Otwani Area

Researcher: Elsemi Olwage, Kathrin Gradt


My research project deals with institutions of collective rural water management in general, and particularly scrutinizes gender and generation relations within its daily practice. I conducted ethnographic research in three neighbouring villages in the area of Otwani between November 2010 and November 2011. The villages, the populations of which mainly consist of members of the Ovaherero people, are situated halfway between Sesfontein and Opuwo, the administrative and economic centre of the northern Kunene region, and vary by size between thirteen and seventeen homesteads.


Research setting

 Boy with cattle in front of a water tank

In the research area, pastoralism – a combination of cattle, goat and sheep farming – is the main subsistence strategy of the people. It e nsures a daily supply of sour milk which, together with maize porridge, comprises the staple food. Most of the women also own a rain garden, in which they mainly cultivate maize and pumpkins. The annual harvest never yields sufficient food to last the whole year, however, so additional maize meal has to be bought in town. The sale of livestock at local auctions forms the main cash income strategy of the homesteads. Additionally, money is gained through old age pensions, child benefit and disability grants and, to a lesser degree, through remittances from relatives in the cities. Due to the prospering economy in Opuwo, many people also try to gain access to the labour market there.

Reliance on livestock farming in a semi-arid environment drives people to lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle. In search for fresh pastures for their often large livestock herds, most of the homesteads move between their main settlements and cattle posts according to the cycle of dry and rainy seasons. Within this context, of course, the availability of water plays an important role.

Sources of water  Watertank in the Otwani-Regionsupply

Generally, the village dwellers of the Otwani area have several water sources available for human and livestock consumption. Public boreholes, the main focus of the study, are the central water source during dry season. Even when people stay at their cattle posts some kilometres away from the village, they return to the public water point every day. During rainy season, however, people use alternative water sources like dams, wells or water pools in the ephemeral river to save money, because use of the public water points is linked to costs, since they are operated by diesel engines and need to be maintained.

Local institutions of community-based water management

Generally, there are two crucial questions regarding collective management of public boreholes which are of major interest:

  1. What kinds of rules do people put in place to gather money for the operation and maintenance of their water point?
  2. How equitable are the chosen institutions for all involved parties?

The Namibian Directorate of Rural Water Supply (DRWS) and other implementers of the CBWM strategy teach a certain set of rules, which communicate a specific understanding of justice and fairness. Contributions per head of livestock per month, in addition to monthly household levies and a personal annual membership fee, are favoured over flat-rate contributions in which every homestead, no matter how many animals it possesses, pays the same amount of money.


In two of the villages studied, the people contribute per head of livestock, but only after interventions by DRWS and many years of practicing and negotiating other approaches, such as the flat-rate rule and the implementation of staggered fees based on the grouping of livestock herds into categories of small, middle, and large. In the third village the way in which water fees are paid is unstructured. The ‘per head of cattle’ rule and the flat-rate rule are both used. Additionally, in three cases of an engine breakdown, it was observed that the full cost was covered by only one person, with no claims made to other village dwellers to reimburse some of the money. The hypotheses that high social trust among the community members and a homogeneous setting regarding the wealth of the homesteads are the major factors contributing to this practice await testing in a forthcoming analysis.


Weather station in Otwani Area, Kaoko Otavi. 


 Women milking a cow in Otwani-Region

Key results to date

The economic heterogeneity of the actors – which is associated with differences in age and authority – lead to conflicts with regard to the negotiation and implementation of the water-management institutions (especially those related to the financial contributions). As a rule, wealthy community members are in the position to push their interests (i.e. flat-rate contributions) due to their greater bargaining power (in the form of patron-client relationships). Moreover, their position is normally accepted due to their age, and because they are legitimate decision-makers beyond the realm of water management. 

In some cases, the state was able to strengthen the bargaining position of the less wealthy and less powerful actors through its presence (visits from the DRWS) and its insistence, within the framework of community meetings, that the water point contributions be implemented according to numbers of livestock per homestead. This situation resulted in a competition over authority between the state and local influential persons regarding the water management on site.

Although the economic heterogeneity among the community members was an important trigger of conflict in connection with the water management, it also had positive effects for the water supply. Thanks to single especially wealthy community members, who were in a position to pay for expensive repairs in advance, water shortages due to breakdowns could be avoided. 


In terms of gender, women are encouraged by the DRWS to participate in the water point committees, but they rarely hold the positions of chairpersons; if elected at all, it is usually as treasurers, a position which, as women, they already hold at home in an informal way. Additionally, the payment of contributions for the water point also mirrors specific gendered spheres in Ovaherero culture. In the case of a married couple the house always belongs to the wife and constitutes her field of responsibility. On the other hand, it is men who deal with and herd the cattle. In one village I observed that the household levy is always paid by the woman, if she is married. The fees for the livestock, however, are paid by the male head of the homestead, irrespective of ownership. This shows that already existing social institutions are transferred to, or re-enacted in, new fields.


Forthcoming work

Elsemi Olwage is currently conducting fieldwork in the Otwani area in order to continue with the case-study research. Her focus lies on the interconnection between Mobility and the development of water-management institutions in the community of Otjomatemba in particular. Preliminary results from her fieldwork reveal that conflicts between traditional authorities, differing ownership claims over boreholes, and tensions caused by a four-year drought (a push factor for numerous herders) strongly shape the negotiation of institutions concerning¬ access to and use of water and land. 


Download Free Joomla Templates by vonfio.de