Wa­ter us­age les­sons from Namibia

In semi-arid South­ern Africa, wa­ter sup­ply in ru­ral ar­eas is pre­car­i­ous and cli­mate change will make the sit­u­a­tion more se­vere. In Namibia, the na­tional gov­ern­ment has piped wa­ter to many re­mote vil­lages and put them in charge of dis­tri­bu­tion and pay­ment.

Mail & Guardian - - Africa -

Ev­ery morn­ing, Maria Petrus* needs to be at the com­mu­nal wa­ter tap in her vil­lage in Onesi con­stituency, in north­ern Namibia. She will un­lock the tap for about two hours while her fel­low vil­lagers col­lect their day’s wa­ter. Later that af­ter­noon, she will be back for an­other two hours, over­see­ing more wa­ter col­lec­tion.

The 46-year-old is a mem­ber of the vil­lage’s wa­ter point com­mit­tee, made up of vol­un­teers. She will keep a record of how much wa­ter in­di­vid­ual house­holds col­lect over the course of each month — there are about 70 house­holds in her vil­lage — and, come month-end, the com­mit­tee’s sec­re­tary will col­lect pay­ment for the wa­ter.

To do this job, Petrus and her fel­low com­mit­tee vol­un­teers must be able to read and write, and they must be in good enough health to get to the site each day. Vol­un­teer­ing comes with its own risks: it can keep vol­un­teers from their crops and live­stock, the breadand-but­ter of this farm­ing-de­pen­dent com­mu­nity.

They’ll also have to han­dle the dif­fi­cul­ties that arise when peo­ple ar­rive late to col­lect wa­ter, af­ter hav­ing walked long dis­tances to get their daily al­lo­ca­tion. Or they’ll have to deal with pos­si­ble con­flict when cash-strapped fam­i­lies — of­ten their friends or neigh­bours — can’t ser­vice their debt.

Petrus’s story demon­strates the lived ex­pe­ri­ence of a typ­i­cal ru­ral com­mu­nity in Namibia.

Af­ter in­de­pen­dence, Namibia’s gov­ern­ment be­gan rolling out ex­panded wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture, in­stalling bore­holes, com­mu­nal taps and shared an­i­mal wa­ter troughs in many re­mote vil­lages.

It then im­ple­mented the man­age­ment sys­tem that gave the day-to-day ad­min­is­tra­tion of these wa­ter points to com­mu­ni­ties. The aim was to be more in­clu­sive in its re­source gover­nance and man­age­ment, ac­cord­ing to African Cli­mate & De­vel­op­ment Ini­tia­tive (ACDI) re­searcher, As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor Gina Zier­vo­gel.

Irene Ku­namwene, a re­searcher work­ing with the ACDI at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, and her team vis­ited vil­lages in the Onesi area be­tween 2015 and 2017 to test whether this man­age­ment ap­proach was work­ing.

They found that this man­age­ment sys­tem had not nec­es­sar­ily im­proved wa­ter de­liv­ery for var­i­ous rea­sons.

Em­ploy­ment is low in the Onesi area and peo­ple rely on farm­ing and so­cial grants to pay for state-sup­plied wa­ter.

Ku­namwene said: “Many com­mu­nal wa­ter sys­tems in the north have shut down be­cause peo­ple can’t af­ford to pay for the state­sup­plied wa­ter. When that hap­pens, vil­lagers rely on hand-dug wells to draw free wa­ter dur­ing the dry sea­son.”

This comes with risks: the wa­ter may not be safe to drink or chil­dren may fall into the wells.

To de­cide on how to struc­ture wa­ter pay­ments means the vol­un­teers must first con­sult the com­mu­nity. Should ev­ery­one pay a flat rate for daily wa­ter ac­cess, re­gard­less of how much each per­son uses? Or should they pay for what they take each day?

“In some com­mu­ni­ties you might have a pow­er­ful, rich per­son lob­by­ing the com­mit­tee to pay a flat fee per per­son,” says Zier­vo­gel. “But this in­di­vid­ual might have a large herd of cat­tle and might want to take much more wa­ter each day than a poorer house­hold with no live­stock.”

