Western Africa’s water resources are characterized by extreme variability over both space and time. It is highly vulnerable to climate variability, as illustrated by the disastrous impact of drought over the past 30 years. The impact of drought is considered in Chapter 3: Land. In some areas, there is a looming water crisis.

The sub-region has six major internationally shared river basins. The three largest basins are those of the Niger, Volta and Senegal rivers. These freshwater resources are unevenly distributed between countries. Temporal variation in rainfall is common, but only the countries in the northern Sahelian zone regularly experience drought, whilst floods periodically affect countries in the wetter coastal belt. Groundwater mainly occurs in basement, coastal and Sahelian sedimentary aquifers. The availability of groundwater varies considerably from one type of hydrogeological domain to another, depending on the local levels of precipitation and infiltration, which determine the actual recharge. In Mauritania, for example, internal renewable groundwater resources are estimated at 0.3 km³ per year and these are important sources of water for domestic use, irrigation and livestock watering (FAOSTAT 1997).


Wetland ecosystems and their resources are diverse, including inland water resources with abundant fisheries (NEPAD 2003). These resources provide food supply and income to many communities. For example, the Niger River system sustains biological communities which include 250 species of freshwater fish, of which 20 are not found anywhere else (WWF 2002). Specialized flora have developed in the floodplains and delta to cope with extreme fluctuations in water level.

Box 15: The Diama Dam

Located at 26 km from Saint Louis (Senegal), the Diama Dam was brought into service in November 1985.

The Diama Dam uses a mobile stopping mechanism composed of 7 valves, 20 m wide and 11.5 m high, which is opened in periods of up-rising to ensure the normal flow of the river and is closed in periods of low water level to prevent the increase of salted water in the river. This allows the dam to constitute a freshwater reserve in the Senegal River. It contributes to the filling of the Guiers Lake (in Senegal), Rkîz Lake (in Mauritania) and the depression of the Aftout-es-Sahel (Mauritania). It also supports irrigation.

Source: Euroconsult/RIN 1990

There is great opportunity for the expansion of irrigated agriculture. The Senegal River has a maximum irrigation potential of 420 000 ha, of which only 118 000 ha is under irrigation (ECA 2000). The Diama Dam offers irrigation opportunities of 240 000 ha (see Box 15). The Niger River is Africa’s second longest river at 4 100 km, and the basin covers 1 471 000 km²; this amounts to 7.25 per cent of the total area of the African continent (ECA 2000). The irrigation potential of the Niger River is vast (FAO 1997):

  • In Guinea it could support 185 000 ha (only 6 000 is under irrigation);
  • In Côte d’Ivoire it could support 50 000 ha;
  • In Mali it could support 556 000 ha (only 130 000 is under irrigation);
  • In Burkina Faso it could support 5000 ha (only 850 is under irrigation);
  • In Benin it could support 100 000 ha; and
  • In Niger it could support 140 000 ha.

Due to insufficient investment and operational funds for water supply systems and irrigation infrastructure, unaccounted-for water for Africa as a whole is often between 40 and 60 per cent (AfDB and ADF 2000). Exceptions are Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire and Conakry in Guinea, where unaccounted-for water has been reduced to about 25 per cent. In Lomé (Togo), the public water utility has made major improvements, with losses now down to only 20 per cent, most water bills paid and water subsidies no longer required (Briscoe 2000). Another challenge is to protect the environment. Progress has been made in this regard through public education and awareness.


Of the 16 Western African countries, two, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, currently experience water stress (WRI 2000) and by 2025 this is expected to rise to five (see Figure 2).

Climate change is expected to bring about reduced rainfall and increased evaporation in the areas to the north, thus advancing the rate of desertification in the Sahel (IPCC 2001). Combined with existing high rates of deforestation and degradation of vegetation cover, this could have serious consequences for soil erosion and agricultural activity (NEPAD 2003).

There is growing concern about pollution of water resources. This is particularly the case in the Niger delta in Nigeria, with the frequent spillage from oil production and distribution. Population growth and development are further threatening the Niger River’s ability to supply crucially needed natural resources to the people of West Africa. River flows in the basin are decreasing at the same time that fishing pressure is increasing, leading to drastic declines in the productivity of the Niger’s fisheries (WWF undated).


In the light of the major issues identified, the countries have responded by initiating water sector strategies and reforms at national and transboundary levels. At national level, water sector reforms include:

  • Establishing new institutions to improve the coordination of water resources development and management. Water departments were upgraded or converted into public agencies to operate along commercial lines;
  • Reorganizing institutions in the water supply, sanitation and irrigation sectors to improve their efficiency; and
  • Revisiting the legal framework to create a common approach for water laws as well as to break the state monopoly on water supply and promote competition.

Major challenges for water resource management are to decentralize and devolve responsibilities to the lowest appropriate level, increase investment in the water sector infrastructure, attain cost-recovery, and to provide adequate institutional and legal capacity. Reforms are currently being implemented in Nigeria’s River Basin Development Authorities (RBDA) to address the involvement of marginalized communities in the these structures (Box 16).

Box 16: Reforms in Nigeria’s River Basin Development Authorities in favour of the rural communities

Previously, most of Nigeria’s river basin development agencies concentrated on developing water distribution infrastructure in a non-participatory manner. This was an important challenge for the government to transform them into participatory management agencies. The government is aware that this is a long-term task and that the sequencing issue is vital. There is broad agreement that it would be best to start with one or two of the twelve RBDAs, and to start where there are major users who are demanding greater participation and clarity about rights, allocation procedures and financing. Here there is an obvious (and potentially productive) spin-off from a concession agreement in Lagos, which would make a good pilot case. A private operator cannot depend on the current vague “license agreement” between the Ogun-Oshun RBDA and users, but will require much greater clarity on water rights, operating procedures and financing. A second pilot basin which might prove productive is the Hadeija-Jamaare, where stakeholders include the city of Kano, irrigators of 20 000 ha, the Hadeija Wetlands (a RAMSAR site whose interests are represented by articulate NGOs) and ultimately Lake Chad (World Bank 2000).

Source: World Bank 2000

At transboundary level, water sector reforms of basin organizations (Niger Basin Authority, Senegal River Basin Organization and Lake Chad Basin Commission) included the review of their focus, functions, financing, structure, leadership and secretariat. Efforts are being made to revive the wartorn Mano River Union and to promote the set-up of new river basin organizations, such as for the Volta River basin. The water sector reforms, however, have been constrained in many countries by various factors, among which are internal resistance from executives of institutions, the lack of political will, political instability or frequent changes in government, and dependence on development partners to find the resources for reforms. Despite these constraints, the Senegal River Basin Organization has been successful in achieving tangible development goals, particularly in the hydropower subsector.

Opportunities have been created to face the challenges, such as the Regional Action Plan for IWRM (2000-2004) and a project for the creation of a permanent structure for the coordination and monitoring of IWRM. In 2002, the African Network of Basin Organizations (ANBO) was established which constitutes an opportunity for basin organizations and authorities to cooperate with international partners in the implementation of their programmes. As such, ANBO could mobilize solidarity for the achievement of the MDGs.

Opportunities for capacity-building exist, for example through WA-Net at the University of Cape Coast (Ghana) and the Water Resources Institute in Kaduna (Nigeria). To date, WA-Net has significantly contributed to the Western African capacity-building endeavour in the water sector.

Governments’ recognition that water is not only a social but also an economic and environmental good is reflected in economic and environmental reforms. These reforms have seen the removal of government subsidies on prices of commodities and services, and the encouragement of private sector participation.

There has been improvement in funding the water supply subsector by establishing modalities for mobilizing investment funds from governments, beneficiaries and donors. Mechanisms have also been established for cost-recovery through water tariffs that take into account the costs of investment, operation, maintenance, system expansion and renewal. Box 17 describes an innovative approach adopted by the city of Conakry, Guinea, to involve the private sector in urban water supply with the aim to improve services.

Box 17: Moving from a vicious to a virtuous cycle – Conakry (Guinea) water supply

A common problem for the development of water utilities is how to escape from a “low-level equilibrium trap.” Such a low-level trap starts with the poor quality of services, causing people to be unwilling to pay, resulting in low revenues, which in turn result in poor services, and so on.

An innovative approach in the city of Conakry shows how creative financing can assist in breaking out of this vicious cycle. In 1987, the government water utility functioned poorly, and the quality of services in Conakry was abysmal. The government of Guinea decided to involve the private sector. No private company, however, would be interested in a contract when revenues are only a fraction of the costs. The private operator was assured of sufficient revenues by a combination of (initially low, but rising) revenues from users and (initially high, but declining) subsidies from the government (largely paid out of a World Bank credit). The “trick” was to use a time-bound, transparent “transition subsidy” to improve services, and then to raise tariffs for the improved services. The vicious cycle was replaced by a virtuous cycle of good services and reliable revenues.

Source: Briscoe 2000

More opportunities exist for small water supply and sanitation service provision because of the significant market size and very low market penetration. It is estimated that market penetration is only 7 per cent of all poor households in Western Africa (Mehta and Virjee 2003).