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Who Gives a Dam?


I would like to take this last opportunity, as recent
Programme Manager of ALCOM (Aquaculture for Local Community Management), to discuss an important topic with FAN readers. Before beginning my subject, I would like to to thank all of you for your keen interest in the ALCOM Programme. Over the past two years, ALCOM has grown into a truly broad-based aquatic resource management programme. Through this evolution, the Programme has received the support of many within and outside the organization, support for which I am very grateful.

Now, on with my dam subject. Before my indoctrination I considered dams pretty simple things. Not dams like Kariba of course, but your run-of-the-mill earthen impoundment of a dozen or so hectares didn’t seem too problematic. Not so.

There is first and foremost the issue of ownership — ownership of land and ownership of water. By design the dam is blocking downstream flow. What of the rights of downstream inhabitants to what may amount to usurped water? What of the rights of communities bordering the newly formed water body versus the rights of a government agency funding the construction of the dam itself? Many of these proprietary issues will find their solutions in the statutes and regulations of the governmental entity involved. Nonetheless, they should be considered before and not after the fact.

I have been discussing the ownership of dams as though it only involved the site of the planned impoundment and the impounded water itself. Obviously it is much more. The dam corresponds to a watershed, often with orders of magnitude larger area. Everything that happens on this watershed, all land use affects the quality and quantity of water in the dam and, to a certain extent, dictates what uses the dam may have. Watersheds may touch scores of communities and the harmonization of interests can be daunting.

Now, let’s say you have mastered all these issues; water and land rights clearly delineated, responsibilities assigned and stakeholders identified. Is the worst over? No it is not. There is still the major task of working with the stakeholders to form a cohesive

group with a clear management structure and operational priorities. How is the water and the dam to be used?

At pilot project sites of the ALCOM Small Water Bodies Project we frequently encountered opposing views and priorities for the same resource. One faction favouring safeguarding the water for domestic use insisted on regulations that forbid any one from entering the dam to a depth above the knee. Others who wanted to promote hook-and-line fishing for all proclaimed that fishers must enter into the dam to for some distance to be able to fish away from shoreline vegetation. Still others declared the dam should be used by organized fishing groups using canoes and gill nets to better exploit fish stocks. All three groups were at odds with the cattlemen who wanted to water their herds at the dam — the cattle eroding the dikes and muddying the water to the detriment of both consumers and fishers.

This is not to say dams should be avoided due to their socio-cultural complexities. As witnessed by the 11,000 dams in Zimbabwe, inventoried in the ALCOM Water Resource Database, impounded water is critical to maintain the quality of life. Urban Harare as well as the smallest communities rely upon impounded water for their existence; water to drink, water for animals, water for gardens and water in which to fish.

In recognition of the importance of impounding water, governmental and non-governmental agencies across southern Africa have been rapidly building dams. The lessons of the early 90s were hard taught and all now know how devastating water shortages are. However, the point is this: building the dam is the easy part. Having the dam function as an integral part of community life is more difficult. To be able to take a holistic approach to resource management is more easily said than done. ALCOM’s experiences have gone a long way to establishing methodologies for analysing the problem and suggesting solutions. I hope these experiences can benefit others who are planning to give a dam.

John Moehl

Aquaculture Officer

FAO Regional Office for Africa




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