South Africa: putting integrated water resources management into practice (English)

South Africa: putting integrated water resources management into practice (English)

TitleSouth Africa: putting integrated water resources management into practice (English)
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of PublicationSubmitted

This case study by Eliab Simpungwe reveals how local people in a sub-catchment in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, through the creation of their own institution, have circumvented the ‘ policy maze’ and handled water concerns according to their own priorities.

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At the advent of democracy in 1994, the ANC government seized the opportunity to formulate policies that could achieve an equitable and sustainable water resource use. Three National Acts were crucial in defining the working rules that dictated the institutional frameworks, as well as which stakeholders interacted over which resources and space;

(i) The National Water Act No. 36 of 1998 became the legal instrument for implementing the national water policy. The Act recognizes that "water is a natural resource that belongs to all people" and places the nation’s water resources in the public trusteeship of the National Government. This Act provides for the establishment of several statutory and non-statutory institutions in designated Water Management Areas and requires the formation of stakeholder participatory institutions, emphasizing the participation of previously disadvantaged rural communities. The Act outlines mechanisms for dealing with over-arching issues of water management across different types of uses and levels.

(ii) The Water Service Act of 1997 deals with water and sanitation services within delineated political administrative boundaries such as municipalities. This Act too provides for the establishment of several institutions that interface with water users, whether individual households (residential users) or industrial users. For instance it provides for the establishment of a Water Services Authority that regulates how water and sanitation services are provided and who provides them.

(iii) The Disaster Management Act of 2000 deals with the management of all manner of disasters including floods and droughts. While the National Water Act and the Water Services Act fall under the armpits of the National Department of Water Affairs (DWAF), the Disaster Management Act falls under the armpit of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Traditional Affairs. Public participation in disaster management at local levels is suggested to happen through ward committees, which lie in the lowest political voting boundaries.

In summary, this policy environment provides for separate institutional avenues for gaining access to water resources in general, to domestic water and sanitation services and to dealing with either excess water (floods) or moisture deficits (drought). In practice, such an environment requires that local communities understand the different institutional channels through which they can voice their concerns. Such multiple institutional environment is generally a source of frustration among community members as the Mthatha case below demonstrates.

Local responses

In response to the National Water Act, two Catchment Management Forums[1] (CMFs) emerged in Eastern Cape Province of South Africa during 1999. The Mthatha Catchment Management Forum (Mthatha CMF) emerged in Water Management Areas (WMA) 12 in the western end of the province (see Figure 1 on bottom page). It took responsibility for the overall management of the Mthatha catchment which is made up of three secondary catchments covering a total area of approximately 5500 km2 and a population of just over half million people of whom 91 percent are rural, living in small and remote villages.

Participation of poor rural communities in the CMF was taken seriously in the formation of both Forums. In Mthatha, in which the process received substantial financial and professional backup from DWAF, public and private media advertisement led to public consultation meetings and the inauguration of a management committee for the Forum. The nomination of a management committee was preceded with a workshop to identify crucial issues to be tackled by the Forum. Some crucial issues identified included the tackling of pollution of the MthathaRiver, domestic water supply needs for rural communities, tackling poverty and land degradation. Socio-economic statistics bear witness to the salience of these concerns; approximately 84 percent of households in the catchment earn less than two US dollars a month (DWAF 2002), the total area under irrigation is estimated at 293 hectares while there is potential in excess of 1200 hectares (DWAF 2002), while the economy of the catchment is dependent largely on livestock farming, with sheep and cattle farming providing a living for rural subsistence farmers, livestock water requirements are met mainly from the limited surface water sources, while substantial groundwater resources play a minor role. The catchment is generally under-developed and the area is characterised by a high degree of unemployment and high poverty levels. Constant outbreaks of cholera in the catchment is evidence of poor access to clean water by the majority of rural communities who depend, for their domestic needs, on water collected directly from the river.

Four years after the formation of the CMF, participation of local people in Forum activities became problematic with complete absence in most meetings of representatives from the 1055 communities that exist in the catchment. This was attributed to fact that the Forum did not address itself to several issues that were of concern to local people, one of which was the improvement of domestic water services to rural communities. The Forum on its part argued that such water concerns lay outside its jurisdiction. The Mthatha Forum, dominated by government and private stakeholder representatives, concerned itself with issues of generating a catchment management strategy and argued that the CMF was only a policy body with regards to water utilisation and quality issues and implementation role was a prerogative of municipalities and other related bodies.

