Overcoming water scarcity for good?:Querying the adoption of desalination technology in the Knysna Local Municipality of South Africa

  • Suraya Scheba

Student thesis: Phd


In this thesis I aim to query the Ecological Modernisation vision of green growth byfocusing on the emblematic case of desalination technology as the solution to the threat ofwater scarcity. I focus the study on a drought crisis, which resulted in the adoption ofdesalination in the Eden District Municipality (EDM) of South Africa. Focusing on thetowns of Sedgefield and Knysna, in the Knysna Local Municipality (KLM) of the EDM, Iask the questions of 'what, how, by whom, why and to what end was desalinationadopted?'. This interrogation is characterised by two movements, firstly tracing the processand mechanism through which this consensus was manufactured; and secondly counteringthis by examining the underlying metabolic relations constituting crisis and solution. Theresearch was carried out over a period of 11 months, from October 2011 to August 2012,during which I undertook 91 semi-structured interviews, extensive document analysis andparticipant observation.The theoretical strands drawn upon are a blending of post political theory, to inform ananalysis of the techno-managerial orientation of consensus manufacture; and a Marxianrelational ontology, to examine what is produced and foreclosed by the logic. This project isundertaken in five parts. Firstly, I show that the dominant representation of 'drought crisis'insisted upon the indisputability of drought as a threat posed by an externalised nature.Next, in examining the metabolism of drought I counter this narrative by showing thedrought crisis to be a socio-natural assemblage, rather than an externalised threateningnature. This is a vital finding, showing that the support for the adoption of desalinationtechnology as a necessary response to 'nature's crisis', pivoted on the maintenance of anideological fiction, obscuring the relational 'becoming' of drought. In the third chapter,moving on to an examination of the solution, it emerges that an essential aspect of thesolidification of consensus was the employment of exceptional disaster and environmentallegislation which had the effect of neutralising drought as 'nature's crisis' and desalinationas the indisputable solution. Enabling the urgent release of disaster funding to ensure watersecurity for economic growth. This chapter also argues that the maintenance of thedominant crisis narrative produced an opportunity for the desalination industry, by treating'nature' as a direct accumulation strategy. In the remaining two empirical chapters I evaluatethe 'promise' of the desalination techno-fix. Through focusing on the conditionality placedon disaster funding and how this impacted on project assembly, resulting in problems andcosts emerging out of the desalination solution from the outset. Fundamentally, it is arguedthat, rather than being external to, these problems are intrinsically connected to themechanisms and logic through which consensus emerged in the first place. To clarify,through the preceding chapters it was shown that the basis for the 'disaster funding' releasewas an insistence on 'nature's crisis', as an ideological fiction. These remaining chaptersshow that this had the effect of placing limitations on what was spent on, when, and howmuch. Thereby informing project assembly, with these constraints resulting in problemsemerging out of the solution. In sum, the thesis concludes that the adopted E.M. logic was afalse promise that served to intensify the penetration of nature by capital, resulting in adeeper movement into crisis by moving the problems around as opposed to resolving them.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorMaria Kaika (Supervisor) & Erik Swyngedouw (Supervisor)


  • Desalination Technology
  • Ecological Modernisation
  • Post politics
  • Relational ontology

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