Water and aid in Mozambique: Gendered perspectives of change (Houweling, 2022)

Adriano Biza


Van Houweling, E., 2022. Water and Aid in Mozambique: Gendered Perspectives of Change. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781009193481 (hardback £75).

URL: https://www.cambridge.org/fr/academic/subjects/anthropology/social-and-cultural-anthropology/water-and-aid-mozambique-gendered-perspectives-change?format=HB

Adriano Biza

Department of Water Governance, IHE-Delft Institute for Water Education; a.biza@un-ihe.org


To cite this review:
Biza, A. (2023). Review of “Water and Aid in Mozambique: Gendered Perspectives of Change”, Cambridge University Press 2022, by E. Van Houweling, Water Alternatives http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/325-nampula


The book is an anthropological analysis of how a water development project – the Rural Water Project (RWP) from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) - unfolded in five communities in the northern province and matrilineal society of Nampula in Mozambique.

The project installed about 600 hand pumps between 2008 and 2013 expecting to reduce the distance women walk to collect water from wells and rivers. In this book, the author describes the project’s origin, implementation, and effects over eight years in terms of social life, gender roles, and relationships. Using a hydrosocial cycle framework and focusing on people’s everyday experiences of their relationship with water, the book provides insightful accounts querying the underlying assumptions of women empowerment, local ownership, community participation, sustainability, economic evaluation, and neoliberal development. The book critically engage with the project’s economic and technical rationalities and emphasis is placed on the disconnect with people’s experiences and their social meaning of water.

Right after the introductory background, chapter 2 is about divergent development discourses. It provides a historical glimpse of the processes and events that shaped local perceptions of development. The author found out that people in rural Nampula interpreted development within a history of colonial, post-independence state-led, and neoliberal approaches that always disrupted social relations and people’s livelihoods. The meaning of development is linked to a province that experienced regimes of forced plantations of cotton and sisal, expressions of collective forms of production (collective farms), non-chosen collective forms of human settlements (communal villages), insecurity and violence associated to 16 years of civil war between the newly independent ruling party and the guerrilla movement Renamo, with the disruption of forms of economic organizations, local political structures and failure to deliver from state led development projects. These experiences and emotions still shape the way Nampula people frame development.

Building upon a hydrosocial framework, chapter 3 explores the everyday life in rural Nampula before the hand pumps were constructed. The chapters show how water has always been an inextricable part of culture and society in matrilineal Nampula. By tracing the flows of water from sources to houses and, within these, the different uses made of water at different times of people’s lives, the author shows that “water flowed through social exchange networks, strengthening the connections between people and their families, ancestors, institutions, and traditions “(p 85). Water scarcity and its seasonal abundance shaped the notions of what it means to be a good wife and good mother, in a culture where gender roles are marked by flexibility, mutual support, and complementarity in the division of labour.

Chapter 4 takes a critical look at the popular and well-accepted concepts of local ownership, community participation, and community-based management advanced in the project plans to promote sustainability. Insights from the voices of local people reveal that sustainability challenges in rural Nampula are strongly connected with the project of water commodification and divergent ideas of ownership and property. The RWP project sought to instigate community ownership through participation, voluntary management, and payment of water while water users perceived the water, wells, and rivers as a common resource, tangled to nature, social relations, sacred entities, and therefore priceless. This contradiction between neoliberal and community-based ideology led to distrust, confusion, people frustrations, and overlapping rights and responsibilities gap between actors (p 89).

Chapter 5 is a glimpse into the politics of water access in the rural milieu and the project’s outcomes. It seeks to answer the question of why only a minority of people in each community used the hand pumps installed by the project. Stories from water users reveal that many people felt alienated from the new type of water and the values it represented. The hand pumps brought to the surface local political tensions between the ruling party Frelimo and former guerrilla and opposition major party, Renamo. The RWP project was politically seized to extend the influences, interests, political base, and power of the ruling party into areas historically under the influence of the opposition party. The hand pumps were seen and presented during opening ceremonies as a gift from the Frelimo party. Also, there was uneven access to the hand pumps with implications for the social relations between groups, creating new divisions and exacerbating existing inequalities between villages.

