consequence, there was a greater likelihood of negative outcomes.

Discussion—deal with complexity, do not reject it

The cases presented may appear to be complex and confusing but analysis of water resource management should always be guided by Elinor Ostrom’s injunction: ‘To explain the world of interactions and outcomes occurring at multiple levels, we also have to be willing to deal with complexity instead of rejecting it’ (Ostrom 2010).

The cases show how the specific context can influence the outcome of water management functions under similar governance regimes. In particular, they show that federal institutional arrangements may affect the performance of the functions under consideration.

At an intra-state level in South Africa, the cases show that the balance of actors between spheres of government and the involvement of strong commercial actors contributed to relatively effective performance in both infrastructure planning and operational management during drought. Large urban communities benefitted from the greater degree of polycentricity associated with the federal structures, since this brought together a range of substantive actors whose complementary information and priorities contributed to effective management decisions.

At an inter-state level, cooperation between Mozambique, South Africa and Swaziland to manage the 2014/16 drought in the Incomati River reflected the principles put in place by the SADC Water Protocol, a product of the confederal framework. This was given substance by the IncoMaputo Agreement and practical cooperation occurred in the network of local actors who were working together to implement the Agreement.

However, the mere existence of a federal structure did not ensure that it made an effective contribution to governance and management processes. The city of Cape Town still delayed investment decisions and drought restrictions although these were discussed with national government. Supply cuts were experienced in many smaller South African municipalities during drought; while the federal arrangements allowed engagement with and intervention by national government, it had limited incentives and faced significant procedural constraints.

At an intra-state level, while both Swaziland and Mozambique are parties to SADC’s Water Protocol (and privy to the IncoMaputo example), they did not cooperate effectively to manage the 2014/16 Mbuluzi drought. One consequence was that the city of Maputo suffered extreme water restrictions. Similarly, despite the apparently strong confederational arrangements governing water and energy in SADC, Mozambican, Zambian and Zimbabwean hydropower projects have not proceeded, even as the region faced critical electricity supply constraints. This was, in part, because the confederational system had no process to match the interests of power generators with those of power users in other countries whose cooperation was required to make the project viable.

A particular consideration in Southern Africa is the dependence of most state actors on external financial assistance. While the states have expressed the intent to cooperate and coordinate, SADC’s regional secretariat has been funded primarily by development partners (donors) rather than member countries. The influence of this group, as primary actors with their own interests, in particular to constrain infrastructure development, hindered the emergence of a functional ‘confederationalism’ (ECDPM 2017).

In one case, confederal structures had a negative influence that went beyond government actors. In early phases of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the interests of the principal actors were initially sufficiently aligned to ensure successful completion. However, at the start of phase 2, private actors from the two countries worked together to influence project governance, delaying implementation and putting water users at risk. Given political instability in both countries, the multi-state structure offered opportunities for private actors to benefit at the expense of wider publics. Although SADC led efforts to resolve political issues in Lesotho, it was not involved in the LHWP’s implementation.

Many other contextual factors influenced key actors and thus water management outcomes. The political short-termism evidenced by the reluctance of local politicians in South African towns to introduce water restrictions or Zimbabwean leaders to cut power production is not unique. The poor performance of South Africa’s smaller municipalities is also attributable to the limited technical and financial resources available to them. Swaziland’s failure to cooperate with its Mozambican neighbour on the Mbuluzi reflects, in part, the importance of irrigated sugar in the local economy.

A precondition for successful inter-state confederal arrangements is that there should be effective linkages between powerful actors with common interests in the countries concerned. While most of the SADC countries have strong national actors, there is still limited evidence of cooperation between them to promote regional projects, particularly when there is competition with alternative national projects.

