Researchers at Africa Water Week call for efforts to “decolonize” and improve water permit systems, so more farmers are encouraged to invest in much-needed irrigation

Water rights for millions of African farmers threatened by law rooted in colonial times, study finds
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LIBREVILLE, GABON, October 29, 2018 – Millions of African farmers still face legal restrictions on water access, dating back to colonial times, according to a study released this week. Researchers with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and Pegasys Institute reveal the obstacles that smallholders face, including potential legal penalties, due to laws that originated and led to “water grabbing” in the colonial era.

The solution, the authors argue, is to support African governments in “decolonizing” water law through a “hybrid” approach to water use rights. They recommend that permit systems should be maintained but reoriented to regulate large-scale water users (mainly companies) that have a significant impact on other water users and the environment. The hybrid approach would also give equal standing to customary law, which has guided investment in water infrastructure as well as water sharing for centuries, including the colonial period. Consisting of a wide range of rules and practices negotiated locally, customary law still applies to millions of small-scale water users in Africa’s informal rural economy.

“Exclusive reliance on national permit systems has, at least on paper, “criminalized” up to 100 million people lacking water permits in the five countries studied,” said Barbara van Koppen, the lead author of the historical study and a rural sociologist with IWMI, a CGIAR Research Center. “The state cannot reach them because of the logistical burden of granting permits for so many water users.”

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