Community assets versus private assets for water management: taking a combined approach

In an interview, Peter Sharry discussed the tensions and opportunities that surround private and community assets for water management. This article explores the famous tragedy of the commons and looks at multiple perspectives related to where water assets could and should be held within a community.

‘If it’s everyone’s, it’s no one’s.’,Peter Sharry, Axiom Water Technologies

The concept of the tragedy of the commons, where neglect or self-interest degrades public assets or resources. is applicable for water management when considering community assets versus private assets.

The challenges of private water assets

When donors put water tanks on individual houses in a village, it is often done to provide water for the community. However, this is not always the best solution for the community as a whole says Peter Sharry, Director at Axiom Water Technologies, since independent users may act in their own self-interest, instead of protecting the resource for the good of all users.

“The problem is that the owners of those houses most likely don’t want to share access to that water because they see the tanks on their land, on their house, as being their water,” explains Sharry. “There are also issues around people who don’t live there coming along and just turning on the tap of the tank and leaving it running because they don’t care. People who don’t own property do not always conserve the water.”

“It is important to integrate local cultural sensitivities, such as land ownership and access rights when planning WASH interventions. Communities value access to common resources if they are engaged in the appropriate siting and implementation of those resources. The cultural nuances and subtleties around the installation of infrastructure on traditional land are fascinating and can be fraught with peril if you don’t proceed carefully and respectfully.”

Encouraging sustainability with community assets

The balance between community assets and private assets for water management is important in establishing sustainable frameworks in developing areas. A combined approach, sufficiently and appropriately distributing resources, encourage responsible use.

Sharry recommends connecting water tanks to the roof of a community asset, such as a meeting place and to restrict providing households with tanks unless they are appropriately engaged.

“The communities tend to see assets in the school or at a clinic or at the church as being communal and everyone’s responsibility,” says Sharry. “There’s social engagement and a sense of obligation, holding people to account.”

In many of these scenarios, the water supply is used for the asset specifically, then the surplus is given to the community. This encourages good governance of the water, as everyone benefits from the supply of a community asset first, such as a school or medical clinic. With sufficient storage, water users can access a private benefit once the communal benefit is assured.

Understanding context to engage appropriately

Approaches which work in Western situations do not always work in traditional settings, and when Western-based decision-makers are trying to implement water management practices for traditional populations, this needs to be considered.

To best integrate contextual governance and property considerations, donors and stakeholders need to explore how assets are typically shared and governed by the population. In the previously explored scenario of putting a rainwater tank on a private landowner’s property, for example, the Western approach was to use private assets for public consumption, while in actual fact, the traditional approach meant that those who owned the private asset expected to have private control.

Traditional leaders have a good understanding of what their population’s cultural approaches are when it comes to property, governance, and other issues that can impact water management. “Social capital is accessible to leaders whose values and ethics are closely aligned with the traditional values of the community. This connection enables the mobilisation of that social capital, inspired in the first instance at least, by the earned authority of the leader.”

Decision-makers and donors should work collaboratively with traditional leaders, who can identify best practices that will work well within their community and activate the potential within the community. Many traditional leaders also know what community organisations exist and how to engage them. Literature suggests that active participation in inter-sectoral problem solving by NGOs and grassroots organisations can generate social capital that fosters future problem solving, creating greater resiliency within a community.

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