CASE STUDY: Community involvement in the management of a Water project – lessons from Mbuo

By Inge Klaassen (with contributions from Maeve Moynihan & Wim Klaassen)



The author spent five months carrying out field research in a water project run by “Concern Worldwide” around the river Mbuo in Mtwara, the most southern district of Tanzania. Some of the project villages were effectively performing their role as part-managers of the water project. Other villages, where the preparation had been different, were far less effective. The reasons for this are explored and lessons noted. 


The setting of the project is in a part of Tanzania where there is a lot of water on the surface. Even during the dry season, people can always find water of some kind if they spend enough time. But usually it is not clean.

Less than 29% of the rural Tanzanian population have access to clean and potable water (Ministry of Water). The others are forced to use polluted water leading to disease. Waterborne diseases include those transmitted by the faecal–oral route including diarrhoea, typhoid, viral hepatitis A, cholera and dysentery. Evidence suggests that waterborne disease also contributes to background rates of disease not detected as outbreaks. Water-washed disease occurs when there is a lack of sufficient quantities of water for washing and personal hygiene, including skin and eye infections such as trachoma. Diarrhoea is the most important public health problem affected by water and sanitation and can be both waterborne and water-washed.

Some of the problems affecting rural communities and water supply are historical events, occurring after Tanzanian independence in 1964. Under “Ujamaa”, the political philosophy of President Nyerere, a large proportion of the population was moved into new settlements in the “villegisation” process. This was forced resettlement aimed at the creation of bigger, more productive rural groupings with better access to services. But these new communities were made up of people who did not know each other and had no history of working cooperatively. Then, in the decades of the seventies, eighties and nineties, various initiatives, programmes and interventions were planned and begun in the rural areas, usually with no follow-through; water policies and responsibilities were shifted between State, Ministries and communities with few end results. The most recent initiative is the Tanzania Water Policy, now legalised, which seeks to put responsibility completely in the hands of communities. Once the 1995 revised Rural Water Policy is in place:

  • the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholder groups become clearly defined;

  • there will be full cost recovery for Operation & Management (O&M) and part of the capital costs from users by the establishment and formal recognition of water committees and water funds;

  • there will be a complete departure from the traditional supply-driven approach (SDA) to a demand-responsive approach (DRA);

  • management of water supplies is to happen at the lowest appropriate level, as opposed to the centralised command control approach;

  • there will be increased participation of the private sector in the delivery of goods and services;

  • and integrated water supply, hygiene and sanitation education.

To make all this happen would require considerable devolution, training and retraining and financial resources. In particular the Local Government (LG) workers at District level were realising they would have to change their role from that of being a service provider to that of facilitator, regulator and promoter. At the time they were not performing their partnership role as envisaged. They mainly performed crisis management, they carried out their roles and responsibilities at less than full power, there was a lack of transparency; and finally, they found it difficult to evoke a partnership response from the communities. They may have had the technical skills that their new role needed but they did not have any of the other skills needed once no NGO is around to help - skills to build a partnership with communities and to provide the training that would allow both sides of the partnership, together, to run water projects.

Villagers, beginning to contribute to this process, were handicapped in a number of ways. With villegisation there was a destruction of ways of working together and traditional conflict resolution mechanisms. The last thirty years have perhaps made worse certain issues in the communities that are not talked about easily, like corruption, alcohol and witchcraft. These divide villages and can negatively affect progress.

The Project

When Concern decided to start the project, it chose to repair an existing water supply system fallen into disrepair. The system covers eight villages with populations of about 2,000 people each. Concern dug nine deep boreholes. The system was geographically large, with electric pumps and extensive piping - all requiring, in the long term, high maintenance and joint management by all the villages involved. This put responsibility onto communities that had little mutual trust. The system required electricity and at the time the bill was paid by the Local Government.

Part of the land covered by the project was purchased by a white Zimbabwean to form his private ranch. For some time he took water from the system while refusing to pay or even to permit workers to come onto his domain to make repairs. He distanced himself from the villagers while trying to get close to the NGO Director. The situation was not helped by the legal system that meant that the ownership of water by communities was not legally clear. Traditional reconciliation methods failed. Then the NGO successfully carried out a reconciliation meeting that established the obligation for the farmer to pay for his water and co-operate in general.

New legislation will soon stop the Local Government from paying the electricity bill for the project; the sum is not that big and the villagers should be able to find the money between them but it will require co-operation. This may have an effect on sustainability.

Concern created Village Water Committees in each village. However each community already had a Village Government and the water committee was not slotted in as part of the hierarchy controlled by this Government. This has led to difficulties. In addition the rules for electing Water Committee members and supervising the collection and outlay of money were not laid out clearly enough.