Chapter 6 further explores how the project came to shape gender-water relations in Nampula. The RWP project presented participation and empowerment of women as the key objective. It would be achieved by reducing the time spent fetching water, with the time saved invested in ‘productive’ income-earning activities, as well as by women's participation in water management. Insights from women’s experiences reveal that the project's outcomes were ambivalent and contingent, contradictory to the gender goals. There was no direct impact of the hand pumps on empowerment. As it stands out, the matrilineal sociocultural fabric of Nampula acted against and limited the Western transformative pretensions, which always assume women in a subservient role. Women in Nampula have a high degree of control over land, water, spiritual practices, granaries, descent, and filiation, and already enjoy supportive relationships with husbands and other men. The RWP failed to consider and value the complementary gender roles and relations, disrupting social relations and increasing women’s workload. Women continued to move between hand pumps and customary water sources as well as using the time saved to farm, and fulfill their domestic expectation of being good wives and mothers and socialise.

The final chapter 7 unveils the culture of development paying particular attention to the interactions between project actors, which is useful to understand the gap between project goals and plans and what happens in practice. The author introduces the concept of organizational culture, the system of ideas, incentives, tools, practices, and values shared by a group of actors with similar backgrounds. The author mobilises examples to show how the differences between the organisational cultures of development  ‘experts’ (MCC staff), project implementers (animators), and community members (targeted groups) help to understand the suspicion, distrust, and misunderstanding among them.

This is a very relevant book in the Mozambican and southern region context. It offers an alternative perspective on water and the politicized nature of water management across the region. Despite significant progress over the years, accessing water and ensuring the operation of its sources and infrastructures in rural areas remains one of the current challenges facing policymakers and development practitioners. Currently, meetings bringing together stakeholders are being held in the Mozambican water sector and studies are being commissioned to understand the sociotechnical determinants of the sustainability of rural and urban water supply systems in the country. The book provides insights to engage and animate these discussions about rural water sustainability and the search for answers to the question of why water points broke soon after their pompous inaugurations and why water development projects fail. Thus, the book will be of interest to different audiences spanning development practitioners, scholars from diverse disciplines, policymakers, and students. The focus and style of the book are precise and insightful. The author deploys thick descriptions of the everyday experiences and voices of Nampula residents to support its arguments. Emily lived and interacted with people in their homes and spent considerable time at water sources; she traced the flows of water from sources to households, and within these the different uses made of water at different times in their lives to capture changes and permanence in practices and relationships that unfolded. Theoretically, she uses a hydrosocial framework and critically expands and nurtures it with evidence of a matrilineal society, especially in her analysis of water-gender relationships. This perspective is built by weaving together critical development theory, political ecology scholarship, postcolonial theory, and feminist perspective mobilized from diverse social science disciplines. This approach provides new ways for interpreting water practices and projects that engage with negotiations, subjectivities, emergence, ambivalence, and agency.


Van Houweling, E. 2022 Water and Aid in Mozambique: Gendered Perspectives of Change (Vol. 68). Cambridge University Press.

Van Houweling, E. 2016. “A good wife brings her husband bath water”: Gender roles and water practices in Nampula, Mozambique. Society & natural resources29(9): 1065-1078.

Van Houweling, E. 2015. Gendered water spaces: A study of the transition from wells to handpumps in Mozambique. Gender, Place & Culture22(10): 1391-1407.

Geffray, C. 2000. Nem pai nem mãe: crítica do parentesco: o caso macua. Ndjira.



Additional Info

  • Authors: Emily van Houweling
  • Year of publication: 2022
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Reviewer: Adriano Biza
  • Subject: Water governance, Groundwater, WASH, Equity, Sustainability, Water and community
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English