Project research in northwestern Namibia reveals that global models of resource governance (community, participation, sustainability, development) found their way into the pastoral settlements. However, the use and distribution of water does not follow explicit institutional blueprints. National water policies were largely developed with an eye on globally circulating paradigms and local realties were neither sufficiently reflected nor incorporated into the process. Following the argumentation of Behrends, Park & Rottenburg (2014) our case shows that resource management principles which are abstracted in one site, cannot simply be transferred to another “reality”. When principles and frameworks of successful resource governance met local circumstances in northwestern Namibia, an unexpected institutional development was initiated (Schnegg 2016).

Generally, institutions of resource governance in the villages are situational, flexible, and guided by norms structuring the sharing and exchange of scarce resources (Linke 2017). Furthermore, understandings of authority, gender roles and power dynamics shape the way, water is governed (Menestrey-Schwieger 2017). While in some areas, institutions of water management are highly conflictive and lead to disputes in the communities, cooperation can be observed as well. Institutions of water governance can thus be characterized as ongoing negotiation processes which are shaped by social relations and roles, by the distribution of power and by the presence and influence of external actors and developements.

Global models: Policies

Project results convincingly show that Namibian water policies reflect an international paradigm change in the field of natural resource governance (Kelbert 2016; Schnegg 2016; Schnegg & Linke 2016). Principles of sustainable, equal and efficient water governance were translated into the Namibian policies after independence. They resulted into a process of political decentralization and rising financial and management responsibilities for the communities.

Based on a shift towards sustainability, water was incorporated into the international agenda from the 1970s onwards. Until the 1990s however, water was largely perceived as a public good and hence subject to state management. This changed profoundly during events in New Delhi, Dublin and Rio in the beginning of the 1990s when “community-based management” became the prominent model of natural resource governance. The paradigm shift from supply to demand-based management came with various concepts and ideas. Amongst the most prominent, which can be easily detected in Namibian water policies are:

  • Participation and the maximal involvement of local users,
  • Gender equality focusing especially on the role of women in rural water supply
  • The assessment of water as an “economic good”.

Scientific blueprints

The institutional blueprints which have been developed for rural communities throughout Kunene clearly mirror the scientific framework as designed by Ostrom in the beginning of the 1990s (Linke 2017; Menestrey-Schwieger 2017). Following the participatory approach, communities in Kunene should have had a major stake in the process of institutional development. In practice, however, the set-up guiding the CBM implementation in the villages is highly standardized. With an eye on restricted resources and capacities in rural communities as well as in the regional administration, state representatives introduced largely fixed frameworks.

Based on a review of case studies throughout the word, the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom developed a framework of eight design principles structuring successful institutions of common-pool resource governance (1990: 90). Most prominently the principles of “clearly defined boundaries”, the “congruence between appropriation and provisions rules”, as well as “monitoring” and “graduated sanctions” were expected to facilitate water management in the communities (Linke 2017: 149; Menestrey Schwieger 2107: 34-35). In order to implement these principles, water-point associations were founded to distinguish members from non-members, and water-points were fenced to regulate access. A water-point committee was established to monitor rules and apply sanctions if necessary. Most central, the regional government introduced payment schemes and recommended to calculate the fees for water according to the amount of cattle a household possesses (per-head of cattle rule). In everyday management, however, communities rarely follow a standardized procedure; payments are often collected in an ad-hoc manner and every household is asked to pay the same amount of money (flatrate).

Living institutions – ethnographic perspectives

Long-term ethnographic research reveals that the institutional blueprints were only marginal integrated in the everyday management practices of the communities and when implemented, many of the “new institutions” were not sustainable. So even if a community registered a “water-point-association”, membership did not have an influence on further practices; in the same vein, many water point committees were dissolved after a few years (Menestrey Schwieger 2017: 313: Linke 2017: 156). Sanctions which are mentioned in village constitutions and management plans are not put into practice either (Schnegg & Linke 2015). Although formalized institutions seldom explain the usage and distribution of groundwater, all villages under study managed to guarantee the water supply for households and herds. Strategies of water supply include temporal agreements with nearby villages in case of severe damages of the water infrastructure or drought (Schnegg & Bollig 2016).

Ongoing negotiation processes shape institutions of water governance in northwestern Kunene: These are structured by social relations and power dynamics as well as by external actors and processes, most prominently the state. Negotiation takes place within communities as well as between them and in a vertical perspective between the communities and further organizations as the Department of Rural Water Supply or various NGOs working in the areas.

