Science - January 11, 2007

Talking doesn’t solve water problems

If the water users in a river catchment area talk to each other in a platform, problems such as water scarcity and pollution disappear as if by magic. ‘Water professionals’, such as donors and water management policy makers, regard multi-stakeholder platforms as a panacea. But according to a South African study by Dr Eliab Simpungwe, in reality it’s not so simple.

eliab Simpungwe from Zambia did his PhD research in South Africa
Simpungwe did comparative research on two MSPs in the Eastern Cape Province. In the catchment area of the River Kat, small-scale black farmers had taken the initiative themselves to get together and discuss how to make more thrifty use of river water. In the River Mthatha area, the government set up a users’ platform of small-scale farmers. The platform had committee members but little grassroots support.

Simpungwe noticed that the two groups functioned differently as a result of being organised differently. He found that the River Kat group made a big contribution to the awareness of water users and successfully set up a project to deal with erosion. If the government or a donor imposes an idea from above, as happened in the Mthatha river area, it is likely to be less successful.

Simpungwe went a step further and brought the two groups in contact with each other, and as a result they learned a lot from each other. Nevertheless, dealing with water scarcity or pollution remains a too ambitious goal. The platforms do function as social networks, through which water users can find each other more easily, but not as organisations that could solve problems, concludes Simpungwe. This is because the government does not provide the platforms with money or a mandate to do so.

This is different from the areas where white farmers operate: they have well functioning water users’ organisations that resemble water boards. However, it is precisely because the white farmers have access to and use large amounts of irrigation water through their organisations that there is a water shortage in the country as a whole, tells Jeroen Warner of the Irrigation and Water Engineering Group, one of Simpungwe's supervisors. The MSPs of black farmers do not yet have the formal authority or capacity to organise irrigation and water use more efficiently. Simply bringing users together is therefore not enough; they must also have the means to be able to accomplish their mission. / Joris Tielens

Eliab Simpungwe received his PhD on 19 December. His promotor was Professor Linden Vincent, chair of Irrigation and Water Engineering.