The Kat CMF case study

About 350 kilometers to the west of Mthatha Catchment lies the KatRiverValley catchment falling in Water Management Area 15. The Kat Catchment Management Forum (Kat CMF) which emerged at about the same time as Mthatha became responsible for a catchment that extends approximately 80km north to south and covers an area of approximately 1700km2. It is characterised by a variety of land uses, ranging from export-oriented citrus farming and commercially oriented rangeland stock farming in the lower reaches of the catchment to community-based or small-scale agriculture and stock farming in the middle reaches of the catchment and commercial forestry in the north-western upper reaches (McMaster, 2002). The Kat catchment exhibits similar socio-economic conditions as those found in Mthatha catchment.

Unlike the Mthatha CMF, researchers from a nearby University facilitated the emergence of the Kat CMF.RhodesUniversity researchers undertook anthropological research that resulted into workshops in 17 villages from late 1999 to mid-2000. The aim of these workshops was to create environmental awareness (co-operative and responsible resource management). Upstream-downstream relationships between the villages was role-played and analysed. The awareness creation conducted through Participatory Rural Appraisal methods led to the build-up of the formation of the CMF in which broader issues relating to catchment management could be tackled. Since the focus of RhodesUniversity researchers’ activities was on the empowerment of previously disadvantaged communities, the CMF became dominated by a high representation of community members and the Forum is well rooted into the community structure of the rural KatRiver areas.

The Kat CMF, driven mainly by stakeholders from local communities has addressed itself to a wide range of issues since its inception;

  • It has engaged the local municipality in improving domestic water services in rural communities through boreholes. Rather than leaving these issues to local municipal water service institutions, it has participated in the discussion of these concerns.
  • Through its own initiative, it has accessed funds from the Department of Agriculture to implement a land regeneration project. The project employs local community members, a high percentage being women, to construct water traps across eroded slopes, burying the gullies with stones and planting fast growing plants in denuded landscapes as well as erecting fences around the excessively eroded areas to restrict movement of grazing animals. Sedimentation of the KatRiver from excessive soil erosion is a serious problem. Considering that majority of local people use water directly from the river, this project addresses a salient issue.
  • It has networked and established useful links. One such bilateral relationship has been with Spiral Trust, an NGO concerned with personal transformation and social change. Through this association, workshops for capacity building in diverse skills including small business management have been held in the communities.
  • It is engaging the Department of Agriculture to support groups of small-scale agricultural producers to start irrigation farming.

As result, the support and interest in the CMF among local people in the catchment is growing. Results from an informal survey in the catchment indicated that most local people new about the operations of the CMF specifically because of the land regeneration project which was providing an income to local people.

Lessons learned

The two cases demonstrate that

  • Institutional designs that involve the participation of local poor people require holistic approaches encompassing concerns from bucket to basin, from environment to poverty. Generally, if local community members are allowed or take responsibility to drive the management processes in multi-stakeholder participatory institutions, they are likely to address salient issues as the Kat CMF demonstrated, after all ‘ he who feels it, knows it’.
  • While experts, through their policies, have segregated avenues through which local people could access and manage resources that support their livelihoods, local people have an integrated view of these concerns. ‘S upermarket institutions’ or ‘ one-stop- shop institutions’ that provide holistic approaches to local concerns could be the answer to complex local problems.
  • When community members participate in water resource management by voicing their concerns, they also wish to act on those concerns. Mere dialogue is not sufficient in resolving domestic water concerns.

Specific recommendations for future work

It would be of special interest to study and document how the Kat CMF has been able to circumvent limitation placed on community driven multi-stakeholder institutions, which the Mthatha CMF failed to escape. This form of research could be achieved through a joint workshop between the Mthatha and Kat CMFs in which community stakeholders could engage stakeholders from government and private sector to discuss how productive water concerns at micro-level could be integrated into catchment level management plans. Such a workshop could provide the much-needed social learning among all participating stakeholders.


The author collected information for this case study between 2002 and 2004 as part of a PhD research study using ethnography as a research tool. In addition, an informal survey was conducted in both Mthatha and Kat catchment to establish household livelihood systems. The author is from Fort Cox College of Agriculture in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa.


DWAF 2002. MtataRiver Catchment Management Strategy. Plan of Action. First Draft . Prepared by Ninham Shand in association with Goba Moahloli & Associates. Department of Water Affairs.

McMaster, A., 2002, GIS in Participatory Catchment Management: A Case Study in the Kat River Valley, Eastern Cape, South Africa. MSc. Thesis., RhodesUniversity.

[1] Catchment Management Forums are a form of multi-stakeholder platforms that deal with holistic water resource management and representing multiple economic sectors, ideally public, private and civil-society interests.