Water sector reforms in sub-Saharan Africa

The last two decades have seen the emergence of new strategies for natural resource management and supporting institutions throughout sub-Saharan Africa. There is a clear shift from the centralized and State-driven natural resource management regimes of the colonial and immediate post-independence period towards decentralized and community-based management regimes. In this context, the water sector has been reformed in Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Swaziland, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya, the United Republic of Tanzania and other countries. Reforms address the environment as a legitimate water user, and emphasize efforts to control pollution. Water management functions have been decentralized to the catchment or watershed level, where stakeholders have a larger say in the management of water in their own areas. Examples of these reforms are summarized in the following.

In Zimbabwe, a new Water Act became law in 1998, after long consultation with stakeholders. The new act is founded on economic efficiency, environmental sustainability and equity of use. Water is viewed from the overall hydrological perspective, i.e., groundwater and surface water are treated as part of one hydrological system. Water can no longer be privately owned, and water rights have been replaced with short-term water use permits, whose renewal is subject to water availability and evidence of efficient use. Stakeholder institutions - catchment councils (CCs) - have been formed at the watershed and sub-watershed levels. There is more control over pollution, through the polluter-pays principle. All fees charged for commercial water services are retained by a National Water Fund, which funds the statutory services provided by the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA).

In Ghana, an act of parliament established the Water Resources Commission (WRC) in 1996, with the mandate to regulate and manage the country’s water resources and coordinate government policies relating to them. The commission is a forum for the integration and balancing of different interests, and is made up of technical representatives from key institutions involved in water utilization and services delivery (hydrological services, water supply, irrigation development, water research, environmental protection, forestry and minerals) and civil society stakeholders (indigenous leaders, women’s associations, non-governmental organizations [NGOs], etc.). In 2001, a Water Management Fund (WMF) was created to finance conservation activities, an information system, local watershed management institutions and research. This fund’s income will come from a raw water charge (entailing a 0.7 percent increase in tariffs), licence fees and fines for offences.

Since the advent of a democratic South Africa in 1994, government policy has focused on equitable and sustainable social and economic development for the benefit of all people. In 1997, the Cabinet adopted a National Water Policy (NWP) inspired by the provisions of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of South Africa. This policy has three main objectives: equitable access to water, sustainable utilization of water, and efficient and effective water use. Based on these objectives, the National Water Act (NWA) was issued as the principal legal instrument for water resource management in South Africa. The act includes provisions for the protection, use, development, conservation, management and control of South Africa’s water resources. These legal provisions enable the NWP’s proposals to be implemented. A National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS) was also developed, which describes how the water resources of South Africa are to be protected, used, developed, conserved, managed and controlled in accordance with the requirements of the policy and law. A vital element of the NWRS is its progressive decentralization of responsibility and authority for water resource management to catchment management agencies (CMAs) and local-level water users’ associations, which determine the principles for allocating available water among competing user groups.

Why water sector reform in Zimbabwe has not performed as expected

Although Zimbabwe has the legal framework for integrated water management, the situation on the ground does not reflect the policy. The reform process has not taken off as expected, owing to a combination of factors ranging from conflicting policies and weak institutional linkages, to insufficient funding. The following factors explain why a legal framework can only function properly when it has appropriate technical, financial, social and institutional support.

Land reform. The launching of water reform coincided with land reform in Zimbabwe. Water sector reform aimed to promote equitable and sustainable utilization, with more stakeholder participation and introduction of the user-pays principle. The land reform programme aimed to redistribute land and encourage greater utilization of national land resources. The two policies seemed to complement each other, but their objectives proved conflictive on the ground. Land reform happened so quickly that the water sector lost track of who was utilizing water for irrigation. Many farmers did not pay for their water permits, because they were unsure that they would continue to occupy their land following the land reforms; new farmers were reluctant to pay for water rights, because they had not been paid for in the past. New settlers were more interested in consolidating their claims to land than in attending water management meetings.

Political interference. There was clear political influence in the pricing of water. In a bid to retain popularity, politicians kept the price of water as low as possible, thereby frustrating the pricing policy, which cannot afford to subsidize water service provision if it is to maintain high standards in water service delivery. Defaulters on payments for water permits were protected from disconnection by political influence.

Donor withdrawal. The water sector reform was largely donor-driven, with several donors pledging to support it. By the time the CCs were fully launched, however, only one donor was still available to support two of the seven pilot catchments.

Financial stability. The water sector reform aimed to implement the user- and polluter-pays principles. Permit holders were to pay fees, which would contribute to water services provision. Although the Water Fund could realize substantial revenue to improve the provision of water services, with government contributing public funds, water fee revenues have been less than expected, and government inflows into the Water Fund have been minimal so far.

Poor collaborative process. Local authorities, industry, commercial and communal farmers and other interested parties were expected to use the CCs to discuss water affairs and find common solutions. Since inception, however, it was clear that the priority of each group was to protect its own interests. Communal farmers were the weakest and most disadvantaged sector, and had the least understanding of the commercial uses of water, while CC members were not paid for their inputs into water affairs. Meetings became less frequent, and user groups were merged to reduce expenses. This meant that stakeholders could not meet as often as they should to discuss water management issues.

Weaknesses of the coordinating agency. ZINWA was not adequately staffed to cope with the sudden demand for expert services, so it could not provide sufficient personnel to provide commercial services, nor could it provide statutory functions with funding from the Water Fund.

Adapted from H. Makukira and M. Mugumo. 2006. “Water sector reforms in Zimbabwe";

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K. Odame Abaio. 2006. “Putting integrated water resource management into practice: the Ghana experience”

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and S. Rademeyer. 2006. “Processes that will influence resource allocation in the Republic of South Africa. 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