Legal Pluralism & Integrated Water Resources Management
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Since 1995, Zimbabwe has been involved in a complex water sector reform program aimed at decentralizing responsibility for water management from central government to new institutions made up of water users: catchment councils, sub-catchment councils and water user boards/associations. Objectives included: redressing past injustices in access water by the historically disadvantaged small-holder farmers and upcoming indigenous farmers without prejudicing large-scale commercial and estate concerns; to promote stakeholder participation and involvement in the decision-making process for the water sector; to promote an integrated approach to water resources development planning and management; and to remove inefficiencies in water use and make the sector self-sustaining. These reforms included putting more emphasis on cost recovery of investments in the water sector and treating water as an economic good. The user-pays principle was adopted to reinforce this new focus.

New institutions (including user-based associations/boards) have now been established to run the water sector. In 1998, a new Water Act was passed to govern and guide the new management regime. The extent to which the original objectives have been achieved is a subject for research and debate at the moment. Preliminary indications from research carried out by the Centre for Applied Social Sciences, University of Zimbabwe since 1997 to 2002 indicates that, on the ground, very little has changed for the targeted beneficiaries. Water use remains strongly influenced by informal systems and customary laws. These customary laws and systems appear very resilient, not only in the area of water management, but in the governance of other natural resources as well including forests, wild life, and fisheries. A key issue is the extent to which these customary systems can and should be incorporated in the new management regimes.

The dilemma faced by those engaged in water management at local levels has been how to reconcile the new institutions with existing formal and informal institutions at the district, provincial, and central government levels. They have to reconcile the roles of statutory local government (Rural District Councils) and traditional (indigenous) institutions of governance on the one hand, and the new catchment councils. There are immense problems in achieving any sort of fit between the spatial dimensions of the resource and the institutions of resource governance and rural development. Nested levels of jurisdictions are in place and these show themselves to have relevance and applicability to local user communities. The application of both customary and statutory laws to guide management of water resources in Zimbabwe is the focus of this case study.

Customary arrangements
The Shona system of governance is dominant in most areas of Zimbabwe. In Guruve communal lands (Manyame catchment) for example, there is a system of nested levels of jurisdiction from the level of the chief through the level of the ward headman down to the village headman. Secondly, at each level the 'dare' (forum or assembly) consists of the traditional leader supported by a small body of advisors or councilors. All matters concerning daily life are the concern of the dare, which addresses issues brought before it in a manner that is both inclusive and conciliatory. Thus judicial cases are heard; land, water and other resource allocations and disputes are arbitrated; decisions are reached with regard to traditional religious obligations to the founding spirit ancestors (mhondoro) and development plans are considered. The word used for these transactions is kutonga which means to rule or govern. It also means to adjudicate in a legal cause of action.

The dare is a public forum. Every community member is free to attend and contribute to the debate. The institution is characterized by its inclusive nature and by its primary function of encouraging community cohesion. Re-enforcing the jurisdiction of the dare is a strong association of the living members of the community with those of the ancestral spirits who in turn are communicants with God (Mwari). Therefore, there is fear of sanctions by the community on transgressors. In addition, there is also fear of the ultimate sanction of the unknown, sanctions that may be imposed on transgressors by the ancestral spirits or god (shades). As a result of these fears, the community members tend to be self- restraining when they use water and other natural resources. They follow the established rules and regulations and customary law tends to be self enforcing.

Juxtaposed to the formal and informal natural resources management arrangements, is the new management regime driven by IWRM principles and effected through the catchment councils and sub-catchment councils.

The proposed Dande dam and irrigation scheme for instance, provides an interesting case in which various statutory and customary forces come in to play. Following recommendations by various technical experts, the catchment council had approved the construction of the scheme. However, because the community did not perceive the impacts to be beneficial to a large section of the population in the area, spirit mediums representing the affected communities have been actively opposing it. Customary law and practice have been invoked to support their position (which is largely a reflection of community concerns) and have delayed the scheme's progress. At a more local level is the Murisa dam project. This is a small water source that partly serves a traditional ward community. The dam and associated micro-irrigation scheme are in place. The project has reached the stage where the local user community is embarking on determining and codifying users' rights of access and exclusion. This is to be done using the vehicle of the recently promulgated Traditional Leaders Act (1998), which entrusts village and ward assemblies with some powers to introduce local bye-laws and regulations governing resource use.

The case study
Specific case studies are being further documented from Guruve district in the Manyame Catchment. This is an area where culture and life style is still deeply influenced by customary laws and values when compared to other parts of the country. At the same time, through the national water sector reform program, new institutional structures have been established in the area to govern water resources management.

At the same time, the Zimbabwean case is made more complex or interesting by the land reform program. This program has had a serious impact on both customary laws and the new water management regime in the sense that it generally does away with traditional forms of governance. At the same time, its 'fast track' nature seriously disturbed the smooth implementation of the water reform program in many ways and introduced a number of unforeseen problems for the water sector e.g. increased environmental degradation, uncontrolled water use in the resettlement areas, and difficulties in collecting water levies/tariffs.


Latham, J. and Chikozho, C. 2005. Shona customary practices in the context of water sector reforms in Zimbabwe, in African Water Laws: Plural Legislative Frameworks for Rural Water Management in Africa (Eds. B. van Koppen, J.A. Butterworth and I.J. Juma). Proceedings of a workshop held in Johannesburg, South Africa, 26-28 January 2005. IWMI, Pretoria.
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