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Traditional Knowledge  

Many of the indigenous communities living in southern Africa survive in a delicate balance between the use of natural resources and their regeneration - the very definition of sustainability. The awareness and ability to live in balance with nature has evolved over centuries and forms a large part of "Indigenous or Traditional Knowledge".


Traditional knowledge is a cumulative set of know-how, practices, understandings and interpretations about people, plants, animals and the environment - passed from generation to generation. It has been developed and maintained by peoples with extended histories of interaction with the natural environment, and forms a cultural complex of language, naming and classification systems, resource use practices, spirituality and world-view. This rich knowledge source serves as the information base for a society, facilitating communication and decision-making (ICSU 2002, Flavier et al. 1995).

Using local materials for construction purposes is part of the basin peopleĀ“s traditional knowledge.
Source: Tump 2008
( click to enlarge )

Conserving Traditional Knowledge

Traditional knowledge systems of indigenous cultures are at risk of being lost as time passes and society changes. In Africa, traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples is often passed through shared practice and story-telling, and the lack of written records of this puts it at risk of extinction.

"When a knowledgeable old person dies, a whole library disappears."
- an African proverb (IDRC 2003).

As awareness of this potential loss of crucial knowledge spreads, innovative mechanisms are being sought to integrate traditional knowledge into development planning and science. Documenting the body of knowledge is integral to conserving it and ensuring that it continues to be passed on to future generations.

Inclusion of Traditional Knowledge in Water Resources Management

Incorporating traditional knowledge into natural resources management  - including water use and conservation - can contribute to local empowerment, increasing self-sufficiency and credibility of projects and policies (Thrupp 1989, World Bank 2009).

Examples of indigenous practices relevant to the water sector include:

  • Location, collection and storage of water;
  • Water resource management and irrigation methods;
  • Conservation strategies;
  • Natural forest management;
  • Fishing; and
  • Adapted agricultural practices.

Despite the rationale for integrating these knowledge systems into modern management practices, indigenous knowledge related to water is still often misunderstood and ignored in water projects, policies and planning processes. Furthermore, customary access and rights to water is seldom recognised by the state authorities which now control indigenous areas and sources of water.

Sacred Aspects of Water Knowledge

Indigenous peoples possess traditional knowledge and skills concerning the sensing/locating of water and protection of the source. Water sources on indigenous lands are often considered a sacred element, and indigenous women may be the holders of ‘water knowledge’. Their traditional land management skills often provide the most effective method of water resource management in their settlement areas. However, indigenous peoples are seriously affected by their uncompensated and unsustainable loss of water to farming and other industries introduced from outside their communities. In the worst cases, governments have closed water sources in an effort to forcibly relocate indigenous peoples from their traditional territories. In other instances, indigenous peoples are not provided with clean safe drinking water to the same level as other nationals in a given country. Measures must be taken so the indigenous people can develop their capacities to achieve sustainable and equitable self-development.

Source: UN 2006

The box below shows the Indigenous People’s Kyoto Water Declaration presented at the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, March 2003:

Indigenous Declaration on Water

  1. We, the Indigenous Peoples from all parts of the world assembled here, reaffirm our relationship to Mother Earth and responsibility to future generations to raise our voices in solidarity to speak for the protection of water. We were placed in a sacred manner on this earth, each in our own sacred and traditional lands and territories to care for all of creation and to care for water.
  2. We recognise, honour and respect water as sacred and sustains all life. Our traditional knowledge, laws and ways of life teach us to be responsible in caring for this sacred gift that connects all life.
  3. Our relationship with our lands, territories and water is the fundamental physical, cultural and spiritual basis for our existence. This relationship to our Mother Earth requires us to conserve our freshwaters and oceans for the survival of present and future generations. We assert our role as caretakers with rights and responsibilities to defend and ensure the protection, availability and purity of water. We stand united to follow and implement our knowledge and traditional laws and exercise our right of self-determination to preserve water, and to preserve life.

Indigenous People’s Kyoto Water Declaration presented at the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan, March 2003.

Source: Indigenous Water Initiative 2009

Traditional Knowledge in the Lower Kunene

The Himba living in the Lower Kunene provide a good example of traditional water and land use knowledge. They traditionally move with their livestock, sometimes covering long distances to where there is pasture, and make use of a variety of surface and groundwater sources, each for a different purpose. Orohawe (springs) and ondjombo (hand-dug wells) may be used for people, whereas oruua (shallow wells) are used for livestock. Furthermore the livestock are often separated and oxen, cows and goats are watered at different water sources. Water is only used for drinking, stock watering and cooking while washing water consumption is reduced by protecting the bodies with a layer of ochre and butter fat. These traditional ways of managing water and land resources, whereby livestock is moved across large areas between different water sources, is very important in keeping grazing areas productive, preventing land degradation and reducing the pressure on water points. Land and water resources are given a chance to “rest and recover” and are not over-used in one place (DRF 1999).

Today, people are increasingly using boreholes to water their livestock and collect their drinking water. The advantages of boreholes over the traditional water sources are that good quality water is available in the same place all year round. However, there are also disadvantages of boreholes as opposed to the traditional ways if they are managed unwisely: Firstly, when water is available all year round, people often concentrate at the water source for too long and overgraze the land, causing the depletion of its quality for livestock. Secondly, it costs a lot of money for every community to drill boreholes and to maintain them (DRF 1999). These challenges show that integrating traditional knowledge into modern water resources management practices is crucial.

For more information on traditional water and land use knowledge in the basin, visit the section on Culture and Water.




Explore the sub-basins of the Kunene River

Video Interviews about the integrated and transboundary management of the Kunene River basin

View a historical timeline of the Kunene basin countries, including water agreements & infrastructure

Video scenes about the limited access to water of the San in Kunene Province