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 bread-and-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 state-supplied 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.
* Not her real name. This edited article was funded by Adaptation at Scale in Semi-Arid Regions, an international collaboration of academics and development workers focusing on how semi-arid countries can respond to climate change