Why decentralised water could be the solution to Namibia’s water crisis

By Leonie Joubert

Every morning, Maria Petrus* (*name has been changed) needs to be at the communal water tap in her village in Onesi Constituency, close to the northern Namibian border with Angola. She will unlock the faucet for about two hours while her fellow villagers come along with 25 litre cans, to collect their day’s water. Later that afternoon, Petrus will be back at the tap for another couple of hours, overseeing more water collection.

The 46 year old woman is a member of the village’s Water Point Committee (WPC), volunteers who manage the government’s water delivery to this rural community. She will keep a meticulous 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 association’s secretary will collect payment for that month’s water purchases.

Sometimes the water collection points in these villages are little more than a single tap; sometimes they are a more sophisticated setup. But to do this job, Petrus and her fellow  committee volunteers must be able to read and write, and they must be young enough, and in good enough health, to get the site each day.

Volunteering comes with its own risks, too: it can keep the committee members from their crops or livestock, which are the bread-and-butter of this farming-dependent community.

They’ll also have to handle the difficulties that arise if people arrive late for water collection, after walking long distances to get their daily allocation. Or they’ll have to deal with possible conflict when cash-strapped families – possibly even their friends or neighbours – can’t service their debt, come pay-day.

Petrus’s story demonstrates the lived experience of a typical rural community in Namibia, where national government policy has passed the daily management of water distribution and payment on to local villagers as part of a move to boost water service delivery in this semi-arid part of Southern Africa.

‘This policy was part of Namibia’s attempt to improve water delivery through more inclusive governance since independence in 1990, and yet many such communal water systems in the north have been shut down because people can’t afford to pay for the state-supplied water,’ explains Irene Kunamwene, a doctoral researcher  working with the African Climate & Development Initiative (ACDI)  at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. ‘When that happens, villagers rely on hang-dug wells near their homes, and draw their own free water during the dry season.’

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

Namibia embarked on a deliberate process of decentralising its water distribution and management, something which is part of a global trend towards a more inclusive approach to resource governance and management, according to another ACDI researcher, associate professor Gina Ziervogel.

However, when Kunamwene and her team visited villages in the Onesi Constituency in northern Namibia between 2015 and 2017, to test whether this management approach was working, they found that in many cases the committee volunteers who found themselves responsible for managing water distribution and payments did not have the skills, time, or capacity to fulfil their roles effectively.

‘In semi-arid parts of Southern Africa, like Namibia, water resources are already pressured,’ explains Ziervogel, ‘and things will get tougher in future as the climate here becomes hotter, drier, and less predictable.’

Ziervogel and Kunamwene’s findings draw a stark lesson for water managers in similar near-desert countries across the region: governments need to find appropriate and inclusive ways to manage a resource as scarce and susceptible to change as water. The better they handle the processes of managing water resources now, the better they’ll be able to adapt to the impacts of climate change on the resource in future.

Call for inclusive governance of scarce water resources

After independence in 1990, Namibia’s national government began rolling out an expanded water infrastructure system, installing boreholes, communal taps, and shared animal water troughs in many remote villages. At the same time, the national government implemented the management system that decentralised the day-to-day administration of these water points to local communities.

When the ACDI researchers visited these communities, where employment is often low and people rely on farming and social grants to pay for state-supplied water, they found that this system of management had not necessarily helped to improve water delivery.

In a village like Petrus’s, the water point committee is made up of about seven members, who will need a range of skills in order to be effective.

The committee members must first consult with the community about how to structure water payment: should everyone pay a flat rate for daily water access, regardless of how much each person uses? Or should each person pay for what they take from the communal tap each day?

‘In some communities, you might have a powerful, rich person lobbying the committee to pay a flat fee per person,’ explains 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 quickly showed up the potential tensions in a community where people are already vying for a scarce resource, a situation which might become even more pressured in times of drought. When rainfall drops in semi-arid regions like Southern Africa, there is usually a decreased recharge of groundwater, which causes water to become brackish, or taps might even run dry.

‘Many of the communities we visited have chosen to charge each individual for the quantity of water they take from a communal tap over the course of a month. But this also 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, or the volunteer needing to capture exactly how much each household takes through the course of the month.’

The ACDI researchers, working alongside colleagues from the University of Namibia (UNAM), also unearthed the difficulties of the day-to-day management of the communal water points, such as that described by Petrus.

The person who volunteers for this job needs more than just numeracy skills to handle the payments. They need basic stationary. They also need specific mediation and management skills to oversee who takes how much water, and how to negotiate a situation where someone can’t afford to pay but still has a constitutional right to access water, explain Kunamwene and Ziervogel.

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

When the infrastructure breaks, water point committee members often don’t know who they should report this to, 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.

If countries in 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,’ explains Ziervogel.

The ACDI findings show that when it comes to governance issues in managing increasingly pressured water resources in semi-arid countries, local 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 involved parties need to meet regularly in order to build trust and agree, together, on appropriate water governance solutions. And all involved government departments need to work together to coordinate their joint responses, as the impacts of climate change on water resources are seldom the mandate of one department.

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