D+C Development and Cooperation (No. 1, January/February 2000, p. 22-24)
Community Participation in Water Management
Experiences from Zimbabwe
Community participation is one of the most essential principles in development cooperation. What is meant by this term is that the people have a say in the conception of projects and accept it as their own effort. An example for successful participation comes from Zimbabwe.
One of the central principles behind the concept of sustainable development is that of participation, the involvement of people in decisions concerning the environment where they live. The concept partly reflects the observation that people who inhabit an environment over time are often the ones most able to make decisions about its sustainable use. Where assistance or support might be needed these same people should not be seen as passive recipients of information and outside expertise with nothing to offer in return. Claimed one author: "People already have the knowledge; what they must have are the rights over their local environments. This is the big problem in the world today. The vast majority of people have become passive observers, and a few people are taking decisions for everyone else. That is the prime reason why the environment is being destroyed."1
Yet like the concept of sustainable development of which it is a component, the word "participation" is often used without providing a clear and definite statement of what it means. The occasional consultative exercise with local people or a more radical process of community involvement are both labelled "participatory" and we need to be careful that the term does not become debased as a result of common and ill-defined usage.
But the fact that it is so often used to indicate different things or that it conceals what is often no more than a tokenistic acknowledgment of local preferences, should not in turn mean that it is rejected. Like the concept of sustainable development it is better to see the term "participation" as a principle to which organizations and individuals working in development with local people should aspire. Though imperfectly realised, it is an ideal against which practical efforts should be constantly measured.
The following article attempts to explore some of the issues surrounding local participation in the development of a community based management of water programme in the Zambezi valley, Zimbabwe. It provides an initial background on the nature of the problem, the programme itself and its participatory methods, the benefits achieved to date and the constraints experienced. It concludes with a brief reflection on lessons learnt that might be useful to inform programmes that deal with other areas of development and environmental management.
Background to the programme.
The Zambezi Valley forms the western boundary of Zimbabwe and is primarily located in Region 5 of the country. This categorisation indicates an area of low rainfall and poor soils. The region is largely inhabited by Tonga people, former residents of the Valley who were relocated away from the river when Kariba dam was constructed in the late 1950s. This population is now reckoned to be among the most deprived in the country, with levels of malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality, diarrhoeal diseases etc. that are in excess of what is found elsewhere.
Due to the poor rainfall and soil conditions the Tonga communities of the Zambezi Valley faced considerable problems of water availability. The region has been characterised to date by periodic and regular droughts, resulting in widespread food shortages that has necessitated large amounts of government and donor relief. Inadequate water also led to a range of diseases caused by inadequate sanitation and contaminated supplies, these factors contributing significantly to the high infant mortality statistics mentioned earlier.
In the 1980s the situation in the Zambezi Valley prompted an effort among several international NGOs and the Government of Zimbabwe to alleviate the water problems faced by local communities. This was largely done through a programme of small dam and borehole construction, both to provide water for domestic use as well as agricultural irrigation. By the mid - 1990s thousands of wells had been sunk and scores of small dams built throughout the region.
Yet there was considerable disillusionment among the NGOs and government ministries that had engaged in these activities. Many of the irrigation schemes had never materialised. Dams were silted up through soil erosion, largely caused by destruction of protective forest and water catchment areas. Boreholes were also problematic. Many pumps had broken down. Other sites were under-utilised. Several had been sited in areas which contained high levels of sulphur, effectively prohibiting the communities from using them as a source of drinking water. In addition there was considerable evidence of destruction of the environment surrounding boreholes by livestock, as well as the removal of protective barriers and fences by local communities.
Lack of consultation.
One of the main reasons for the failure of water programmes in the Zambezi Valley was identified in several pieces of research carried out by some of the implementing agencies. This revealed the fact that local communities did not regard these dams and boreholes "as their own." They were felt to be someone else's responsibility. There had been an inadequate process of consultation with local people prior to the construction of such facilities, which left them with an impression that they had no role in their responsible management. This lack of local ownership effectively transformed such facilities into a classic example of an open access resource. There were no community sanctions against the destruction of the surrounding watershed, no limits on the number of livestock around water-points, no maintenance of the site by local villages or protection of supportive infrastructure, such as fences and pipes, from theft.
Communities were also alienated by the technology utilised in many of these programmes. The hand pumps, for example, required trained minders who received an allowance from local government. These minders were generally regarded as state employees, rather than community representatives. When their allowances were eliminated because of government cutbacks, local communities had little interest in contributing money to retain them. Nor did they have the skills and expertise to maintain pumps themselves, largely because no one had thought of training them.
