Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 8, Issue 1, pp 139-156

First online:

Water, Workfare and Poverty: The Impact of the Working for Water Programme on Rural Poverty Reduction

  • R. A. HopeAffiliated withCentre for Land Use and Water Resources Research (CLUWRR), University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne Email author 

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


In 1995, the government of the Republic of South Africa launched the Working for Water (WfW) programme that links environmental and developmental goals through the removal of high water-consuming alien plants with pro-poor rural employment opportunities. Whilst bio-physical evaluations have widely reported on the hydrological, ecological and conservation components of the programme, there exists growing uncertainty over the programme’s role as a poverty reduction mechanism. This paper evaluates three projects in the Luvuvhu catchment, Limpopo Province, against five socio-economic workfare criteria and the underlying biophysical rationale. Results show that asset creation from incremental streamflow is economically efficient and is likely to improve significantly if biodiversity benefits, community harvesting of riparian goods and services, ecological non-use values and seasonal water demand values are incorporated into the analysis. However, socio-economic benefits are more questionable: poverty targeting is weak with wage rates failing to self-select the poor; a minor proportion (0.5%) of catchment households benefit from the highly-valued employment opportunities; high variability in monthly employment causes financial difficulties for labourers; labourers are not ‘empowered’ as is evidenced by the failure of the 2-year exit strategy; and programme efficiency is high in proportional allocation of cash-flow to non-management wage labour. It is concluded that the Working for Programme is a potentially replicable model in other semi-arid contexts in developing countries if based on its core biophysical remit but is a transitory and limited poverty reduction mechanism for improving rural livelihoods.


invasive alien plants poverty reduction South Africa water resources workfare