Indigenous water management institutions in Romwe micro-catchment, Chivi District, Zimbabwe

The last two decades have witnessed a paradigm shift in conservation and natural resource management in most post-colonial African countries, from costly State-centred control towards community-based approaches. Within this management framework, there is renewed debate on the role of institutional arrangements for common pool resource (CPR) use. Research on CPR institutions has tended to concentrate on those that are visible and formal, but there are other hidden and informal institutions, such as social networks, which are important for appropriating natural resources.

Romwe micro-catchment is in Chivi district, southern Zimbabwe. Chivi district is characterized by low rainfall, ranging from 450 to 600 mm per annum, poor soils for agricultural production, and severe droughts. Because of the dryness of the area, water is a key resource in the livelihoods of households within the micro-catchment. These households fall into three traditional villages, each presided over by a village head known as the sabuku (kraalhead). Besides the three villages in the physical catchment, seven other traditional villages use natural resources from Romwe.

Two broad categories of water sources have been identified: community- and privately owned. Community-owned water sources include boreholes, Barura dam, streams and deep wells. Each village uses community-owned water sources for different purposes and at different times of year. The boundaries of water resource use shift according to the type and use of each water source, as seen in the case of Barura dam. A variety of rules and regulations apply to the different community-owned water sources. Some rules are generic, while others are specific to the type of water source.

Most privately owned water sources are deep wells dug by households using their own labour, hired labour or assistance from neighbours. Wells are dug close to homes or in the fields. Some wells have been inherited, together with fields, from parents and grandparents. Although exclusive use of a well by a single household is very unlikely, well owners attach conditions to the use of their wells, granting access to water for domestic purposes, such as drinking, cooking and laundry. When larger amounts are needed, such as for beer brewing, permission has to be sought for that specific activity.

In times of drought, when water is limited, well owners may limit the number of households that can fetch water from their wells, the frequency of fetching water, and the purposes and volumes of water collected. Individual owners institute rules governing access to their wells, and communicate these verbally to well users. Local village health workers also set rules relating to general hygiene. Bans on access to water are generally resented in the community.

Access to water is based on reciprocity, and well owners derive benefits from the people who use their wells. These include: access to arable land, when well users lease land to well owners; draught power for agricultural work; labour; and social capital, because people who share the same water points are more likely to engage in projects together.

Most institutional arrangements governing communal and privately owned water sources in Romwe are not written down, but community members appear to know them well. Institutional arrangements are usually defined only very generally, giving conditional access based on appropriate use. The importance of this non-specificity is that it allows flexibility in resolving particular cases.

It has been argued that rules and regulations for resource use should be codified, but this overlooks the existing system’s flexibility in determining who has access to water resources at a given time. Evidence from Africa, suggests that formalizing landholdings through registration increases conflicts over land rights, particularly among groups that customarily had informal access to water. Customary rights over common pool resources in local communities, and the value of flexibility in these arrangements should be recognized.

Adapted from B. Swallow, L. Onyango and R. Meinzen-Dick. 2006. Catchment property rights and the case of Kenya’s Nyando basin. In B. Swallow, N. Okono, M. Achouri and L. Tennyson, eds. Preparing for the next generation of watershed management programmes and projects. Proceedings of the African Workshop. Nairobi, 8 to 10 October 2003. Watershed Management and Sustainable Mountain Development Working Paper No. 8. Rome, FAO, FORC Department.

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last updated:  Tuesday, March 27, 2007