The wider political context is also important. Development partners have significant interests and contributed to slow progress on infrastructure development in SADC countries. The financial capacity of South Africa has constrained the ability of environmental actors to lobby international financial institutions. However, the approaches to infrastructure development in Cape Town reflected, in part, environmentalists’ influence. This was reinforced by the issuance in 2014 of ‘Climate Certified’ Green Bonds to support the city’s water conservation programmes just before supplies failed for lack of new infrastructure investment.

From these experiences, it appears that it is the detailed content and context of federal arrangements that is the primary determinant of their outcomes.

The contrast between drought management performance in the Mbuluzi and Komati rivers reflects the poor quality of the Mbuluzi Agreement, which preceded the SADC Protocol (Juizo et al. 2006). However, the Protocol provides no guidance on operational approaches to drought. Further, SADC provides little support to inter-sectoral projects nor guidance about giving preferences to regionally based engineering companies. Such support could help implementation of cooperative projects and avoid the abuse of cooperative efforts.

Federal and confederal arrangements certainly contribute to the polycentricity that is often associated with better outcomes. But they will only do this if the operational systems within them are designed to take account of the contingencies that may arise and to strengthen and affirm network relations between the relevant institutions. South Africa’s federal constitution gives provincial and national government the duty to intervene where a municipality ‘cannot or does not fulfil an executive obligation’. But the process is lengthy and potentially politically costly and has failed to address urgent short-term issues in small municipalities. Constitutional amendments are now proposed to facilitate such national intervention. Similarly, the SADC Protocol on Shared Rivers could usefully be revised to provide guidance on how member states should respond to address more effectively operational challenges such as droughts and floods.


This paper thus concludes that the distribution of powers and functions in federal settings is less important than their specific content. The important question appears to be whether federal arrangements enable or constrain the involvement of and engagements between important actors, provide effective guidance to influence their decisions and allow them to be challenged and technical and regulatory approaches to be improved. It is the detailed approaches together with specific contextual factors that have determined whether effective water management outcomes have been achieved.

This finding supports the conclusion of the OECD’s review of water governance: There is no unique, optimal, institutional structure that will produce desired water management outcomes (OECD 2015). Effective institutional arrangements are often the path-dependent product of evolutionary processes that respond to the opportunities, challenges and contesting interests in each specific context.

Successful systems will be sufficiently flexible to adapt to changing circumstances, structured to promote substantive engagement between different interests; ensure accountability for the achievement of the desired goals; and have institutions robust enough to withstand pressures from powerful interest groups. Federal arrangements may contribute to the evolution of such systems. But it is their detailed content that will make the difference.



This work was informed by research on water and regional development undertaken for the African Development Bank and the South African Water Research Commission as well as the European Centre for Development Policy Management as well as by the author’s earlier experience as a senior water manager in South Africa and ongoing participation in some of the processes described. Invaluable perspectives were gained through participation in a number of events organised by the editors of this special issue. The original manuscript was substantially revised to take account of the detailed, insightful and constructive comments of the anonymous referees as well as the editors of this special issue.


