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Scarcity as a means of governing: Challenging neoliberal hydromentality in the context of the South African drought

Journal article
Authors Sofie Hellberg
Published in Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space
Volume 3
Issue 1
ISSN 2514-8486
Publication year 2020
Published at School of Global Studies
Language en
Keywords Water, hydromentality, biopolitics, scarcity, South Africa
Subject categories Other Social Sciences


This article investigates the role of scarcity in water governance with a particular focus on South Africa. It applies a (green) governmentality perspective and argues that in neoliberal hydromentality scarcity is used as a regulatory device that governs people's water access. In South Africa, water governance and water scarcity have for a long time been central to the construction of a particular state with particular social purposes. While scarcity in the post-apartheid period has mainly been used as a means of governing the poor, the role of scarcity has in the recent water crisis been transformed; scarcity has increasingly become a material concern for all of society. Notwithstanding that the crisis is due not only to the lack of rain but also to political and institutional factors, it has, in media and policy circles, involved a preoccupation with scarcity as a physical phenomenon. Such a preoccupation risks obscuring the reasons why poorer populations have long suffered from the lack of water. At the same time, the article contends, the current crisis presents South Africa with an opportunity for revisiting water scarcity as a technology of governing in creating a more sustainable and equitable water allocation.

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