The project introduced Animators, mostly females, in every village, chosen by the Water Committees and by villagers to carry out hygiene education. This was an idea that was working on a small scale but only reaching other women. Effective hygiene education needs to reach women and men both for proper success – telling housewives to wash their hands with soap is futile if it is husbands who control spending. Animators were also acting as sources of information for the NGO. However they were not becoming voices for the women of the community in the committees themselves.

The two groups of villages

There were two groups of villages in the project and the author spent time studying two villages in each group. In one of the groups of villages, the hardware was installed, the committees created in each village and given extensive training; these were the trained villages. In the other group of villages the hardware and the committees were installed but the training was not carried out – these were the untrained villages. On paper the training was about management and accounts, but, in practice it seemed to have carried an ethical framework with it. The villages that had training built effective Water Committees, collected money and paid it out as they should and in general acted honestly.

In the untrained villages, corruption and ineffectiveness had crept in. Important people in the villages were claiming water without paying, taking part of the collected water money, and getting their candidates onto the water committees – which then had high member turnovers.

The Actors in the Mbuo project

There are many actors in the Mbuo project – villagers, committee members, Local Government officials, workers for the NGO - and to be effective they had to trust each other, be active and honest and work together. In practice, though, their viewpoints were shaped by their individual pasts and previous experiences of each other, by what they saw as the rewards of being active or otherwise, by the extent to which their lives had room for risk.

The viewpoint of the village people

Villagers faced a prospective water project with traditional co-operation badly damaged. To quote a villager:

Because of Ujamaa we lost out culture of mutual self-help. In the traditional community, people could rely on the family in cases of an emergency, such as illness, crop failure etc. The traditional initiations in our former villages forced us to be friends. The idea was: one for all and all for one… When we came into the new villages, no one knew each other. We lived more independently than before. Also, the social services provided by the Government made communal and family ties less necessary for solving problems.
(Retired Village Leader Namgogoli, 15-03-2002)

“Villagisation was a forced and political movement. Social services were too far away and villagers became dependent on the Local Government who had to give everything. [] The rural communities’ first reaction was to ignore the grass-root planning process invented by the Local Government as a waste of time and instead to wait passively for whatever benefits might come from above”.
(Concern Programme Advisor, 27-03-2002)

This dependency culture was identified as a real problem.

The viewpoint of villagers towards better water supplies

Village people live in or near poverty. Factors that influence their willingness to use better water supplies are: cost and ability to pay, their time budget and their awareness of the risk of illness through dirty water. A representative response in one of the untrained villages was:

“we do not agree to pay for the water. How can somebody ‘own’ water and claim that we have to pay for it? I do not like this idea, and therefore collect free water from the ponds’’.

In the trained villages a more typical response was:

“Since we use clean water, our children get less diarrhoea. This makes us buy clean water. I am worried when the water scheme is out of order; then I have to collect dirty water from the ponds.”
(villager Mgao, 16-04-2002)

The viewpoint of the village people about Water committees

In the untrained villages there was often a lack of knowledge or ownership:

I am surprised that you want to talk to us about our village water committee. I cannot give you any information”.
(Villager Mkwajuni, 04-03-2002)


“I did not know that this water project is a community-based water project. It does not feel that way. We do not get any information and we are not involved in any water-related matters. If we are, from the start, not jointly responsible, how and why should I then co-operate in the management of the scheme?”
(Villager community Mkunwa, 14-02-2002)

The role of women

In this culture as in most others, women do almost all the work around water. With the help of children they carry water long distances when necessary. However, in this project, resistance to female participation in village structures was strong. There was no quota of female membership imposed on the Water Committees. Nevertheless, a few women were starting to hold positions in the committees and to help make decisions. When asked for explanations for the poor representation of women in the public domain of water supply, committee members mostly said that traditionally the voice of women in public events is not very common. One male member of the VWC said that:

“women wouldn’t understand the content of the discussions and decisions because of their poor education”.