Another factor that was neglected was the prior identification of the actual pump users. Even when consultation had taken place about the maintenance, siting and function of wells and dams etc. it had been assumed that adults were the ones most responsible for water collection and management. Yet a later programme of research revealed, for example, that children were often the ones primarily responsible for issues to do with water in their families. Nevertheless, many of the hand pumps were too heavy to be individually used by children, requiring four or five of them to use it at any one time. Nor were they consulted about the siting of wells, even though they were the ones most compromised by long distances of water-points from home or school. One observer noted that a large number of boreholes seemed to be surprisingly near to the local community beer halls, rather than to locations which might better serve the needs of its principal collectors.
management of water.
The above findings subsequently prompted several organisations, as well as local government in the Zambezi Valley, to develop a community based management of water programme. The principal objective of this endeavour is to return a significant measure of responsibility for decisions about management of water to local people themselves. It is a programme that seeks to challenge the idea that it is always "experts" who know best about solutions to environmental problems.
The process of involving people extends to decisions about installation of water points, where these should be sited, what technology should be chosen, what management arrangements should be introduced, as well as contribution to costs. The latter point has been an issue of some contention among impoverished communities in the Zambezi valley, who have traditionally been recipients of free aid and resources due to their difficult circumstances. Yet a decision was taken that if communities are genuinely to own their water resources, some contribution in terms of cost would have to be made so as to reinforce a feeling of ownership. Water charges are small, yet they enable spare parts to be purchased and fences to be installed to protect water-points from livestock damage.
In addition, communities themselves are trained to maintain pumps. Previously the local government authority was responsible for repairing pumps that had broken down, even though the repairs were often minor. Yet in some case repairs by this authority would take many months, since they had little transport to service the entire region. Training of members of the community including women and children, in stripping a pump, replacing washers, reinserting pipes etc. has meant a significant reduction in the number of water-points not functioning.
In terms of technological change, a decision was also made by several agencies to introduce a more manageable pump for children. This requires less effort to utilise and requires only one child to operate. These have now been piloted in several parts of the region, and community consultation has revealed a strong preference to have these instead of the heavier, more complicated pumps that were previously installed.
The community based management of water programme (CBM) has faced several constraints in terms of its implementation. Technical experts and officers with local government water authorities have sometimes been reluctant to relinquish "control" and accept that communities have something worthwhile to offer in terms of water management.
However, the clear evidence of non-functioning wells and silted dams, theft of fences and pipes, the location of water-points in sulphurous areas, the difficulty children experience in using the implemented technology has meant that many of them have now accepted that technology alone can not solve water problems, and that social mobilisation is also important. The lesson here is that time needs to be spent in convincing the professional lobby of the benefits of community participation.
Another difficulty experienced in the programme was the issue of community representation. The term community is often used as if it represents an homogenous, clear and defined structure. In actual fact it conceals a range of vested interests in terms of economic position, ethnic status, gender balance and age.
Earlier programmes had claimed a participatory approach because they had consulted communities in terms of water management. Yet these meetings were often only attended by older men, those in fact who had least to do with the collection and management of water in their villages. Children and women were not represented in these discussions. This meant that the sector most implicated in decisions about water were most excluded. The lesson here is that community participation must access the full range of opinions and input within communities if it is to be truly representative and avoid tokenism. Referring to the nature of participation in a flood programme in Bangladesh one author insists: "If participation of the poor and disadvantaged is to be effective, then it has to be on a basis which is independent of the control of not only government agencies but also the pre-existing power structure of local communities." (Adnan S et Al, 1993, p. 179)
A final lesson learnt from the CBM programme, concerns the issue of sustainability and community empowerment. The rationale for arguments about the benefits of community participation should not just be an instrumental one, namely that the project concerned will be more successful. This is obviously important and constitutes a major reason why water managers, for example, would choose to involve local people rather than exclude them. Yet genuine participation of those who have traditionally been excluded from important decisions, is also a training in independence and self-determination.
The programme noted, for example, that children and women involved in the management of water developed confidence and abilities to tackle other issues that affected them. One group of women, for example, set up an income generating project through vegetable gardening around one of the village boreholes. Children in another location have set up an environmental club, and are seeking assistance for a tree planting project both to yield income and protect an eroded watershed. These initiatives in turn have also helped to convince adults, for example, that children can assume responsibilities and make decisions, a realization which has led to a willingness to consult them on other issues that affect them.
1 Agarwal, A and Narain, S, "Towards Green Villages: A Strategy For Environmentally Sound And Participatory Rural Development", Centre For Science And Environment, New Delhi, 1991
Chris McIvor is Zimbabwe Programme Director of Save the Children Fund
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