WATER-NAMIBIA: For What Does It Profit a Man...

  • by Servaas van den Bosch (okombahe, namibia)
  • Thursday, August 27, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The space is crammed with sacks of wooden blocks and charcoal, remnants of a thousand trees that once lined the Omaruru River dividing the town. The tools of the trade - hard hats, axes and chainsaws - are scattered across the room, leaving only a narrow path that leads up to an enormous desk which is empty apart from an exercise book documenting the accumulated earnings.

Two female community members leaf through the booklet tracing the numbers with a pencil. Two men, one young, one old, lean against the desk observing them.

'Not a lot,' interjects coordinator Johannes Jod.

The Namibian Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry and the implementing consultant, the Namibia Nature Foundation were looking for a pilot project in line with the country’s commitment to integrated water resources management (IWRM). The Prosopis Project was backed by funds from the Danish government provided through the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Regional Water Sector Programme.

'The objective was twofold,' says former programme officer Don Muroua. 'It looked at sustainable water use and improving livelihoods for communities.'

The people of Okombahe were only too willing to try it. Employment opportunities in this Damara-speaking community, with an estimated population of 3,500, are less than limited. Government operates a clinic, a police post and two schools. Four grocers, two churches and five shebeens complete the sum of amenities on offer.

'All in all no more than hundred a formal jobs,' calculates Jod, a lean, bespectacled, sixty-year old wearing a Tafel Lager golf shirt. 'The rest of the people are dependent on old-age pensions and the occasional goat or sheep auction.

'A little under 2,000 U.S. dollars was invested in equipment and we were told to go ahead and chop down all the prosopis trees we could find,' says Jod.

'The prosopis species found here are not indigenous, but imported from America to provide shade. They take up a lot of water, so removing them would help water sustainability for the community,' he says, explaining the logic behind the project.

'And groundwater levels have gone up,' confirms Nauses at the bank of the river, dry this time of year. The mother of two shifts her wiry frame and squints in the sunlight. 'There is certainly a difference between now and before we started chopping.'

'But this could be explained by the heavy rainfalls this year,' Muroua clarified later. 'A formal assessment on the rehabilitation still needs to be done.'

As for generating income, the cost of getting products to market seems to be the main impediment.

Jod says: 'We sell wood to open markets in Henties Bay on the coast and we make droppers and poles for game fences which we sell for 2.50 and 9.50 Namibian dollars each (about $1.20). Charcoal goes for N$850 (110 U.S. dollars) a tonne to Jumbo Charcoal in Okahandja, but more than half of the money is lost renting a truck to cover the 200 kilometre distance to the factory.'

And then there is equipment to be maintained. 'These Chinese chainsaws they gave us break all the time.' Johannes Goseb, a saw operator in his mid-twenties gestures towards the abandoned machines in the office. He struggles to start one, without success.

It seems the economics of their little operation don’t add up. So how can the profits increase, selling a cheap product from an isolated area? 'That’s the million dollar question,' says grey-bearded Jod, voicing the desperation of the group. 'As long as we don’t have our own transport I don’t foresee better margins.'

Although the number of lumberjacks and chainsaw operators has dwindled to seven from the original 20, those that remain are determined to stay with the project.

Auguste Hai //Gausses is a mother of three who attended the local school in Okombahe up till grade nine. Now in her early thirties, the Prosopis Project is her only source of income.

'We mothers need to buy school uniforms and pay tuition fees,' she says.

At the river, she points out green fields of sorghum, fenced to keep intruders out. 'It’s an experiment. In the dry season the river bed is the only place were we can still grow food because the groundwater is high there and crops require little irrigation.'

Harvest is around October.

'It needs to be fully grown before the rains come because when the river runs from inland, all that you see here will be flooded.

'In February, March and April, we cannot reach our neighbours on the other side, because of the water,' adds Nauses.

Despite the meagre returns so far, the project's former manager is convinced it is viable. 'It was a pilot and we learned a lot about implementing IWRM-projects in communities. Group dynamics play an important role and (so do) practical matters such as affordable transport,' Muroua says.

'A year was not enough to implement all this, especially developing suitable marketing methods for the products. It would be good if the Ministry or SADC made money available to follow this up.'

'Meanwhile we will just be here from Monday to Friday,' says Nauses cheerfully. 'Suffering.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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