The viewpoint of the village-elected committees

“When a lot of water is sold, the village leader observes that the Village Water Committees have collected more money that the Village Government. The village leader clearly feels threatened in his power and position. In the untrained villages, two things may happen. The village leader may either claim the money of the village water fund or bring influence on the people not to buy water from the scheme. This used to happen in our villages, but training on cost recovery opened the eyes of everybody. Now the trained Village Government (VG) supports the water committee.”
(VWC Namgogoli, 07-02-2002)


“The village leaders in the untrained villages have ties that are too strong with the Village Water Committee. To make sure that the Village Water Committee does not threaten their traditional status, they push forward weak and poorly educated members to take positions in the VWC. These members have no experience at all with management or water projects. But they stay in position as long as they pass money from the water fund and free water to the village leader”.
(VWC Namgogoli, 19-03-2002)


“We give free water to members of the VG because we feel obliged”.
(VWC Mkwajuni, 08-03-2002)

The viewpoint of one village committee towards the committees of other villages

“We need more training…we cannot take any or good action. When we meet, we do not know what to do, we disagree with each other or we stay silent. So it is not very useful to come together. We need more training to overcome these problems”.
(VWC Mgao, 15-04-2002)

The viewpoint of the village committees towards Local Government

“We as a village have no relationship with people of the Local Government. We hardly communicate and we never work or eat together. They stay in their offices while we life and work here”. (Villager Mkwajuni, 14-03-2002) and “I can only dream. The dream is that we get more financial support from Local Government - this village has few services, and we can use more help. But in reality we never get the support we need…. That is the reason why I do not sit and wait or approach the District”.
(Village secretary Namgogoli, 01-02-2002)

An illuminating incident – though the facts were never confirmed

“Communities further away complained that they did not get any water. This was strange as the Hijari tank was supposed to be full. We investigated the pipelines, but no leakages were found. When we visited the water attendant at the tank, he said nothing strange had happened and that he did not understand the cause of the problem. Later on however, we found out that big lorries from the Local Government (District) come now and then and are filled with water from the tank. We believe that the District sells the water in other villages for their own profit. The attendant at the Hijari tank, employed by the District, closes the pipes on purpose so that the District can tab off water. He is bought off by the District and gets his share. We have reported the theft at District level, but without result. The District takes what  is good and says it is theirs. It is clear for us that we can’t trust the District, as well as the water attendant”.
(ZWC, 25-02-2002)

The viewpoint of the Local Government Officials

The author was not able to get Local Government Officials to give the whole picture. She observed that they responded to emergencies when put under pressure but tended to ignore chronic problems such as non-functioning pumps. They were still reluctant to build partnerships with villagers. It has been noted that public sectors typically rely on incentive systems that send very weak signals about performance to staff who are employed on long-term, low-paying contracts with few legal opportunities for advancement.

The NGO and committee building

Given the many problems already discussed, why did the trained villages perform better? They had been in the project longer - nearly five years. Perhaps this is the minimum length of time it takes for communities to find their ethical feet. The project, at the time, had a five-year duration, which is longer than usual and it has been extended since.

Another key factor was that the NGO built trust in a consistent and pro-active way; it did this in various ways including; ensuring a good flow of information; visiting the villages as often as possible and listening; being very careful of the profile it presented, including being careful of the company it kept – for example refusing invitations to eat with the private farmer.

However some aspects of the NGO played a less positive role. There was insufficient staff in the Concern office for the size of the project, especially given the geographic distances between villages. A further issue was whether the NGO could have created structures that worked more with the grain of the culture – Village Water Committees linked properly to the Village Government, reconciliation methods that strengthen the traditional ways.


Watsan specialists during the nineties considered that water projects should always be linked to latrine and hygiene education components. Currently people are not so sure. Latrine projects demand a high number of staff working over a long period – even if the technology is local and simple. The absence of latrines in this project and the low priority given to hygiene education must limit the effect which clean water can have on the health of the communities. 

The choice of technology in any project is strongly linked to sustainability. It determines the amount of co-operation needed from and between communities. The technology in this project demands a lot. But the possibilities of alternative technology in the project area are limited for geo-physical reasons. Rain catchment could be used but would require corrugated iron roofs for each house. Shallow wells would reach only polluted water table levels. So boreholes and electric pumps make sense. However, in five or six years time the local government may no longer be paying the electricity bill for the project and the NGO may have gone. The cost of the electricity will not be huge and will probably be payable between the eight villages if their management capacity is in place. And the trained villages are already showing management capacity. This shows that with time the villagers should be able to play their proper role.

What is less likely is that, in six years time, the Local Government officials will be playing their proper roles. They should be ordering spares, making tricky repairs and in a much wider sense be working whole-heartedly with communities to maintain the water supplies. A Finnish project in the region is currently providing training to Local Government officials at District level and it is said to be making good progress. This type of intervention could be key for water projects in the future – and make sanitation components possible. 

The country’s legal system means currently that communities do not clearly own water resources. This suggests that perhaps NGOs should be playing a greater advocacy role.


Building effective community management in water projects is not easy but it can be done, as this project has demonstrated – in half of its villages. The other villages remind us that it can also easily go wrong if the necessary effort is not made.