If anyone missed it, the United Kingdom is currently trying to extract itself from the European Union i.e. Brexit. This has been one of the most contentious national issues in the UK, ever. No one seems to understand what Brexit will mean for UK citizens. In mid-November, a draft withdrawal agreement (between the UK and EU) was presented by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May. The media tried to help us understand the document’s contents.
If we really want to understand what is on offer, we could read the document but we’re just not going to do that, are we? It is 585 pages long, will contain big words, stuff that goes right over our heads and many particular elements that don’t interest us. At the end of the day, most of us want a nice bite-sized summary that gives us the gist of what is going on. However, in reducing a 585-page document, the media is bound to dumb things down a bit and we end up not getting the full story, creating our own ‘fake knowledge’ and, despite our good intentions, not actually understanding the situation fully at all.
Recently, I was visiting Dabane Water Workshops (WDR partner) in Zimbabwe. What an impressive outfit they are; working with local people to access water and address broader water management issues and livelihoods in rural areas. One conversation with Stephen Hussey, the Director, stays with me.
Why is there water scarcity in parts of Zimbabwe? If you were standing by the riverbanks as I had been, the answer would seem obvious; there is no water in the rivers because the rains are seasonal and when rivers do flow, they may only flow for a few days. That’s the simple answer or the ‘dumbed down’ answer, if you like. It seems to make perfect sense, satisfies a superficial interest or concern and can be used to give rise to some simple (dumbed down?) opinions, even solutions.
When Stephen and I discussed why there was water scarcity where these people lived, his answer was much more complex. Indeed, rains are sporadic and inconsistent. Why? Well, the changing rainfall patterns, he sees as part of the documented global climate change. Immediately, any long-term solution is now going to need to address that massive problem and it involves governments and their policy making, not just a local water project on the Mahwanke River. So why don’t people move nearer more reliable water sources? Where they are now, may be the only land they have as a result of colonialists taking the better irrigated and productive land. So now we’re into colonial history and land rights. How are these factors, perhaps defined centuries ago, addressed justly? That question brings in national and local leadership. Let’s not forget tribalism. And then there is the question around why countries like Zimbabwe don’t have the wherewithal to sort out these problems. Yes, there has been corruption and leadership deficiencies but there is also a global economy dominated by the rich West. It is extremely difficult for developing countries to get a foothold in international markets, get fair deals and benefit sufficiently in order to improve the lot of their citizens.
So why have people in Matabeleland been struggling to access sufficient water? It’s complicated and, therefore, the solutions are not straightforward.
Many of us are genuinely concerned about the plight of the materially poor. But we mustn’t be lazy in trying to understand the “Why?” and the “How can we best respond?”. Let us commit to going a little deeper in our understanding of people’s suffering so that we can get more fully behind good potential solutions or lobby for necessary change to happen.
And was that the full explanation of why some people in Zimbabwe do not have access to water? No. It’s even more complicated than that. I dumbed it down a bit so we could all try to understand it a little better. Sorry about that…