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Namibia: Lack of water access and scarcity rock Tsumkwe settlement

20 June 2023

Tsumkwe is a small settlement situated about 60 kilometres west of the Botswana border and 300 kilometres east of the town of Grootfontein in Namibia’s Otjozondjupa region. This case study provides a general overview of infrastructural discrimination faced by the indigenous people of Tsumkwe. Key issues include the lack of government investment in boreholes for water supply; the lack of investment and maintenance of the sewerage system; and the lack of existing legislation that recognizes the customary rights of indigenous peoples in Namibia to water access, as well as its management and governance.  

The population of Tsumkwe is composed mainly of former hunter-gatherer, indigenous people of Southern Africa (often referred to collectively as San). It is worth pointing out that the term ‘San’ is used pejoratively in Namibia to refer to nomadic indigenous peoples in the country. Although the term will be used in this case study, given its common usage, it is not the term preferred by the San peoples themselves, who instead identify by their specific ethnic group names. 

‘There is a crisis at Tsumkwe. Schools have no water and water is only available at night. The boreholes are not able to fill six tanks and therefore, they are never full.’

Thus, San peoples are divided into four main groups, each with their own history, customs and language. These groups are Ju/’hoansi, Hai//om, !Kung and Kxoe. What was formerly known as Bushmenland (which includes Tsumkwe) is the area in Namibia that is most frequently associated with San peoples. Their language differs among the various groups, but it is characterized by numerous click sounds. 

San roamed the plains of Southern Africa for thousands of years in small nomadic groups. The wealth of rock paintings and engravings in mountains and hills throughout Namibia bears witness to the extent of their traditional lands. The oldest rock art in Namibia dates back some 28,000 years.


Water is sparingly shared among the inhabitants of Tsumkwe from six boreholes, whose water supply also serves two local state schools with a population of 1,200 pupils and 42 teachers. Last year, the councillor for the Tsumkwe constituency, Johannes Haufiku, pleaded with the Namibia government to drill two new boreholes and repair old ones in the local community. ‘There is a crisis at Tsumkwe,’ Haufiku maintains. ‘Schools have no water and water is only available at night. The boreholes are not able to fill six tanks and therefore, they are never full.’

Although he has brought the matter to the attention of Elijah Ngurare, Director of Water Supply and Sanitation Coordination, there has been no official response to Haufiku’s demands on behalf of the people of Tsumkwe. Haifiku added that the government has promised to drill two new boreholes, but this has not yet been done. ‘People are very much angry with the government,’ Haufiku concludes.  


In October 2022, the Otjozondjupa regional leadership brought the situation to Namibia’s Minister of Works and Transport, John Mutorwa, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform, after the pump station at the settlement and schools stopped working, leading to blocked sewerage. The sewerage system in Tsumkwe has not been maintained for over nine years.  

A May 2010 assessment of water supply and sanitation in Tsumkwe, commissioned by the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN), found that much of the water infrastructure at this particular settlement is in a state of disrepair, partly due to poor management and lack of communication between the three organizations that oversee the scheme. Namibia Water Cooperation (NamWater), Namibia’s water utility company, manages the boreholes and water towers at the settlement and sells water in bulk to the Regional Council. The Ministry of Urban and Rural Development is responsible for collecting water tariffs from the residents and paying the Regional Council. It is not clear where the profit is currently being spent. 

N!aici cooks government food aid at ╪omlolo village, one of the 38 villages of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy surrounding the town of Tsumkwe in the Otjozondjupa Region of Namibia. Credit: Tristen Taylor.


In terms of legislation, Namibia has a number of laws related to access to water. In Namibia, water is a fundamental right for citizens as provided by the Constitution under Article 6, which guarantees protection and respect for life. The Water Resource Management Act, No. 11 of 2013, provides for the management and conservation of all water resources in the country, including the whole or any part of a watercourse or an aquifer, the sea and meteoric water. Established through the NamWater Corporation Act, No. 12 of 1997, NamWater’s duty is to consider applications for bulk water supply by potential customers and subject to the availability of water. 

Ways forward

The problems with the water supply and sanitation at Tsumkwe are primarily caused by lack of maintenance and poor management, as nearly all the taps are in need of repair or replacement, and a significant portion of the water distribution system has been installed informally by untrained workers. The settlement will need to identify the exact location of water and sewage pipes; the locations of all lines should then be marked with surface markers to facilitate future repairs to the water lines. NamWater and the local government should determine where leaks occur and repair these leakages.  

A crucial step will be community engagement and participation. Given that water is such a limited resource for the town, Tsumkwe residents want support for ways to store and conserve water. These include alternative sanitation methods such as the use of Otji toilets (dry toilets) and the use of human waste as fertilizer.  

These measures would ensure that the community is invested in the future of Tsumkwe and the overall well-being of the settlement. Once these steps are implemented, the local government may begin to enforce cost recovery methods. An equitable tariff should be implemented, so that the cost of water may be affordable for residents. Low-income households should pay proportionally less than high-income households. Finally, according to the DRFN assessment, an immediate priority is to ensure adequate water provision and sanitation at Tsumkwe through the repair of septic trucks, which will cater for the current sewage pumping demand. Prioritizing the various issues the community faces with regard to water is essential, which is why, of all the measures highlighted in this case study, it is the treatment of raw sewage that is the most pressing, as it presents a major health risk to the community.

Photo: Di//ao G╪kao, Xoan// Niani, Se//ae /Ai!ae, N//ing /Ai!ae, and Baqu /ui (left to right) on the main street of Tsumkwe. Credit: Tristen Taylor.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Absalom Shigwedha