River basin agreements

With over 50 significant international river basins (OSU and others 2002), Africa has the second largest number of such basins in the world, providing opportunities for regional cooperation and transboundary management of the resource. River basin institutions have been established to jointly manage water resources, and some of these institutions date back to the colonial period. For example, Africa’s largest river, the Congo – which is over 4 000 km long – had its first treaty adopted in February 1885 as part of the Berlin Conference (OSU and others 2002).

Some rivers have more than one treaty governing water resources management. For example, the Senqu/Orange basin which includes South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Lesotho has at least five agreements, four of which relate to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. This project is possibly Africa’s most significant water export-import activity between countries. The agreements between Lesotho and South Africa treat water as a commodity, from which the former earns revenue in foreign currency and the latter imports a much needed resource for human consumption and industrial operations, mostly in the Gauteng Province. This province generates about 60 per cent of South Africa’s industrial output and 80 per cent of its mining output, and is home to more than 40 per cent of the country’s population ( 2004). The project also generates hydropower for Lesotho. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which started in 1984, will cost about US$8 000 million by the time it is completed in 2020 ( 2004). Despite the successes at a bilateral level, a shortcoming is that it has not included all basin states and therefore may affect the rights and interests of other states, for example, water availability in Namibia and the Orange River estuary (Mohamed-Katerere 2001). The project has also placed new pressures on local riparian people, undercutting human well-being by directly threatening food security and agriculture-derived income (Akindele and Senyane 2004). In particular, there have been problems with resettlement and the restoration of livelihoods of those whose lands were submerged due to dam construction (Hoover 2001). Local people displaced by the dam have not enjoyed the benefits of this project – hydropower. None of the ten villages promised connection have yet been connected to the electrical grid (Hoover 2001). These impacts on human well-being could increase the potential for conflict at the local and national level. These lessons demonstrate the need for collaborative approaches that take account of all interests including those of states and communities.

Many other initiatives exist related to water resources management in the region. Some have more challenges than others. Perhaps two of the most visible, often pitting environmentalists against developers or spawning national security fears, are the Okavango and the Nile basins. The strategic importance of water – including for food security, energy generation, and transport among other uses – has caused some to speculate about the possibility of conflict over watercourses in Africa and elsewhere. However, through a variety of technological, policy and institutional innovations, water management in Africa also has the potential to act as a source of cooperation and mutual benefit between communities and nations.

Okavango delta – a challenge for sub-regional cooperation

The Okavango basin is a good example of a situation which holds promise, as well as many challenges. The Okavango River rises in the highlands of Angola (where it is known as the Cubango River) and crosses into north-eastern Namibia’s Caprivi Strip before flowing into Botswana. The Okavango River is the only exploitable perennial river in Botswana and Namibia, which are extremely arid countries. The delta, which is in the middle of the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Desert, is a highly significant area of biodiversity (NHI and others 2005). The basin, which is relatively undeveloped, partly as a result of about three decades of conflict in Angola and also because of the international importance of the flora and fauna in the Delta, has gained the attention of many major environmental conservation organizations. Significantly, two of the three riparian countries are also among the most economically active in Southern Africa.

The peace now prevailing in Angola provides opportunities for development in the remote and marginalized watershed areas. But unregulated increased industrialization could result in increased pollution and increased abstraction of water from the Okavango River. The increasing demands potentially pit one state against the other (Swatuk 2002). The SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems (referred to above) has proved to be a very useful tool for collaborating and resolving these kinds of concerns.

Information on hydrological phenomena and the wider environmental context is crucial for effective management and reconciling differences. Often the different priorities pursued by different users (whether at the community or state level) are justified by contrasting narratives and competing sets of “expert discourses” (Swatuk 2002). One important way of finding solutions and moving beyond disagreements is to develop a set of data on water-flows and other basic indicators that all riparian countries agree on (Turton 2002).

Nile Basin Initiative

Through information sharing, capacity-building, and joint projects, it is possible to create “transnational communities” of scientists, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders (Conca and Dabelko 2002). The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is an example of a high-level forum that has combined aspects of “high politics” with technical cooperation and information sharing. This is, in part, is intended to foster trust and build confidence of the riparian countries in each other. The vision of the NBI is “to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources” (Government of Uganda 2002).

The NBI has emerged from several decades of cooperative work between the riparian states, initially based around scientific information sharing. Such projects include the Hydrometeorological Survey of the Catchment of Lakes Victoria, Kyoga and Albert (HYDROMET) (1967-1992), funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Technical Cooperation Committee for the Promotion of the Development and Environmental Protection of the Nile Basin (TECCONILE) which was founded in 1993, and a series of ten “Nile 2000” conferences which were funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) (ECA 2000).

The objective of TECCONILE was to enable sustainable development of Nile waters through basin-wide cooperation and equitable use of water (Abrams 2001). This has been described as a “revolutionary” initiative since it was the first to bring together all riparian states for the stated aim of equitable use of the Nile (Kivugo 1998). To this end, donors have assisted member states in developing national water master plans and integrating these into a Nile Basin Development Action Plan (Abrams 2001). They also supported activities to build capacity for IWRM. While TECCONILE was successful at many levels, some downstream riparian states did not participate fully.

In 1997, the Council of Ministers of Water Affairs of the Nile Basin States (Nile-COM) requested the World Bank to coordinate and lead donor activities, and since then from that time CIDA, UNDP and the Bank have worked in concert (NBI 2005). In early 1999, the NBI was launched, as another “transitional institutional mechanism” for riparian cooperation (Government of Uganda 2002).

The highest decision-making body of the NBI is Nile-COM which encourages the active participation of all states through among other measures, a rotational one-year chair. Technical support is provided by the Nile Technical Advisory Committee (Nile-TAC), with one member (backed up by one alternative member) from each state. The NBI Secretariat (Nile-SEC) is the implementation arm, directed by the former Director of the Water Resources Department of Tanzania.

The objectives of the Nile River Basin Strategic Action Programme are to (Nile-COM 1999):

  • Develop the water resources of the Nile basin in a sustainable and equitable way to ensure prosperity, security and peace for all its peoples;
  • Ensure efficient water management and the optimal use of water resources;
  • Ensure cooperation and joint action between the riparian countries;
  • Seek win-win solutions;
  • Target poverty eradication and promote economic integration; and
  • Ensure that the programme results in a move from planning to action.

Under the NBI, the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement is being renegotiated (Kameri-Mbote 2004). One of the key aspects of this process is the finalization of the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework (project D3 of TECCONILE) which lays out the ground rules for legal and institutional arrangements (Abrams 2001). The finalization of the draft framework, by a panel of experts from each country as well as a negotiation committee, is under way.