Good water governance

Food Security30 Nov 2009The Broker


In this second report on The Broker thesis project we highlight the work of two researchers who examined water management systems in Africa. Their theses have been reviewed by Meine Pieter van Dijk of the UNESCO–IHE Institute for Water Education, Delft, and Rudy Rabbinge of Wageningen University, the Netherlands.

In most developing countries, the effective management of water resources depends not only on appropriate technologies. Because there are also social and organizational dimensions, the design of appropriate institutions is crucial. The authors of the theses examine community-based water management systems in Ethiopia and Malawi, focusing on the relationship between formal and informal institutions. All too often, they find, formal institutional arrangements fail to reflect the informal realities on the ground.

Rahel Deribe (Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia)
In ‘Institutional analysis of water management on communal irrigation systems’, Rahel Deribe examines the effectiveness of communally managed irrigation schemes in two districts in Ethiopia. Most communities tend to identify with local water user associations and committees, and so turn to them rather than formal institutions to resolve conflicts over water.Deribe finds that collective irrigation water management may be most effective in communities that are close to markets, familiar with irrigation systems, and involved in their construction. Arguing that community-based management can contribute to more sustainable water use and higher farm productivity, she calls for improved support – including training, extension and access to credit – to strengthen their capacities, and to create links with formal institutions. However, ‘the presence of external organizations can reduce local efforts to enforce the rules’, suggesting that they must be demand-driven and complement local inputs.

Most common property resources are exploited on a ‘first come, first served’ basis, resulting in inefficient use, unequal distribution of the benefits and depletion. Developing the capacity of community-based water management systems will therefore contribute to efficiency, equity and sustainability. Reading committee member Rudy Rabbinge described Deribe’s study as ‘interesting and extremely relevant’ for many areas of Ethiopia where irrigation is essential. Meine Pieter van Dijk commented that ‘collective action is an interesting theoretical approach, while the tragedy of the commons is an old but still relevant dilemma in environmental economics’.

Stephanie Zwier (Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands)
In ‘Community-based water management: Wishful thinking or a way out?’, Stephanie Zwier assesses the viability of five water resource management arrangements in rural Malawi. The reading committee praised this as a study of ‘an important topic, dealt with in a creative manner.’Zwier found that in two cases the communities were effectively managing their water, while the three others were not. She identifies three sets of conditions that determine viability – the resource system and its users, local caretakers and organizations, and institutional arrangements such as rules, sanctions and monitoring systems. She offers several recommendations for governments, NGOs and project designers. First, if the resource system is large, it may need to be divided up and the parts managed separately. Second, the system boundaries should be clear to all users, both to prevent free riders and to ensure that those who invest in the system are rewarded.

Deribe and Zwiers highlight the importance of relationships between formal and informal institutions. They call for greater efforts to strengthen informal institutions and linkages with formal institutions, ensuring that they are appropriate and reflect the situation on the ground.

View thesis Rahel Deribe

View thesis Stephanie Zwier