Living customary water tenure in rights-based water management in Sub-Saharan Africa

Living customary water tenure is the most accepted socio-legal system among the large majority of rural people in sub-Saharan Africa. Based on literature, this report seeks to develop a grounded understanding of the ways in which rural people meet their domestic and productive water needs on homesteads, distant fields or other sites of use, largely outside the ambits of the state. Taking the rural farming or pastoralist community as the unit of analysis, three components are distinguished. The first component deals with the fundamental perceptions of the links between humankind and naturally available water resources as a commons to be shared by all, partially linked to communities’ collective land rights. The second component deals with the sharing of these finite and contested naturally available water resources, especially during dry seasons and droughts. Customary arrangements shape both the ‘sharing in’ of water resources within communities and the ‘sharing out’ with other customary communities or powerful third parties. Since colonial times, communities have been vulnerable to those third parties grabbing water resources and overriding customary uses and governance. The third component deals with infrastructure to store and convey water resources. Since time immemorial, communities have invested in infrastructure for self supply, ranging from micro-scale soil moisture retention techniques to large-scale collective deep wells. As increasingly recognized in both the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and irrigation sectors, this component of self supply is rapidly expanding. In all three components, local diversity is high, with gender, class and other social hierarchies intertwining with social safety nets, neighborliness and moral economies.