“The borehole is not a madman” 3 reasons why Community Based Management demands a rethink

by Dr Luke Whaley, Professor Frances Cleaver and Felece Katusiime (UPGro Hidden Crisis)

In Uganda, waterpoint committees exist more in name than in reality. Many waterpoints have been ‘personalised’. That is to say, they are under the control of one or a small number of individuals. Moreover, where local management arrangements (of any sort) are effective they tend to rely heavily on the authority of the head of the village council, known as the LC1 Chairperson. Indeed, it is often the LC1 Chairperson and not a waterpoint committee who is instrumental in collecting funds, securing maintenance and resolving disputes. Where an apparently functioning committee is in place, this is usually the result of concerted efforts on the part of particular local NGOs, who cannot guarantee this level of commitment in the longer term.

At least, these are the impressions of Felece Katusiime, a social science field researcher working on the UPGro ‘Hidden Crisis’ project, concerned with the sustainability of rural groundwater supply in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Malawi. They are field insights (preceding full data analysis) from someone who has spent many months in the field undertaking research in roughly 200 rural Ugandan villages. The discussion that follows is intended as a provocation and not a promulgation of project findings. We are interested in the extent to which the points made here accord or contrast with the experiences of you, the readers, and we welcome dialogue on these matters.

So, why might it be that in Uganda waterpoint committees,as envisaged on paper, seldom exist as such on the ground?

After all, for decades now there has been a strong international and national policy drive toward decentralisation and community based management (CBM), typically operationalised through village-level waterpoint committees. Whilst there are many possible answers to this question, here we focus on observations made by Felece during recent discussions in Kampala. We make three points.

Firstly, it is necessary to move beyond thinking about water as somehow separate from the reality of village life more generally. There are existing social relations, power dynamics, and sources of authority that come to bear on the form and function of a waterpoint committee. In the case of Uganda, these sources of power and authority are commonly the LC1 Chairperson, religious leaders and groups, and other respected village elders and individuals. Where a water management arrangement is in place, it is likely that one or more of these actors are involved, either carrying out management functions or lending authority to those who do. In the case of the latter, those carrying out these functions may often be relatives or have close ties with the authority figures in question.

Secondly, for many rural villagers in Uganda, kept busy by the demands of day-to-day life, the requirement to form a seven-person strong committee to manage a single waterpoint seems excessive. As one villager responded when asked why her community does not have a functioning committee: “the borehole is not a madman”. The implication here is that, unlike a ‘madman’, the waterpoint is not unpredictable and uncontrollable in a way that needs the concerted and ongoing efforts of a whole group of people. Instead, mixed arrangements of local leaders, elites, or pre-existing networks take on the responsibility and may vary over the course of the year in response to the seasonal challenges that the user community face. The danger here is that, by drawing on existing arrangements, water management may reproduce or entrench existing unequal power relations.

This leads to the third and final point concerned with why someone would choose to volunteer as the member of a waterpoint committee in the first place. According to Felece, a common motive is the expectation that doing so may lead on to something else. This chimes with existing research into local level institutions in Uganda. From this perspective, a person may be inclined to join a waterpoint committee not primarily because of a concern with water management but with increasing their wealth and status. In keeping with the previous point, membership on a committee may serve as a way of attaining or entrenching a position of influence in the village. Where an individual’s wealth and status is furthered through a position on the committee, these people are likely to remain a member. Where it is not, it is likely that they will become disillusioned with the onerous responsibility of managing the waterpoint and drop out. What remains is an ad hoc arrangement that likely reflects existing social dynamics in the village.

In the last decade, there has been increasing attention afforded to ‘working with the grain’ and with embracing local hybrid forms of management as ‘arrangements that work’. However, for development efforts that favour standardised approaches and prescriptions such as CBM, these sorts of insights are challenging. Without an understanding of the logic and social dynamics that produce hybrid forms of waterpoint management, progress toward sustainable water supplies is unlikely to be achieved.

For reflections on understanding borehole functionality from a social science perspective see: Whaley, L. and Cleaver, F. (2017) Can Functionality Save the Community Management Model of Rural Water supply? Water Resources and Rural Development 9(1): 56-66, available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212608216300274

Photo: L. Whaley, 2017

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