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Culture and Water  

In the Kunene River basin, water plays an important role in the culture of the people. It influences the traditional ways of life and forms part of beliefs and rites.

Villagers fetching water at a traditional hand-dug well.
Source: AHT GROUP 2009
( click to enlarge )

Traditional Ways of Life

In the Kunene River basin, traditional ways of life are well adapted to the given natural conditions, such as water scarcity, seasonal floods, and the ever present changes of the seasons.

The following examples are drawn from the book Patterns of Settlement and Subsistence in Southwestern Angola (Urquhart 1963) describing the indigenous ways of life in the Angolan Huíla Province in the 1950s (forming today Huíla and Kunene Provinces). There has been significant change in the basin in the intervening 60 years. During the Angolan civil war (1975-2002) the basin people experienced wholesale relocation from rural to urban areas. These and other events changed the composition of the basin's population and its culture. However, some of the shown examples of traditional water use patterns are still valid today.

Water and Settlement Patterns

In the Kunene River basin, where general aridity is accentuated by long dry seasons, and where permanent tributaries only exist in the upper basin, there is a close correlation between settlement site and water supply.

Settlements are therefore concentrated where surface water is accessible:

  • Near permanent springs;
  • Along perennial rivers, such as the Kunene River itself and its tributaries in the upper basin;
  • Along wet season rivers, such as the Kaculuvar and Chitanda Rivers, where talas (permanent lakes and puddles of water in low spots of dry stream beds) persist through most of the dry season; and
  • Near mulolas and chanas (iishana) (depressions containing water during the rainy season and for at last the early part of the dry season).

During the rainy season and the early part of the dry season people derive drinking water from:

  • Perennial and wet season rivers; and
  • Talas, mulolas and chanas (iishana).

During the dry season people derive water from:

  • Perennial rivers;
  • Wells dug into the dried out talas, mulolas, and chanas (iishana); and
  • Cacimbas (reservoirs) dug into the mulolas and chanas (iishana) for storing water throughout the dry season.
Cattle drinking from the Kunene River.
Source: Tump 2005
( click to enlarge )

Water and Agriculture

The basin people do not only need water for drinking, but also to grow crops, vegetables and fruits. In the Kunene River basin, the upper and middle reaches receive greater and more dependable rainfall then the lower reaches. They are thus better agricultural areas, due to higher soil fertility and greater availability of water. Where rainfall is relatively high and soils do not dry out rapidly, woodland fields are common; where soils are sandy and rainfall is lower, mulola, chanas (iishana) or stream-side fields are generally cultivated.

Water and Herding

Raising livestock also requires water. The animals need water to drink and pastures for grazing which are dependent on the seasonal rainfalls.

While grazing predominates during the rainy season, browsing on leaves and pods is important during much of the dry season. At the end of the dry season, both the veld and the cattle are in their worst condition. Following the first rains, the cattle which just have experienced a period of extremely poor grazing and browsing, immediately switch to the succulent new growth. With the beginning of the dry season, browsing increases once again in importance.

Always concerned about sources of water, the cattle are sometimes taken to distant ponds and talas during the dry season, and are widely dispersed during the rains when water is readily available in many parts of the Kunene basin.

The Herero-speaking Pastoralists constitute a special case in the basin. They live in the steppe and desert land in the Lower Kunene basin, receiving the lowest rainfalls and highest temperatures. According to the availability of water supplies and seasonal pastures, the herders have evolved complex water usage patterns moving their animals from camp to camp in a continuous search for pasture and water. The Herero-speaking Himba herders, who inhabit, for example, the Namibian part of the basin, typically move their stock over long distances, minimising pressure on grazing, optimising the usage of available water sources and gaining access to remote pastures (Tapscott 1995/96). In recent years however, according to water sector experts, this nomadic lifestyle scenario is changing, as more and more basin inhabitants are settled around certain permanent water infrastructures in areas with grazing for their livestock. For more details please see the section on Traditional Knowledge.

The box below is based on a text describing the ancient ways of watering the cattle amongst the Zemba and Hakavona living in the (lower) middle reaches of the Angolan basin part:

Traditional Ways to Water Cattle among the Zemba and Hakavona

The way in which the Herero-speaking people traditionally water their cattle is often very laborious. Of course, in the rainy season, when precipitation is normal, this is not a problem; the animals find water standing in rain pools on or near the pastures. In drier years and in the dry season, the solution of the water problem becomes much more laborious because the region where the Zemba and Hakavona settle has no permanently flowing rivers, and the seasonal rivers have clay beds making it difficult to dig wells there when the rivers have dried up. Digging the wells and the daily chore of giving water to the cattle is often exhausting work in which both men and women collaborate. They draw the water with buckets, passing them along a line from person to person. Very deep wells require a chain of over 30 people stationed on ledges or ladders in the well to carry the water to the surface. In order to prevent collapse caused by torrential rains, they cover the mouth of the well with a thick layer of poles and branches overlaid with earth.

Source: adapted from Estermann 1981




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