  1. Anderson G (2008) Federalism: an introduction, Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar
  2. Ashton PJ, Earle A, Malzbender D, Moloi MBH, Patrick MJ, Turton AR (2005) A compilation of all the international freshwater agreements entered into by South Africa with other states (WRC Project No. K5/1515), Water Research Commission, PretoriaGoogle Scholar
  3. City Press (2016) Nomvula Mokonyane’s Watergate (in) City Press, 10 July 2016 (accessed at) (April 2017)
  4. Darroch F (2003) The Lesotho corruption trials—A case study. Commonwealth Law Bulletin 29(2):901–975.
  5. DFID (2009) Political economy analysis. ‘How To’ note. DFID practice paper. Department for International Development, LondonGoogle Scholar
  6. Dube (2015) Donors versus investors in Southern African infrastructure development. (PERISA Case Study 1: Infrastructure). SAIIA, ECDPM, JohannesburgGoogle Scholar
  7. DWAF (2009) Vaal river system: large bulk water supply reconciliation strategies: water resource analysis, Department of Water Affairs and Forestry Report Number: P RSA C000/00/4406/05, PretoriaGoogle Scholar
  8. DWS (2017) ‘Projects and programmes’ (accessed 21st May 2018), Department of Water and Sanitation, Pretoria
  9. ECDPM (2017) The political economy dynamics of regional organisations in Africa, European Centre for Development Policy Management, Maastricht (accessed 21st May 2018)
  10. Ferraz B, Munslow B (2000) Sustainable development in Mozambique. Africa World PressGoogle Scholar
  11. Fossum JE, Jachtenfuchs M (2017) Federal challenges and challenges to federalism. Insights from the EU and federal states. J Eur Publ Policy 24(4):467–485. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Garrick DE, Anderson GR, Connell D, Pittock J (eds) (2014) Federal rivers: managing water in multi-layered political systems. Edward Elgar PublishingGoogle Scholar
  13. Hueglin TO (1990) A political economy of federalism: in search of a new comparative perspective with critical intent throughout. Research Paper 29. Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, Queen’s University, KingstonGoogle Scholar
  14. Hueglin T (2003) Federalism at the crossroads: old Meanings, new significance. Can J Polit Sci 36(2):275–294. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hueglin (2013) Treaty federalism as a model of policy making: comparing Canada and the European Union. Canadian Public Administration 56(2):185–202. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Huitema D, Mostert E, Egas W, Moellenkamp S, Pahl-Wostl C, Yalcin R (2009) Adaptive water governance: assessing the institutional prescriptions of adaptive (co-)management from a governance perspective and defining a research agenda. Ecol Soc 14(1):26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Juizo D, Lidén R, Vaz ÁC (2006) Remaining challenges for bi-national agreements on shared water: the Umbeluzi case. Water Policy 8(3):231–253. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Lesotho/South Africa (1986) Treaty on the Lesotho highlands water project between the government of the Kingdom of Lesotho and the government of the Republic of South Africa (accessed 21st May 2018) (April 2017)
  19. MacKinnon D, Cumbers A, Pike A, Birch K, McMaster R (2009) Evolution in economic geography: institutions, political economy, and adaptation. Econ Geogr 85(2):129–150. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Mcloughlin C (2014) Political economy analysis: topic guide, 2nd edn. GSDRC, University of Birmingham, BirminghamGoogle Scholar
  21. Mollinga PP, Meinzen-Dick RS, Merrey DJ (2007) Politics, plurality and problemsheds: a strategic approach for reform of agricultural water resources management. Dev Policy Rev 25(6):699–719. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Moravcsik A (2002) Reassessing legitimacy in the European Union. J Common Mark Stud 40(4):603–624. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Mozambique/South Africa/Swaziland (2002) Tripartite interim agreement for co-operation on the protection and sustainable utilisation of the water resources of the Incomati and Maputo watercourses (signed at) Johannesburg 29 August 2002Google Scholar
  24. Muller M (2012) Polycentric governance: water management in South Africa. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers Management, Procurement and Law 165:1–8. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Muller M (2013) Water resource management and development in SADC. (PERISA Case Study 1: Public Goods). SAIIA, ECDPM, JohannesburgGoogle Scholar
  26. Muller M (2014) Allocating power and functions in a federal design: the experience of South Africa. In: Garrick DE, Anderson GR, Connell D, Pittock J (eds) Federal rivers: managing water in multi-layered political systems. Edward Elgar PublishingGoogle Scholar
  27. Muller M (2017) Understanding the origins of Cape Town’s water crisis. Civ Eng 2017(v25i5):11–16Google Scholar
