The tragedy of the water commons: the case of the Lower Orange water management area

14 January 2011

In the human environment there is a tendency to refer to resources, such as land and water which do not specifically belong to any single individual, as the ‘commons’. Garret Hardin wrote his famous paper called: “The Tragedy of the Commons” in which he highlighted the problem inhabitants of the world face regarding the growing population and depletion of natural resources. He proposed that limits must be placed on the liberal use of natural resources, which usually involve some kind of legislation. South Africa, as a semi-arid country, needs to manage the water as a commons to ensure that all inhabitants of the country have access to safe drinking water as instructed by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act No. 108 of 1996 and subsequently preserved in the National Water Act No 36 of 1998. The significance of Hardin’s theory to South Africa becomes evident in the necessity of the mentioned acts, which involve the establishment of Catchment Management Agencies (CMAs) and Water User Associations (WUAs). These institutions must ensure the involvement of all stakeholders and water users to manage the resource optimally. Establishing these institutions, however, proved to be difficult and their efficiency questioned, thus illustrating a “tragedy within the tragedy”. This article considers the case of the Lower Orange Catchment Management Agency and the Upington Islands Water User Association in the //Khara Hais local municipality, to illustrate the thus far failing efforts taken by this region to manage the water resource.