Food security in Africa depends on rethinking outdated water law
A hybrid approach to regulating water use is already in use because water authorities lack the resources to raise awareness and to process and enforce millions of permits
A new study has found that outdated, colonial-era water permit systems across Africa are unintentionally criminalising millions of small farmers who can’t obtain permits. This undermines efforts to boost farming production and meet economic growth goals.
The study examined water permit systems in five African countries: Malawi, Kenya, SA, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The permit system was introduced by colonial powers in the 1920s. They were designed to regulate water use in the interests of the colonial project by granting permits only to white settlers.
These systems established minority ownership of a natural resource that was vital for economies dependent on agriculture. African customary water arrangements were ignored and over-ridden.
These colonial style permit systems are still in use across the countries that were examined, and elsewhere in Africa. As a result, legal access to water through permits remains biased towards a few large users, such as large-scale irrigated farms, mines and industries, who are able to navigate the complicated and expensive process of permit application. At the same time, customary regimes are expanding in informal rural economies, where millions of small and micro-scale water users invest in water infrastructure for self-supply and water sharing. Farmer-led irrigation development is the backbone of food security. The bad news is that permit obligations have expanded to cover all water users, even those using small pumps to irrigate a few hectares. Small-scale water users who don’t have permits are, according to the legal texts, effectively committing an offence that carries a penalty of being fined, jailed or both. The micro-scale users who are exempted from requiring a permit have...