Women indicating their preferred sites for new communal water points in Ga-Moela, South Africa
Customary Water Tenure

Linking Water, Culture, Heritage and SDGs 1, 2 and 5






Heritage and culture not only shape the customary tenure of land and forest resources of most indigenous peoples and local communities in low-income rural areas, but also community members’ mutual relations vis-à-vis their water resources, or, in other words: customary water tenure. Age-old settlement by farm communities or pastoralists’ establishment of nomadic routes vested customary rights to land and the fugitive surface runoff and streams flowing over the lands; soil moisture, wetlands and lakes on the land; and aquifers under the land.

In customary water tenure, orally transmitted norms and practices have governed communities’ construction, operation and maintenance of traditional local infrastructure, such as weirs, dams and ponds, to store water as buffer to seasonal variability; wells and lifting devices to tap aquifers, the planet’s largest storage; and canals, tunnels and pipes to channel water where and when needed for drinking, other domestic uses, livestock, irrigation of crops, vegetables and trees, brick making, crafts, small-scale enterprise and ceremonial uses, or to ensure water availability for fisheries and navigation. Customary normative frameworks continue to shape communities’ investments in “modern” low-cost plastic pipes, tanks, small motorized pumps, or solar energy, also responding to growing populations, markets for water-dependent produce, and higher aspirations.

How to Cite

van Koppen, B. (2022). Customary Water Tenure: Linking Water, Culture, Heritage and SDGs 1, 2 and 5. Blue Papers, 1(1), 35–41. https://doi.org/10.58981/bluepapers.2022.1.03





challenges, concepts and new approaches

Author Biography

Barbara van Koppen, International Water Management Institute

Scientist Emerita on Poverty, Gender and Water in the International Water Management Institute, based in the IWMI Southern Africa office in Pretoria. She leads multi-country research in Africa and Asia on community-driven water service delivery and water laws and policy reform, including from a human rights perspective.


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