Regional cooperation has been part of Africa’s strategy for economic transformation for more than three decades – and in some cases almost a century (ECA 2004). African countries continue to “build upon a rich history of bilateral and multilateral water treaties, spanning nearly 1 200 years across the world” (Giordano and Wolf 2003). More than 3 600 treaties relating to international water resources, dating back to AD 805 have been identified, and about 300 treaties negotiated since 1814 deal with water specifically as a limited consumable resource (Giordano and Wolf 2003). In Southern Africa, for example, an Anglo- Portuguese Convention on the Zambezi River was signed in Lisbon in 1891 and covered the main river and its tributaries (Chenje 2003). These and other agreements on water resources laid the foundation for regional cooperation in conflict resolution and environmental management in Africa.

The body of regional policies, and bilateral and MEAs has grown over the decades, and now include the management of transboundary national parks, large marine ecosystems, forest resources, and mountain ranges as well as hydropower generation and exploitation of oil. Regional cooperation now also extends to trade and economic sectors such as tourism.

Despite these successes, regional integration has a long way to go in achieving concrete results in terms of accelerating growth and promoting regional trade. A recent assessment by the ECA pointed to a number of constraints including (ECA 2004):

  • Multiple and overlapping membership;
  • Reluctance by member states to adhere to integration programmes;
  • Insufficient technical and analytical support;
  • Divergent and unstable national macro-economic policies;
  • Inadequate capacity and resources to spearhead the integration process;
  • Lack of coherence and links among sectoral cooperation programmes and the macro-economic policies pursued by regional economic communities;
  • Missing or ineffective mechanisms for organizing, implementing, controlling, monitoring and revising the integration process;
  • Lack of national mechanisms to coordinate, implement, and monitor integration policies and programmes; and
  • Inability to make integration objectives, plans and programmes part of national development framework.

There have been some important developments related to cooperation in the management of transboundary freshwater resources. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), which has the most advanced water sector integration among the regional communities, is the only regional economic community (REC) with a special protocol for addressing water issues. While recognizing that SADC has a way to go, especially in harmonizing national water laws and policies, the ECA opines that SADC’s protocol “shows that members are committed to integrated water management” making SADC “a model for cooperation between river basin organizations and regional economic communities across Africa” (ECA 2004).

Despite these and other cooperative activities, Africa has also experienced many major armed conflicts, which have left millions dead, hundreds of millions displaced in their own countries or forced to flee across national borders, and the environment has been seriously threatened. In 2003, for example, Africa had the largest number of refugees: of the more than 9.7 million refugees reported worldwide, about 2.9 million were Africans. About half of the world’s refugees were female (49 per cent), and in Africa, more than half of the refugees were under 18 years (UNHCR 2004). Conflict impacts upon people in multiple ways; it especially threatens human security. Human security, is more than just freedom from fear and the threat of physical harm, it is also about having sufficient capabilities – such as access to material goods (including natural resources on which many livelihoods are based), good health, adequate education etc which are the foundation of opportunities – to lead a good and fulfilling life. Conflict has impacts at all these levels, and detracts from the opportunities people have as well as their quality of life. Many people face starvation as a direct result of conflict, and women and girls face the risk of rape and kidnapping (OSAA 2005a). Conflict destroys social and political networks, consequently increasing the incidence of social exclusion.

Settlements of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially in the GLR and Western Africa, present special challenges for achieving environmental and human well-being goals. Virtually all of these settlements were not planned to support the numbers of people which now inhabit them. In many areas this has resulted in a high level of environmental vulnerability. For example, refugee settlements alongside the Virunga National Park in the DRC placed considerable strain on its resources. Such settlements may also have undesirable impacts on the host communities and resource use by the host communities.

Armed conflict is a serious threat to regional priorities in focusing on the opportunities which are provided by the environment for sustainable development. It also contributes to the diversion of scarce resources to the war effort, the breakdown of environmental management systems, and overexploitation of natural resources to fund wars. Recent actions by the AU, ECOWAS and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to foster peace and security in the region are, however, commendable.