Social relations

Water governance in northwestern Namibia does not follow a clear rule pattern. Instead, the social organization of the communities is central to understand the way water is used and distributed (Schnegg & Linke 2015). Social roles and authority are depend on kinship, age and economic assets (above all livestock) and water is embedded in networks of sharing and exchanging various resources (Schnegg 2015). Multiplexity is a central concept to capture the connection of water with other spheres of life. Results proof that central actors in exchange networks are usually also the one who have a major stake in organizing the water supply. On the other site, severe conflicts arise, if these two spheres do not match (Linke 2017: 202). Furthermore, some actors show an above-average engagement in maintaining the water supply demonstrating that commitments to the collective good water can serve to improve one´s status and reputation in general. Social norms of sharing and exchanging scarce resource additionally guarantee a “human right on water” (Linke 2017; Menestrey-Schwieger 2017). In times of need, water will not be denied to any living being. However, the social embeddedness of water also restricts scopes of action, especially for the most vulnerable households.

Bargaining and Power

Long term ethnographic research reveals how powerful actors can shape the institutional development towards their advantage (Menestrey-Schwieger 2017; Schnegg 2016). Also here, decision making is not dependent on institutions or organizations but mostly on the social power of community members. Most conflicts in the communities relate to payments for water. Here CBM leads to disproportioned costs especially for the poorer and economically depend households. Ongoing monitoring shows that a change towards graduated payments rules is usually supported by external actors (above all the state) and events like vaccination campaigns which provide accurate information on the numbers of cattle per household (Menestrey Schwieger 2017: 305). However, households with less cattle also do have some scope of action especially when water gets scarce. Here, the theory of Knight (1992), who characterizes institutions as a byproduct of distributional conflicts, helps to understand different forms of power (Menestrey Schwieger 2017: 432). Bargaining power results out of the costs that arise if actors do not agree on a solution for a certain problem (e.g. collecting money for the water supply or urgent repairs). Here, households with little or no cattle have less to loose and are able to skip or reduce necessary payments. However, their scope of action is restricted by their overall dependency on the wealthier members of the community.

The Role of the State

The state plays a multifaceted role in the process of institutional change. While CBM anticipated the Namibian state to alter from being a provider to being a facilitator, the process of institutional change is clearly directed by public guidelines (Kelbert 2016; Schnegg 2016). It is thus not surprising that the communities regard CBM not as their “own” project but as a task or challenge created by the political authority. They speak rather of coping or struggling when referring to water than of developing or participating as originally envisioned. With intensifying problems in the communities, e.g. with constant damages at the water points due to growing wildlife populations, CBM is increasingly debated. Communities argue that the unexpected high maintenance cost cannot be shouldered by them alone and demand more state responsibility. This creates a situation of “institutional uncertainty” as rights and duties are subject to firm negotiations between regional officials and the rural pastoral population (Linke 2017: 171). Furthermore some communities start to block the CBM process by refusing to sign the necessary contracts and/or by demanding that an array of problems need to be solved first (Linke 2017: 166).

On the other hand the results show that the state can play an important role in supporting a more equitable institutional development by moderating conflicts in the communities and open acceptable ways of implementing graduated payments (Menestrey-Schwieger 2017; Schnegg, Bollig & Linke 2016). In the region of Otwani, a stronger presence of state officials corresponds with a higher frequency of graduated payments schemes. In sum, both developments reveal that the state still plays an important role to understand the distribution of costs and benefits in the field of rural water management.

Long-term consequences

The implementation of community-based management led to rising costs for communities, which turns the question of cost-sharing practices and economic consequences into a central issue. Our results reveal that in many communities the handling of payments follows the norm that everyone needs to contribute a fixed amount if money is available. In practice, wealthier households pay more regularly, but as they own less livestock, the payments of poorer community members are above average in weight (Linke 2017). Payments for water place a high burden on already marginalized households thus reproducing existing inequalities (Schnegg, Bollig & Linke 2016). Further results indicate that state involvement supports the establishment of a per-head of-cattle payment institution. However, these formalized rules do not correspond to other field of sharing in the communities and it is thus unlikely that they will prevail, especially when state influence decreases.

