Namibia: lessons on community water management for semi-desert countries

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Southern African countries with semi-arid climates will face increasingly complex water management challenges, as their regions become hotter and drier, and critical water supplies will come under greater pressure. Allowing local communities to partner in water management is key to governments meeting their service delivery obligations.

But communities need skills training, resources, and support to be able to work effectively in managing day-to-day water service delivery.

These are the findings of researchers from the African Climate & Development Initiative (ACDI) University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, who visited communities in northern Namibia between 2015 and 2017 in order to examine how effective Namibia’s ‘decentralised’ water management policy has been since the country’s independence in 1990.

The ACDI team worked with colleagues from the University of Namibia (UNAM) to better understand the challenges faced in semi-arid countries like Namibia as climate change threatens to put greater pressure on already over-stretched water resources.

Since independence, Namibia’s national government rolled out infrastructure in order to bring water services to rural communities in the form of water access through piped water, boreholes, communal water points, and shared livestock water troughs.

While higher tiers of government were responsible for the infrastructure, state policy devolved the day-to-day administration of water distribution and payment to local communities. This is done through Water Point Associations, which are managed by community volunteers.

This policy is in step with global trends towards a more inclusive approach to resource governance and management, according to UCT associate professor Gina Ziervogel, with the ACDI.

ACDI researchers visited villages in the Onesi Constituency in northern Namibia to test whether this management approach was allowing for effective water delivery.

‘What we found in our visits to northern Namibia, is that this decentralisation process doesn’t necessarily address the needs of the local people,’ explains Irene Kunamwene, a doctoral researcher with ACDI.

After interviewing water committee volunteers from three villages, Kunamwene found that a shortage of skills and capacity among water committee members undermined their ability to deliver water to the people who need it most.

Volunteers take on the responsibility of negotiating with communities how they will pay for their water, either through a flat daily fee, or per volume of water purchased. They must also make sure someone is available each day to unlock the communal tap, dispense water, and document how much each household takes each day. Come month-end, the committee secretary must collect payments.

This means that volunteers need to be basically numerate and literate, but also need negotiation and mediation skills. Many received little training in how to manage the water delivery and payment system, and were not instructed in how to oversee maintenance and repairs.

‘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.’

Their 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.


This article was funded by ASSAR (Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions), a research consortium looking at climate change in semi-arid parts of Africa and India.