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Polycentrism and poverty: Experiences of rural water supply reform in Namibia

Thomas Falk
Institute for Co-operation in Developing Countries, Marburg, Germany;
Bernadette Bock
Ministry of Environment and Tourism of the Republic of Namibia, Windhoek, Namibia;
Michael Kirk
Institute for Co-operation in Developing Countries, Marburg, Germany;

ABSTRACT: Calls for new paradigms in water resource management have emerged from a broad range of commentators over the past decade. These calls arose as it became increasingly clear that the pressing problems in water resource management have to be tackled from an integrated polycentric perspective, taking into account interdependent economic, societal, environmental, institutional and technological factors. Adhering to the calls, Namibia designed polycentric water management approaches, with the objective of maximising economic and social welfare in an equitable manner and without compromising the sustainability of vital rural ecosystems. Understanding the barriers to integrated and adaptive management requires a critical reflection on conventional modes of governance. In this regard, Namibia has achieved great strides by shifting from monocentric public water management systems towards strongly community-based polycentric management.
This paper investigates how polycentric rural water supply reform impacts on natural resource management and water users'€™ livelihoods in three communal areas of Namibia. The analysis takes into account the effects of historic discriminative policies and the resulting low financial, human and social capital of rural communities. We conclude that the devolution of institutional and financial responsibility for water supply to users has had a positive impact on rural water management. However, the introduction of cost recovery principles conflicts with the objectives of the Namibian government to alleviate poverty and inequality. The high level of inequality within the country as a whole and also within communities impedes the development of fair fee systems. Polycentrism faces the major challenge of building on existing structures without replicating historic injustices. It allows, however, for the state to mitigate any negative impact on livelihoods. While the reform is in the process of full implementation, the government is discussing various options of how the poor can be guaranteed access to water without diminishing their development opportunities. The Namibian experience demonstrates the difficulties in developing effective incentive mechanisms without undermining major social objectives. Our analyses show that, compared to naive monocentric governance approaches, polycentrism offers much broader opportunities for achieving multidimensional objectives. Nonetheless, a reform does not become successful simply because it is polycentric.

KEYWORDS: Community-based natural resource management, decentralisation, cost recovery, poverty alleviation, Namibia