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Indigenous Water Management for Sustainable Services in Konso, Ethiopia

Annisa Nurantono



The relationship between water and humankind’s physical and spiritual well-being is profound. Everyone depends on water, regardless of differences in religion, culture, and norms. Religions’ and traditional institutions’ teaching influence how water is managed, either directly or indirectly. Through their unofficial rules and restrictions, these traditional and religious institutions have the power to influence how a sustainable environment is achieved. Frequently, informal constraints can govern the success of formal constraints which are established by scientific merit.

Konso has a traditional administration system called Abba Dibe to govern their water resources. Abba means father and Dibe mean drum. A dibe is kept with a person chosen to serve as the generation’s leader, and the active generation is in charge of maintaining the sources of the community’s security. They work hard to manage their water systems as it is scarce in the area since water sources in Konso are not uniformly distributed. In addition, there is no natural spring and traditional ponds are provided to collect floodwater to secure water needed in the dry season. Due to the great distances, not all households have equal access to water sources. They assign ownership to the homes that are closest to the water sources so that they are in charge of protecting them from misuse.

They also have a belief that each water source has a spirit that usually talks to the landowner while he is sleeping. They talk about what the water spirits like and dislike. The dislike of the water is mostly related to sanitary aspects and in this regard, the Konso people immediately solve the water usage problem. Water spirits are the unseen forces that secure water sources from misuse and pollution. As they pertain to water spirits, Konso’s laws are very straightforward and are upheld by every member. For instance, swimming in ponds is only permitted when there is enough water, and when the dry season arrives, a sign restricting swimming will be posted without the guard. If people fail to be governed by the rule, they will be excluded from social involvement, and nobody will help them when they are sick.

The Konso villagers are experts in activities that are related to resource conservation. They are in charge of their landscape and forests. To protect the soil, they constructed miles of terracing and planted drought-tolerant, multipurpose trees. A drop of water that falls in Konso belongs to Konso because they conserve it. Never do they permit runoff to exit their catchments. Moreover, the excess flood can be collected into ponds that have been constructed in appropriate locations for maximum harvest. Selecting a site according to soil property and its potential to collect water is an expertise of the Konso people.

Extra floodwater can be collected in ponds that have been built in strategic locations to ensure a maximum harvest. The Konso people are skilled at choosing a site based on the soil's characteristics and its capacity to hold water. Despite the fact that they are unable to meet their water supply needs due to a variety of issues, including water quality, scarcity, and knowledge gaps, their management systems have qualities that others could benefit from. Traditional Konso water management practices incorporate ideas like ownership experience, equity, enforcement, integrity, and unity that are prominent in contemporary systems.

(A) Wooden mesh to filter debris coming to the pond, (B) fenced pond, (C) outside terracing to protect silt from the side of the pond, and (D) stilling basin that settles silt coming in with flood before entering the pond.

(Image by Beshah M. Behailu)

The experiences of Konso are working for their communities. However, what we can take away from this traditional approach to water management is that when we plan a project or a program for a specific community, we should start with their experiences and perspectives on life. By learning from local communities, we can quickly gain community acceptance and foster a sense of ownership to generate responsibility and effective system management both during and after the project’s implementation.


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Behailu, B. M., Pietilä, P. E., & Katko, T. S. (2016). Indigenous Practices of Water Management for Sustainable Services: Case of Borana and Konso, Ethiopia. SAGE Open, 6(4), 2158244016682292. doi:10.1177/2158244016682292

Chuvieco, E. (2012). Religious approaches to water management and environmental conservation. Water Policy, 14(S1), 9-20. doi:10.2166/wp.2011.000

Garra, K. (2006). Konso water and Gods. Perugia, Italy: Museo Tamburo Palante.

North, D. (1990). Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511808678

Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.

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