Rural Water Management in Africa: The Impact of Customary Institutions in Tanzania

by Leticia K. Nkonya


As one of the most important natural resources, the management of water is becoming increasingly important as water resources are growing more scarce. This is especially the case for rural areas and developing countries, such as Africa. In sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries today, the demand for water resources is increasing. Rising demand is caused by rapid population growth, industrialization, and urbanization. Since water supplies have not kept pace with demand, water resources have been overutilized and polluted, leading to water shortage. Most people in SSA experience lack of access to safe water, a great concern especially in rural areas where most of the poor live. It is estimated that only about 45% of the population in SSA has access to safe water.

Lack of access to safe water has a disastrous impact on society, especially on women and children, who suffer in terms of illnesses and lost opportunities. It is estimated that rural people in SSA, mainly women and children, spend about 40 billion hours each year fetching water. Moreover, lack of access to safe water traps rural people in the vicious cycle of poverty: water-related illnesses reduce one’s ability to engage in a full day of productive work, which in turn increases poverty and the risk of subsequent illnesses. For these reasons, efficient management of water resources is a key to fighting poverty and a fundamental building block for sustainable development.

During the past thirty years, the management of water resources in most SSA countries was the responsibility of central governments. Unfortunately, many large water projects that were established and managed by central governments in SSA failed, mainly due to a lack of community participation in planning and implementing such projects. The people therefore had to work out their own system of water management.

In this innovative study, the author examines these forms of traditional or customary institutions of water management in a manner that has never been done before. First, the author provides us with an understanding and appreciation of the differential impact of customary institutions on drinking- and irrigation-water management. Most sociological studies on rural water management in SSA have addressed water-management issues without adequately analyzing customary institutions and showing how they affect rural water management. Most studies in river-basin management focus on water for irrigation. Few studies have examined how the customary and statutory institutions influence water management for different water uses. This study looks at how the management of water for domestic use differs from the management of water for livestock and small-scale irrigation.

The second unique contribution of this book is the analysis of the role of women and how customary and statutory institutions affect women’s participation in water management. Few studies have looked at the role of women and their contribution to rural water management. Previous studies have focused only on the statutory institutions.

Finally, the study offers a valuable comparison of the effectiveness of statutory and customary institutions in enforcement of their regulations, resolving natural-resource conflicts, and in ensuring access to water for different uses. Although many researchers recognize the importance of customary institutions, their analysis tends to focus more on the statutory institutions for water management. In this book, both formal and informal water-management institutions are considered for a more balanced understanding.

The findings of this study will serve as the basis for formulating policies and programs that include customary institutions in the management of rural water resources in Tanzania. In Tanzania, lack of access to safe water for many rural populations is a major concern. Lack of safe water has implications for rural people and the country as a whole. Policy makers, nongovernmental organizations, planners, and water providers need to be informed so they can incorporate customary institutions into policies and strategies for management of rural water resources.

This is an important book for African studies, environmental studies, and policy studies.


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