Africa: food security? It depends on water

A new study found that the old colonial water permits systems across Africa are unwittingly criminalizing millions of small farmers who can not get permits. This undermines efforts to increase agricultural production and achieve the goals of economic growth.

The study examined water authorization systems in five African countries: Malawi , Kenya , South Africa , Uganda and Zimbabwe . The system of permits was introduced by the colonial powers in the 1920s. They have been designed to regulate the use of water in the interest of the colonial project by granting permits only to white settlers.

These systems established the ownership of minorities of a natural resource that was vital for economies dependent on agriculture. Traditional African water customs were ignored and overcrowded.

These colonial-style permits systems are still in use in all countries surveyed and elsewhere in Africa. As a result, legal access to water through permits remains prejudicial to a few large users, such as large-scale irrigated farms, mines and industries, which are able to navigate the complicated and costly licensing process.

At the same time, customary regimes are expanding in informal rural economies, where millions of small and micro-users of water invest in water infrastructure for self-supply and water sharing. The development of irrigation driven by farmers is the backbone of food security.

The bad news is that licensing requirements have spread to all water users, including those using small pumps to irrigate a few hectares. Users of small-scale water who do not have permits are, according to legal texts, actually committing a crime that involves a penalty being fined, jailed or both.

Micro-scale users who are exempt from requesting a permit have a weaker legal status than permit holders. So women who irrigate vegetables for family feeding in their homes, for example, have no way of safeguarding their water uses. They have to compete for water with large-scale users with permits.

There is a way to deal with this. A guide has been developed for African policy makers proposing an approach to tackle the problem. Instead of providing legal protection to a few, the approach recognizes the uses of water governed by customary laws at the same legal level as permits.

This is an appropriate way for small water users to invest in infrastructure and resolve water sharing conflicts. By targeting existing permits to regulate large-scale water users and integrating this with alternative provisions for small users, administrative burdens that disadvantage many under current systems can be overcome.

Even collective permits where possible and appropriate would be effective. This could preserve the usual provisions and protect local users of small-scale water. It could overcome the bureaucratic obstacles faced by small users and reduce the burden on governments to implement individual authorization systems.

In practice, a ‘hybrid’ approach to water use regulation is already in place because water authorities lack resources to raise awareness and to process and enforce millions of permits.

In Uganda, they refer to this practical focus on large-scale water users such as the “20-80” practice. It focuses on 20% of water users who use 80% of the water. In Kenya, the targeted grant was formalized. Water users are divided into categories from A to D, depending on the impact their water use has, and are adjusted accordingly. However, legal protection for small-scale users is not yet addressed.

The end of hunger on the continent requires a rethinking of current water rights systems and the implementation of systems built for purposes that recognize and protect the water use of millions of water users.