  28. Muller M (2018) Lessons from transforming a South African special-purpose vehicle into a project implementation agency. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers Management, Procurement and Law.
  29. Muller M, Wright A (2016) Unlocking Africa’s transboundary water potential. African Development Bank, AbidjanGoogle Scholar
  30. Muller M, Simpson R, van Ginneken M 2008. Ways to improve water services by making utilities more accountable to their users: a review, water working note no. 15, World Bank, Washington 2008Google Scholar
  31. Muller M, Chikozho C, Hollingworth B (2015) Water and regional integration: the role of water as a driver of regional economic integration in Southern Africa, Final report, Project No. K5/2252, Water Research Commission, PretoriaGoogle Scholar
  32. NEPAD (2013) Hydro – Batoka Gorge Hydropower Project, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (accessed 21st May 2018)
  33. Nsekela AJ (1981) Southern Africa: towards economic liberation. Rex Collings, London, p 1981Google Scholar
  34. OECD (2015) OECD water governance initiative. (accessed 21st May 2018)
  35. Ostrom E (2010) Beyond markets and states: polycentric governance of complex economic systems. Transnational Corporations Review 2(2):1–12. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Pahl-Wostl C (2009) A conceptual framework for analysing adaptive capacity and multi-level learning processes in resource governance regimes. Glob Environ Chang 19(3):354–365. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Papadopoulos Y (2007) Problems of democratic accountability in network and multilevel governance. Eur Law J 13(4):469–486. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Republic of South Africa (1996) The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996Google Scholar
  39. Rhodes R (2007) Understanding governance: ten years on. Organ Stud 28(8):1243–1264. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. SADC (1992) Treaty of the Southern African development community, (done at Windhoek 17 August 1992), Southern African Development Community, GaboroneGoogle Scholar
  41. SADC (1995) Protocol on Shared Watercourses in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Region (done at Maseru 16 May 1995), Southern African Development Community, GaboroneGoogle Scholar
  42. SADC (1996a) Protocol on trade, SADC (accessed 21st May 2018) (April 2017)
  43. SADC (1996b) Protocol on energy in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region (done at Maseru, 24th August 1996)Google Scholar
  44. SADC (2000) Revised protocol on shared watercourses (done at Windhoek on 7 August 2000), Southern African Development Community, GaboroneGoogle Scholar
  45. SADC (2012) Regional infrastructure development master plan, Southern African Development Community, GaboroneGoogle Scholar
  46. SADC (2017) Natural resources—water, (accessed 21st May 2018) April 2017
  47. Shilomboleni (2006) Equitable water allocation: a case between South Africa and Namibia on the lower Orange River, Ministry of Agriculture Water and Forestry, Namibia (accessed 21st May 2018)
  48. Skelcher C (2005) Jurisdictional integrity, polycentrism, and the design of democratic governance. Governance 18(1):89–110. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Swatuk LA (2008) A political economy of water in southern Africa. Water Altern 1(1):24Google Scholar
  50. TCTA (2011) 25 years corporate brochure, Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, Centurion, South AfricaGoogle Scholar
  51. Terry A, Ogg M (2016) Restructuring the Swazi sugar industry: the changing role and political significance of smallholders. J South Afr Stud 43:1–19. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Van Meerkerk I, Edelenbos J, Klijn EH (2015) Connective management and governance network performance: the mediating role of throughput legitimacy. Findings from survey research on complex water projects in the Netherlands. Environ Plan C Gov Policy 33(4):746–764. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Vanheukelom J, Byiers B, Bilal S & Woolfrey S (2016) Political economy of regional integration in Africa: what drives and constrains regional organisations? European Centre for Development Policy and Management, Maastricht, NetherlandsGoogle Scholar
  54. Vaz AC, van der Zaag P (2003) Sharing the Incomati waters—cooperation and competition in the balance, UNESCO PC-CP Technical Document in Hydrology No. 14 2002Google Scholar
  55. Woodhouse P, Muller M (2017) Water governance—an historical perspective on current debates. World Dev 92:225–241. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. ZRA (2017) Kariba reservoir levels, Zambezi River Authority (accessed 21st May 2018) (April 2017)

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wits School of GovernanceUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations