African Countries Face Major Trans-Boundary Water Challenges: Report

NAIROBI, Kenya

The African continent faces huge challenges with regard to trans-boundary water cooperation, according to a new report released October 1st by the United Nations University-Institute on Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH).

The report, "Water Cooperation," describes the situations in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America and details which approaches to cooperation work and which do not.

It says successful cooperation agreements involve active, continuous involvement of a third-party mediator; good data; creative financing; private sector and community involvement; and effective river basis organizations. On the other hand, unsuccessful cooperation agreements are characterized by bilateral rather than basin-wide negotiations; ignoring long-term environmental impacts; and limiting arrangements to just surface water.

The report also describes hotspots worldwide where cooperation between nations will be essential, particularly amid the effects of climate change. 

There are 276 international river basins; 60 percent of them do not have any framework in place to manage these shared resources cooperatively, the report says.

It notes that 37 conflicts over water have been recorded since 1948; however, common water needs have also led to more than 200 water treaties over the last 50 years.

Africa has 63 river basins, of which 20 have international agreements and 16 have institutionalized trans-boundary forums. Trans-boundary basins cover some 64 percent of its surface area -- the highest level among all continents.

According to the report, huge differences in development levels of riparian countries in Africa make cooperation more necessary. But existing agreements, "are meant to look environmental, but in reality are just vehicles to promote hydropower development or irrigation expansions," it says.

African countries have coordinated cooperation instruments for rivers, but groundwater resources lack institutions, it says. At the same time, conflicts have displaced people, aggravating already stressed water supplies.

Africa has 211 million hectares of cultivated land and 3,930 cubic kilometers of renewable water resources, Olcay Unver, deputy director of the Land and Water Division at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and one of the report’s authors, told OOSKAnews.

However, Sub-Saharan Africa uses less than 10 percent of its installed potential for hydropower, and irrigates only 5 percent of its cultivated land, Unver said.

“All of these factors, when combined, provide multiple opportunities for cooperation among riparian countries,” he said.

Unver noted that the eastern part of the continent -- comprising Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania -- is one of the least food-secure places in the world. This makes cooperative projects even more desirable.

Existing trans-boundary basin organizations provide a good basis for cooperation, he added. “A current challenge specific to trans-boundary waters is to strengthen the existing arrangements, build capacity that will last, and expand the basis for joint programs, which can range from experience-sharing to benefit-sharing.”

To this end, it is necessary to align varying national legal frameworks, different bureaucratic norms and practices, and non-uniform standards (including environmental ones), he said.

This will make it possible to address the broader challenges of food insecurity (particularly for East Africa); poverty; the need for increased resilience to shocks, including climate change impacts; and related issues such as highly variable rainfall patterns, erosion, land degradation, unsustainable water use practices and equity issues.

Another method to tackle trans-boundary water issues is for African countries to align water cooperation with broader regional arrangements, policies, and strategies, Unver said. East African countries should emphasize agriculture and rural development strategies, and devise food security action plans.

Governments should also protect smallholder farming communities through measures ranging from focused water allocation to special investment programs.

“Donors and other external actors can provide a positive role in helping institutions build capacity sustainably, and develop and implement holistic programs that benefit all,” he said.

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