Cooperation and conflict

One of the central project questions is to show how institutions relate to cooperation and conflict. While the work of Ostrom (1990; Cox et al. 2010) demonstrates how locally developed institutions sustain cooperation, the abstraction of design principles in form of institutional blueprints does not guarantee the same success.

Our research reveals that the implementation of CBM resulted in social conflicts, albeit in most cases non-violent. Above all in southern Kunene, a large proportion of poor households raises general questions about the assessment of water as an economic good (resulting in consequent pricing) versus the need for water as a human right (resulting in state subsidies and/or an assured amount of water for free). Furthermore, acceptable payment schemes require at least a certain availability of financial resources; however, income in southern Kunene is low and highly uncertain. The whole Kunene region is characterized by economic differences and various overlapping practices of sharing and exchanging scarce resources. This turns the distribution of costs into a difficult and at the same time an essential factor to guarantee a socially equitable development.

While institutions of water management are highly conflictive in many cases, cooperation can be observed as well. A simple example to illustrate a joint community effort is the handling of damages: all households are obligated to contribute available resources in the case of damage due to a general norm of mutual support and the shared need for water. Usually and despite scarce resources, communities fix the problem quickly (Linke 2017). In sum, our results expose that cooperation generally is embedded in structures beyond state blueprints. Here two important observations could be made: on the one hand, the communal water-management benefits from the individual commitment of single actors; on the other, cooperative practices are embedded in social relations in which diverse resources are exchanged and shared in accordance to norms of reciprocity. Moreover, the wish to live in peace, and norms of conflict avoidance, both play a part in contributing to maintaining cooperation. The maintenance of kin, neighborly, and community relations prevents an escalation of conflicts around water as well (Linke 2017; Menestrey-Schwieger 2017).

Complex interrelations

Further consequences we want to touch upon outline ongoing processes. As water cannot be separated from other spheres of life, it also cannot be separated from other resources and institutions. After independence, CBM was not only implemented in the rural water sector, but also in the field of wildlife management and preservation. This has resulted in a process of reterritorialization and institutional fragmentation especially in northern Kunene, where power used to be concentrated in the hands of headman and their councilors (Bollig & Menestrey-Schwieger 2014).

In southern Kunene, wildlife conservation and the establishment of conservancies created a field of tension for local pastoral famers. Recent research by Kiaka conducted in ǂKhoadi ǁhôas conservancy in 2014 and 2015 shows that since the foundation of the conservancy there has been an increase in game population and diversity. This facilitates development of tourism and trophy hunting activities. While they are benefits for some community members especially due to employment and training opportunities, this development also causes increasing costs. Predators endanger local herds and hence the economic capital of many households and elephants cause high cost at the water points due to consumption and destruction. In sum, institutional diversity creates conflicts between conservation and livestock-based economy in the area. Here, the ones who bear the increasing costs of conservation are in most the cases not the ones who also benefit from it. Pastoral farmers who receive insufficient benefits from ecological success, pay the largest cost in terms of depredation and destruction at water points.

Recent research by Olwage shows that within the context of tenure insecurity and competing chieftaincy claims, especially in middle and northern Kunene, the development of water-point associations and conservancy committees are taking on a new saliency: as technologies of inclusion and exclusion. These situations have to be understood also in relation to changing translocal migrations within the region. Even though access to water is rarely refused, especially taken that livestock roam around independently, WPAs are mobilized together with communal conservancies as a member driven organization. They create a way to re-imagine and re-assert territorial and group belonging, by refusing or delaying membership, and are also used to contest particular mobile land-use practices. Despite not having any legal traction, their mobilization are re-defining boundaries, mobility, and is embedding them within contestations regarding changing land-relations and tenure.

This developments have caused further negotiation about the use and distribution of water. Especially the rising costs for maintaining the water points led to disputes between regional political authorities working in the fields of conservation and water. In the same vein, the above-average financial stress for poorer households resulted in debates on the national level about the pricing for water in marginalized rural areas. As one consequence, the CBM process has been put officially on held and the last phase of “full ownership” is currently not implemented anymore. Water de facto remains in an intermediary stage where several actors such as communities, non-governmental organizations or public authorities are part of a diverse system of co-management. Institution of water governance thus evolve and develop at the interface between different political aims and visions and are part of socially embedded strategies to deal with an increasing interlinked environment. Institutions are highly diverse and shift between conflicts and cooperation to guarantee the supply of a scarce resource in the settlements.



Overall Results