How policy travels through people: understanding the values and practices of actors in a water governance system

Naomi Oates

The project

Achieving ‘water for all’ whilst ensuring the sustainable management of water resources is a global priority under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 6). And this is increasingly urgent in the context of rapid population growth and climate change. Despite the significant progress made to date in increasing access to clean water, many communities in rural Africa have been left behind. They still lack clean water for the most basic of needs, such as drinking and washing. Evidence suggests that even where water points have been constructed (e.g. a well with a hand pump) many break down prematurely, due to complex technical and socio-political factors.

In the context of decentralised governance, addressing these problems necessitates a better understanding how people on the front-line of service delivery interpret and go about implementing water policies.

Using ethnographic methods, this research seeks to understand the values and everyday practices of different actors at district-level, in the context of Malawi. It will explore the constraints these actors face (be they financial, political or social) and the diverse strategies they employ in ‘getting the job done’. It is hoped that the research findings will help to inform future policy-making and practice in the rural water supply sector, particularly the tailoring of support to front-line actors.

This research will be completed in parallel to the consortium ‘UPGRO – Hidden Crisis: unravelling current failures for future success in rural groundwater supply’ (funded by NERC/DFID/ ESRC).


Annual Symposium 2020

Naomi talked about her research in relation to SDG 6 and the pandemic at our Annual Symposium. You can find more in this write up: Symposium ’20: Racial justice, Covid and the SDGs.


When she was in Malawi doing fieldwork, Naomi wrote about her first weeks in the field. Specifically, she focuses on the complex reasons why a water pump may fail. The Politics Of Water 1: Investigating the sustainability of rural water projects in Balaka District, Malawi.

Secondly, the intertwining of politics and water in Balaka District, Malawi. Read: The Politics Of Water 2: Communities.

Finally, Naomi writes about the ways water and policy work together on the ground in Malawi. Featuring inputs from Thoko Mtewa and Dr Evance Mwathunga (Chancellor College, University of Malawi). The Politics of Water 3: Area Mechanics in Malawi.

Naomi Oates


Dr Steve Connelly

Urban Studies and Planning