Water Rights in Informal Rural Economies in the Limpopo and Volta Basins

Published on 5 August 2010

Research Areas



, , ,


Start Date: 1 December 2007 | End Date: 31 July 2009


The aim of the project ‘Water rights in informal economies in the Limpopo and Volta basins’ is to contribute to gender-equitable rural poverty alleviation by establishing stronger and more sustainable water rights of poor rural women and men to better developed water resources for multiple uses. This Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) project, led by International Water Management Institute(IWMI) and with Unesco-IHE, is implemented in the Limpopo and Volta basins, where it works together with the national policy makers and lawyers in charge of implementing the newly promulgated water laws, and research institutions. These include: Burkina Faso (Direction Générale des Resources en Eau), Ghana (Water Resources Commission, and Water Research Institute), Mozambique (ARA-Sul and University of Eduardo Mondlane) and South Africa (Water Research Commission, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies of the University of Western Cape), and free lance consultants and Ph.D. students. A global historical literature review, which goes back to the roots of permits in Roman water law and its use for conquest, complements these experiences.


At national level, the project analyzed the texts and early implementation of newly promulgated permit systems. It is found that the new laws continue the colonial legacy of water legislation aimed at dispossession of water resources under informal local arrangements in favor of vesting ownership of water resources with the minority rulers. At independence, when ownership shifted to the national states, this nature of water law was not exposed. The Integrated Water Resources Management(IWRM) discourse revived the same colonial argument. By denying existing plural legal systems, especially small-scale users suffer. Permit systems are logistically impossible to implement among tens of thousands of small-scale users, while the administrative burdens for small-scale users, certainly women, are disproportionate and discriminatory. Exemptions to the obligation to apply for a permit imply that the claims to water are second-class. Therefore, the project recommends that permit systems in Sub-Saharan Africa should remove any entitlements linked to the permit, and, instead develop permit systems as well-targeted tool for regulating the few large users who use most water resources. Small-scale users should obtain a legal priority status. An alternative way to achieve the same within the framework of permit systems is to issue priority General Authorizations, for water uses thresholds that leave the legalistic burdens for the remaining water users, manageable.


For developing regulatory tools, permits may not be the most appropriate regulatory tools, given these same administrative and legislative burdens for government. Moreover, registration, taxation, pollution prevention, or the regulation of new water uses are very different endeavors, each requiring their own data bases. 


These conclusions are underscored by the two other components in each country. The second component is a national- or basin-level quantification of the distribution of water use and users. This showed major inequities that widen with the increasing level of formalization of the water economy. Third, the project undertook a range of case studies of local water arrangements. They showed the vibrancy of people’s own initiative to invest in water infrastructure, often in spite of government. In the Limpopo basin, joint ventures were studied as well. It is recommended to build on the strengths of informal arrangements, while overcoming their weaknesses, in public investments in infrastructure, to ensure the poor get improved access to water.

Research Partners


, , , , ,

Ask a Question

You must be logged in to post a comment.