Re­searchers found that this sort of sit­u­a­tion showed up the po­ten­tial ten­sions in a com­mu­nity where peo­ple are al­ready vy­ing for a scarce re­source, a sit­u­a­tion that might be­come even more pres­sured in times of drought.

When rain­fall drops in semi-arid re­gions such as South­ern Africa, ground­wa­ter isn’t recharged, caus­ing wa­ter to be­come brack­ish. Taps might even run dry.

“Many com­mu­ni­ties have cho­sen to charge for the quan­tity of wa­ter peo­ple take from a com­mu­nal tap over the course of a month. But this re­sults in its own man­age­ment chal­lenges, such as when poorer fam­i­lies can’t pay at the end of each month for the full amount they’ve taken.”

In a vil­lage like Petrus’s, the wa­ter point com­mit­tee is made up of about seven mem­bers, who need a range of skills. The team found that many com­mit­tee vol­un­teers re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion and pay­ments did not have the skills, time or ca­pac­ity to do the job ef­fec­tively.

The ACDI re­searchers, work­ing with col­leagues from the Univer­sity of Namibia, de­scribe the day-to-day man­age­ment chal­lenges at the com­mu­nal wa­ter points.

Vol­un­teers need more than just numer­acy skills to record and han­dle pay­ments. They need sta­tionery. They also need me­di­a­tion and man­age­ment skills to over­see who takes how much wa­ter, and ne­go­ti­ate sit­u­a­tions when peo­ple can’t pay but still have a con­sti­tu­tional right to wa­ter.

“You can’t just hand this re­spon­si­bil­ity to some­one on the ground, with only a few days’ train­ing, and ex­pect them to know how to han­dle sit­u­a­tions,” says Zier­vo­gel.

When in­fra­struc­ture breaks, vol­un­teers of­ten don’t know who they should re­port this to, or don’t have the skills or means to make re­pairs them­selves, or gov­ern­ment re­sponse will be slow.

“There’s a great deal of po­lit­i­cal will among lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own com­mu­nal wa­ter point man­age­ment, but there of­ten isn’t the skill or ca­pac­ity to do so,” says Zier­vo­gel.

She adds that, in semi-arid parts of South­ern Africa, such as Namibia, wa­ter re­sources are al­ready un­der pres­sure “and things will get tougher in fu­ture as the cli­mate here be­comes hot­ter, drier and less pre­dictable”.

Zier­vo­gel and Ku­namwene say the les­son for wa­ter man­agers across the re­gion is that gov­ern­ments need to find ap­pro­pri­ate and in­clu­sive ways to man­age a re­source as scarce and sus­cep­ti­ble to change as wa­ter. The bet­ter they man­age wa­ter re­sources now, the bet­ter they’ll be able to adapt to the im­pacts of cli­mate change in fu­ture.

If coun­tries with semi-arid cli­mates around the world are to be more re­spon­sive to the chal­lenges faced in the area of wa­ter man­age­ment as cli­mate shifts in fu­ture, they need to get a han­dle on these on-the-ground man­age­ment issues to­day.

“What comes through from this re­search is that the prin­ci­ple of de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion for wa­ter gover­nance is good on pa­per, but in re­al­ity it’s very dif­fi­cult to implement ef­fec­tively and meet na­tional ser­vice de­liv­ery goals,” says Zier­vo­gel.

The ACDI find­ings show that, man­ag­ing in­creas­ingly pres­sured wa­ter re­sources in semi-arid coun­tries, com­mu­ni­ties should be in­cluded in gover­nance pro­cesses but that they need skills train­ing and re­sources.

De­ci­sion-mak­ers need to un­der­stand the unique con­text of each com­mu­nity sit­u­a­tion. All par­ties need to meet reg­u­larly to build trust and agree, to­gether, on ap­pro­pri­ate wa­ter gover­nance solutions. And all relevant gov­ern­ment de­part­ments need to work to­gether to co-or­di­nate their joint re­sponses, be­cause the ef­fects of cli­mate change on wa­ter re­sources are sel­dom the man­date of one depart­ment.

In their hands: Vil­lagers tasked with tak­ing over the man­age­ment of their wa­ter take on the day-to-day chal­lenges of the of­ten mam­moth un­der­tak­ing. Photo: An­toine Lorgnier

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