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FEATURE: Building an enabling environment for inclusive rural wellbeing

It is time to address capacity gaps in water users associations in Namibia and make the most of their potential to support adaptation to climate change – say Salma Hegga, Irene Kunamwene and Gina Ziervogel of the University of Cape Town. This is one of a series of blogs on ‘Accelerating adaptation action in Africa’ published by CDKN to frame the Africa anchoring event of the Climate Adaptation Summit, January 2021.

As we approach the Climate Adaptation Summit on 25 January 2021, it is important to identify ways to accelerate effective and inclusive climate change adaptation for Africa. One important area to focus on is creating an enabling policy and institutional environment for inclusive rural wellbeing.

This blog draws on a case study of decentralised water resource reforms in semi-arid Namibia to provide lessons for inclusive adaptation. Specifically, it focuses on local participation in the water sector to explore how effective this is and whether it has enhanced or undermined access to water which is essential for the wellbeing of rural communities.

Capacity gaps in community organisations responsible for management of water resources remains barely understood in semi-arid parts of southern Africa, such as Namibia. This is important to address given that water resources are already under pressure, and things are going to get tougher in future as the climate becomes hotter, drier and less predictable.

Decentralisation of water management to local levels

Since the 1990s, the Government of Namibia has carried out ‘decentralised’ reforms to help manage water resources. As part of this, communities have been given responsibility for managing water points and sharing water users’ fees.

Decentralisation transfers responsibilities for water provision and management from the central government to lower levels and community organisations, such as water users associations. The decentralisation reforms aim to increase participation of local actors and responsiveness of government to local people. In reality, the reforms rarely achieve the desired purpose of inclusive water governance and effective participation.

Blind spot for local actors’ capacities

Decentralised efforts have paid insufficient attention to strengthening the capacity of local actors. An international project, Adaptation at Scale in Semi–Arid Regions (ASSAR), looked at the governance of water resources between 2015 and 2017 in rural communities of Namibia.

The findings show how decentralisation of water resources has not been supported with the necessary enabling policy and institutional environment. There has been insufficient support for local organisations (water user associations) and so local water access benefits have been limited. The findings, published in (Hegga et al. 2020; Ziervogel and Hegga 2018 and Brendon et al. 2018) highlight progress made to establish institutional structures at regional and village levels. But we also see the urgency to highlight critical gaps emerged that should be addressed.

We found that even though decentralisation has led to increased participation in water management at the village level, the strategy remains ineffective and can lead to different outcomes. Our findings show that participation of local actors in water governance increased where water users associations are supported and are fully functional. Functional water users associations take responsibility to manage water points including daily operation of the water point/tap, collecting user fees and maintenance.

Water supply and storage infrastructure, rural Namibia (above). Such water points provide water for domestic use, livestock and wild animals (mostly elephants). Challenges related to financial support, and absence of technical skills may lead to closure of water point like this.

Support needed for local actors to play meaningful management roles

The ASSAR study shows that although participation of local actors is crucial to decentralisation and important for effective management of water resources, in reality this participation is often tokenistic. Central government assists local actors with the setting up of these associations, but they have no strategy to ensure that there is continuous support to them.

Rather, regional and constituency actors are expected to support local actors to manage and access water but they are struggling due to limited capacities and resources. Our findings suggest that in Namibia, centralised decision-making and national priority setting still dominates Namibia’s water sector.

Decentralised water governance has enabled the central government to delegate responsibilities to local authorities and local communities. However, this has not been matched with the resources and capacity building needed to empower local actors.

Regional stakeholders feel they are not very involved in contributing to the policies and/or regulations enforced by the national government. For instance, because of financial resources and staff constraints, the Department of Water Supply and Sanitation Coordination has been unable to prioritise installation of new stand points. Similarly, some committees’ members went on strike and stopped operation due to the volunteering nature of their work. This has led to closure of some water points.

Poorest, most marginalised people still miss out  

Despite the fact that decentralisation of water governance can improve service delivery, attention also needs to be paid to how decentralisation has impacted different social groups. While decentralisation aims for inclusive participation it often excludes some important groups of people. For example, the extent to which poor and marginalised households are part of decision-making processes seems to be limited in Namibia. Although the policy intention was to include community members in water governance through water users associations, existing forms of social differentiation in Namibia create unequal terms of participation. Association membership rules excludes those who cannot pay user fees. This automatically prevents poorer households from taking part in water governance and management.

Policy implications

Governments need to find appropriate and inclusive ways to manage water resources. The focus on the water sector is critical because this scarce resource is already susceptible to climate variability and future climate conditions are likely to increase pressure on water resources.

For village residents and regional actors to carry out their responsibilities and participate effectively in water governance they require appropriate knowledge and resources. When actors don’t have the required capacities, the reforms have a high chance of failing or not delivering the expected outcomes. Policy makers need to focus on building the capacities of village and regional actors to successfully manage water resources. This requires an understanding of how local context impacts people’s ability to take part. If policymakers better understand the context in which reforms take place, there is more chance of benefits to the most vulnerable. However, coordinated efforts across levels of governance are needed to enable this.

Photo – boys at water canal, Namibia (above, right): This sight will become a norm as poorer and marginalised people, who are unable to pay water user fees, are excluded from accessing safe water. Climate change and limited adaptation capacity will make this phenomenon worse.

All photo credits: Irene Kunamwene and ASSAR research team in Namibia. 

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