Nasim Losai, a trained nutritionist and sociologist with governance NGO PAMOJA, sits on the office steps of the MUWAHI Water User Group, deep within Tanzania’s Pangani River basin. This is not an uncommon sight. PAMOJA works with local communities throughout the basin, discussing and resolving issues around access to the rivers’ water.

MUWAHI’s office is located in Maore, an ancient village in the East Pare Mountains, near the Tanzanian/Kenyan border, where subsistence farmers have been practising irrigated farming for more than a hundred years. Surrounding Nasim are members of HIBA, a water committee that resolves issues between upland and lowland water users in the Hingilili River catchment. Many of those sitting on the steps are members of groups organised around traditional water furrows that draw directly from the river, irrigating hectares of rice paddies, maize, ginger and sugarcane fields. There are 12 furrows in the Hingilili catchment - six in the uplands and six in the lowlands. 

HIBA is an umbrella committee for all the smaller water user groups,” explains Nasim with nods of approval from those around her. 

Nasim is well-versed in this territory and its history. PAMOJA facilitates the dialogue process between the various user groups of the Hingilili which, until recently, was a hotspot of conflict between competing water interests. In October 2000, the District Council intervened in a confrontation between two groups who came to blows over access to the same water. Police maintained order, while authorities facilitated a lengthy process of dialogue and conflict resolution among the competing users. 

The violence was symptomatic of a number of critical issues. Until 1972  the area was controlled under traditional chieftainships using customary law to manage and distribute the river’s water. These laws, although strict, were successful in protecting the source and channels and ensuring a sustainable flow downstream for livestock and wild animal consumption in the nearby Mkomazi Game Reserve. When replacing traditional custom with administrative centralisation, the Hingilili catchment was divided into two horizontal parts, ultimately creating a vacuum in organised, integrated, water management. 

Simultaneous population pressure was forcing upland farmers to migrate into the lowlands, and widespread clearance of virgin forest took place. Both the water sources and its channel were impacted and the Hingilili’s dry season flow started drying up. Climatic change over the past twenty years also played its role with erratic wet seasons and general declines in precipitation. 

With these kinds of realities, we have to work together,” says HIBA Chairman Yusuph M. Yusuph, a rice, maize and ginger farmer in the lowlands.

Yusuph is envious of the year-round flow that the upland farmers receive from the Hingilili. Since the dissolution of the customary water sharing traditions of old, the upland farmers have been inclined to extract all the Hingilili’s water during the dry season, long before the water reaches the lowland areas. Yusuph also knows that, in a classic “tragedy of the commons” scenario, maintenance of furrows fall into disrepair without some form of local ownership.

On a visit to an intake, Yusuph shows Nasim and local ward councillor Hamad Sempompe the effects of such disrepair. One channel is silted over, rendered redundant, while another flows freely to healthy fields below.

If we had an organised association in those days, we would have ensured that this intake was properly built to prevent such siltation. It is just in the wrong place and built at the wrong angle,” explains Yusuph. 

Yusuph might be too diplomatic to say it himself, but others acknowledge that a contributing factor is poor watershed  management practices upstream that have resulted in excessive erosion and overloading of soil and vegetative material in the stream flow. 

This, however, is the sort of issue that the HIBA are addressing. 

The one thing about community dialogue,” says Nasim with a wry smile, “is that it takes time. Much patience is needed to achieve a desired result.” 

While Nasim and Yusuph recognise the challenges, the laughter and joviality of the meeting in Maore feel like a quantum leap from Hingilili’s violent past. Underneath the joviality lies a deep-seated earnestness among all HIBA members to ensure the river’s water remains available to all who depend on it.
Written by Alex Hetherington