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Local Institutions in Globalized Societies is a comparative anthropological research project that aims to understand how pastoral communities in Namibia govern water usage. In 1997 the Namibian state followed a global trend in partly assigning ownership and usage rights of its natural resources (water, forest and game) to rural communities. In the course of this decentralization process, parts of the infrastructure necessary to secure water supply are handed over to local user associations. As a consequence of these globally initiated and nationally administered changes, hundreds of communities have found it necessary to develop new institutions to regulate the usage and distribution of water in a semi-arid environment.

Project framework:

LINGS, based at the Universities of Hamburg and Cologne respectively, is the first long-term project financed by the German Scientific Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) within the field of Social and Cultural Anthropology. It started in April 2010 and is designed for a period of nine years.

Rural water supply in Namibia

During colonial times, especially in line with the expansion of the apartheid policy in the 1960s and 1970s, boreholes were drilled on a grand scale in the so-called homelands in order to turn more land into accessible grazing grounds. Until independence the state played a crucial role in water management issues, since the infrastructure (wells, pipes, pumps, etc.) was provided and maintained by the South-West African administration – centrally and as part of a decentralized homeland administration.

After independence, mainly during the second half of the 1990s, certain political reforms were introduced in Namibia that had a major influence on water management. The new regulations in large part reflected ideas discussed by international water sector professionals and the development community. Following the International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin (1992) and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (1992), concepts such as integrated water resource management (IWRM), which stresses increased stakeholder participation and community-based management and the importance of gender equality as well as the economic value of water, became guiding principles for international policy making.

Following a donor-funded national water resources review process, the new ‘National Water Policy’ of 2000, and in particular the ‘Water Resources Management Act’ of 2004, were designed to hand over state control of water infrastructure and management to the local users in rural areas. The main aims of the reforms were the equitable, efficient and sustainable management of water resources and water services, with particular consideration of issues of decentralization, social equity, ecological protection, and economic growth (see National Water Policy White Paper 2000). The internationally accepted concept of IWRM was followed as the guiding principle in these water sector reforms. One of the outcomes was that communal settlements were given the responsibility of forming Water Point User Associations (WPAs) with Water Point Committees (WPCs) and of developing institutions for the management of the water supply services and infrastructure at their local water points.

Research aims

The two major research objectives of our project are:

  • To analyse how local institutions regulating water usage emerge at the intersection of local norms and global ideas of justice, gender equality and sustainability.

  • To determine under what conditions community-based water management is successful, using a variety of social and economic indicators.

Research design

To achieve these goals we conduct extensive comparative field research in three localities within the Kunene Region – Fransfontein, Otwani and Okangwati – in North-West Namibia. Additionally, the results are supplemented by a fourth field study that focuses on the emergence of global models of water governance and their influences on water management policies and practices in Namibia.

Why Kunene?

The Kunene Region was selected as the area in which to conduct the research in order to maintain continuity with anthropological work previously done by the project supervisors and other colleagues in this part of Namibia. Within the framework of former research projects, extensive data about the management of natural resources has already been collected. In this regard, LINGS both builds on existing knowledge and broadens it by addressing a new research question.

Why the regions around Fransfontein, Otwani and Okangwati?

In order to better assess the differences and similarities of institutional emergence and change in the Kunene region, these three research sites were selected because, to a great extent, together they represent the overall ethnical, economic and ecological spectrum of the region.

Research methods

A variety of qualitative and quantitative research methods are chosen to gather the data necessary to understand collective water management in North-West Namibia and identify reasons for the institutional developments and observed practices. Since the overall aim of the project is to develop a new model to explain institutional change through systematic comparison, standardized research tools are developed for the three long-term field studies. These include: guidelines for conducting interviews with local people for the purposes of the historical reconstruction of water management practices and institutions; etic and emic indicators of their success; the investigation of central cognitive concepts like natural resources, community, sustainability, fairness, success; and census and network analysis questionnaires and genealogies to grasp the local social fabric. Hypotheses formulated on the basis of these intensive field studies will then be tested through a process of regional up scaling.

The fourth field study, investigating the ‘travelling’ of models and concepts of water governance between different scales, involves mainly qualitative research approaches in conducting interviews with key informants in different settings and engaging in focus group discussions with water users in Kunene. The above mentioned cognitive concepts are also explored in the setting of the national and regional water administration and with NGO and donor representatives to identify congruence and divergence between the ideas of local level water users and national or international policy designers and implementers.

Characteristics of the research site(s)

The Kunene Region covers an area of 114,293 km2 – approximately 13.9% of the total land area of Namibia. The last available census (2001) found a total of 68,735 people living in the Kunene Region.
Annual rainfall increases from west to east, from less than 50mm near the coast to up to 415mm in the south east each year. Most of the rainfall occurs in summer, mainly between November and April. With a few exceptions, such as the Kunene River, the majority of the water sources are not perennial and the rivers flow only during heavy rains. Groundwater is thus the most important source of water used in the region.

The communal settlements in southern Kunene, located near Fransfontein, are inhabited by various ethnic groups, mostly by Damara, Nama and Ovaherero. Under South African rule, the area was part of the Damaraland homeland. In contrast to the other research regions included in the project, Fransfontein has a more favourable connection with Namibia’s urban centres, and wage labour plays a more important role. Households usually possess less livestock than in the north, and people have to rely on diverse economic strategies to make a living. Nonetheless, pastoralism still shapes daily life in the communal settlements.

The area of Otwani, situated halfway between Sesfontein and Opuwo, is mainly populated by the Ovaherero people. During South African colonial times this region was part of the Kaokoland homeland. People here mainly make a living through pastoralism, and so seek access to local livestock sales markets, though there is also a partial integration of this area into the labour market.

In the region around Okangwati, pastoralism is the dominant economic activity. As a part of the former Kaokoland, its integration into the South African system was less extensive than that of Fransfontein. Even now, labour migration plays a secondary role in the area; most of the inhabitants of this part of Kunene are Ovahimba, who are still only marginally linked to labour and sales markets.

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