One of the responses to the global policy thrust of ‘integrated water management’ has been the establishment of catchment councils. Zimbabwe has not been an exception, and following the water reforms of the 1990s, a number of catchment councils were created. This paper looks at the functioning of the Save Catchment Council, and the institutional functioning of decentralised catchment management. With access to resources defined through the issuing of a permit, potentially many more water users can gain access to water resources for livelihoods than under the previous policy regime. But does this happen in practice? Despite the neat design of catchment approaches, their operation is very much based on who can negotiate most effectively. In practice, those who already have high levels of water access (in Zimbabwe, often larger-scale commercial farmers) are most likely to benefit, as they both dominate the council membership and are more effective at articulating their demands. Different conceptions of rights and entitlement to resources also affect how debates within catchment councils are carried out. The unequal playing field of water resource access and use, and the politics this inequality implies, therefore affect fundamentally the functioning of such new institutions, which are ostensibly designed to be participatory, inclusionary, and pro poor.
Sobona Mtisi and Alan Nicol