Governance of the commons through collective action remains an ongoing challenge in many rural areas of Africa. In this paper, we articulate how resource governance systems and proprietorship have affected management of canals on the Barotse Floodplain in Zambia. We draw from community-based natural resources management and socio-ecological resilience theories to develop a framework for understanding the role of governance in enabling collective action for the management of common pool resources. Our analysis establishes that it is not only the maintenance of the physical infrastructure that matters in governing the commons and ensuring socio-ecological resilience but also the sustenance of collective action among users and key actors. However, when a whole range of uncoordinated national and local institutional structures are active at the local level, proprietorship over the resource is contested and management of the canals sub-optimal. There are clear indications that shifts in political authority from the local to the national level of government in Zambia have seriously diminished and degraded canal management in the Barotse floodplain leaving both social and ecological components of the system open to neglect. We conclude by suggesting that the absolutely necessary ingredients for effective operation, maintenance and governance of the canals include ensuring that proprietorship over the resource remains with the users and bottom-up planning approaches are enabled
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