Fransfontein Area

Researcher: Richard Kiaka, Theresa Linke


My ethnographic research took place in the arid region of southern Kunene. On communal land surrounding the village of Fransfontein (approx. 137 households) three communities were chosen for long-term fieldwork. Over a period of 13 months, I stayed in the settlements of Tsaraxa-aibes, Garettes and Petrusfontein, which range in size from 9 to 17 households. They are surrounded by grazing land and are located near a drilled borehole that supplies water for livestock and human consumption. There is no public infrastructure on the communal land. Schools, a health clinic and further facilities can be found in Fransfontein or in the small town of Khorixas, situated about 20 kilometres south.


Aim of the research

Our research design aimed to understand both the communal water management practices and the underlying norms and rules that shape the organization of water in the area.  Theresa Linke in the Fransfontein AreaEmploying a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, I examined the development of water-related rules, their practical implementations, and the changes that they had undergone, as well as the economic, social and political structures of the communities.

Generally speaking, all the research sites were characterized by a degree of uncertainty (environmental, economic, social) and scarcity. Households have to deal with unexpected events or c hanges and find it difficult to make a living. Co-operation is therefore often a necessary strategy in order to combine or exchange scarce resources, and thus encom passes many facets of life. The management of water must be understood within this broader context of co-operative rules and norms.

Heterogeneous communities

The research area and the three villages in particular are multi-ethnic; the majority of residents are bi- or multilingual, speaking variously Khoekhoegowab, Otjiherero, Afrikaans, Oshivambo and, especially the ones with higher education, English.

Typically, the inhabitants of the farms live under very modest conditions. Most of them do without electricity, sanitary facilities and running water. Maize porridge, eaten with sour milk or sugar, is the main staple food. Virtually none of the households can live from farming alone, and economic diversification is common. Some households receive support from their children or other relatives in the cities; some rely on a monthly old-age pension, or are engaged in various small-scale businesses like selling food or self-brewed beer.


But farm life is not only simple and poor. There are notable economic differences existing both within and between the three communities. One distinguishing mark of these differences is herd size, which ranges from small herds consisting of a few goats and sheep to large herds of cattle. Furthermore, between mud houses or corrugated iron huts, large and comfortable brick houses can be spotted. At the end of the month, around pay-day, donkey carts on the farm roads have to make way for 4x4 pickups, arriving from the major cities like Windhoek, Otjiwarongo or Swakopmund. These so-called ‘part-time’ farmers work permanently in the urban centers and regard livestock farming as a secondary economic strategy. Most of them grew up in these farming communities, however, and describe the communal farms as their homes, and as the places to which they would like to return once they retire.

Managing water

Each of the three communities relies on a water-point that is equipped with an open reservoir and a diesel-engine. Only Garettes, the largest settlement, has an additional water-point,  Watertank in the Fransfontein Areaoperated by a wind-pump.

During the rainy season, livestock herds drink mostly at open water sources such as natural dams or rivers, while the community members mainly use rainwater for household consumption. During the dry season, the boreholes are much more frequented and the pressure to manage water rises: Communities have to pump  water regularly into their reservoirs, control the watering of their animals, collect fees, organize transport to buy diesel, maintain their infrastructure, and deal with breakdowns. Maintenance and the collection of fees are especially challenging tasks for community members, who struggle to find appropriate solutions.

The maintenance of the water point is a difficult undertaking. Service and repairs require special skills, manpower, and the right tools. Communities struggle to get the water running again, and repairs are often not sustainable. The fact that part of the water-point infrastructure is still owned by the government raises further difficulties, leaving issues of both ownership and responsibility in a political grey area. Furthermore, during the dry season elephant herds also drink at the water points and often destroy much of the infrastructure. Times of need are often the rule rather than the exception; if a major breakdown occurs, the whole community is challenged to find a quick solution and get the water running again.

In contrast to the maintenance of the water point itself, the collection of contributions takes place at the household level, and follows a certain form: the rule in place is that every household contributes the same amount of money or diesel no matter how much livestock its members possess. This agreement clearly advantages those who own more cattle and causes conflict in the communities. However, the actual implementation of the rule creates the possibility for poor households to delay contributions. The social norm that accepts that  Casual meeting in the Fransfontein Area‘those who have nothing do not have to contribute’ mitigates the impact of the established rule. When cash is available, however, the poor households are expected to contribute their share and/or pay back their debts, which are registered by one of the community members.


Weather stations in Fransfontein Area


Mopanie Pos 6

Konop Pos


Key results to date:

A fundamental observation is that water-management institutions do not adopt the form of administrative bodies imposing clear and definite rules and sanctions, as the state guidelines suggest. The establishment of Water Point Associations and Water Point Committees, and/ or the imposition of penalties in case of rule breach, are not put into practice to the letter. Rather, water-management institutions adopt the form of normative guidelines and social linkages that enable a more flexible management of the resource. In other words: such institutions are strongly influenced by social relations and the norms and practices linked to them. 

Communities are sometimes confronted with conditions of uncertainty and scarcity, i.e. they have to cope with challenging circumstances but often lack the means to do so. The need to provide money for diesel during the dry season leads to conflicts in the communities and raises questions of dependencies and justice in an environment of social inequality. To understand how a rule requiring the same fee from all members came to be accepted in communities with a highly unequal distribution of resources, one must examine the distribution of power and prestige, as well as taking into account the fact that water-related issues represent only one area of co-operation. Co-operation is a culturally embedded norm which shapes the everyday interactions of people living in the rural communities. Social relationships of multiplex character, i.e. relations with overlapping roles and range of action, link community members together in the long term and produce interdependencies and multiple motivations to cooperate.


This means that water management institutions comprise plural rules and norms that sometimes contradict each other and generate tensions; this concerns, for instance, the water point contributions and local beliefs about reciprocity in terms of sharing, such as: “one cannot give what one does not have”. Rules and their implementation are embedded in a broader system of sharing scarce resources such as tools, manpower, knowledge, transport and social support.


Forthcoming work:

Richard Kiaka is now in the Fransfontein area, continuing with data collection concerning the local practices and water-management institutions in the region. In addition Richard has expanded his field of research and now works also in an adjacent conservancy. His research in the #Khoadi //Hoas conservancy analyzes the impacts of communal water- and wildlife management on household socio-economic wellbeing. The study seeks to compare communal water management, where cost-sharing is the influencing ideal, and communal wildlife management (conservancy model), where benefit-sharing is the influencing ideal, and the impacts they have on household socio-economic wellbeing.


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