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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Benefits of Working Together on Water

GABORONE, Apr 20 2010 (IPS) - The river basin organisation people are gathered in Botswana again: the theme this year is “benefit-sharing”, an approach to allocating water that, it is promised, will accomplish nothing less than to make more water.

Irrigation near Kakamas, South Africa : how can optimal and sustainable use of water be achieved? Credit:  Patrick Burnett/IPS

Irrigation near Kakamas, South Africa : how can optimal and sustainable use of water be achieved? Credit: Patrick Burnett/IPS

As a region, Southern Africa faces water scarcity which is expected to grow more acute as the effects of climate change manifest. Almost all of the fresh water in the region is found in shared water courses – across Africa, 93 percent of surface water is found in rivers that spill over national boundaries.

The Fourth Regional Workshop on Strengthening River Basin Organisations, taking place in the Botswanan capital, Gaborone on Apr. 20-21, is part of a process of developing clear guidelines for the Southern African Development Community’s strategy on transboundary waters. The annual workshops, supported by GTZ, InWent, UKAID and USAID, bring together researchers and water policy makers from across the region.

Growing economies and populations mean growing pressure on water resources; competing demands for water are a potential source of conflict between – and within – states.

“Sharing freshwater resources equitably and reasonably is of the utmost importance in the African continent,” says Namibia-based David Phillips, managing director of water consulting firm Phillips Robinson Associates.

Phillips is a leading exponent of the idea of benefit-sharing, which avoids deadlock over allocations of water to competing users in a river system. Instead of seeing it as a struggle over a fixed volume of water, benefit-sharing sets up negotiations over a broad range of direct and indirect benefits arising from water use.

A tidy example is found in West Africa, where in 1972 three countries along the Senegal River agreed that the best way to achieve common aims of economic growth, food self-sufficiency, and resilience against drought was to collaborate on a development programme.

Mauritania, Mali and Senegal split the costs of dams based on the benefits each could receive in terms of hydro power, irrigation and enhanced navigation of the river.

The formula was not simply bear half the cost, receive half the benefits. The agreement attempted to account for the different needs and characteristics of each country, its riverine populations, and the changing possibilities of the river itself as it flowed through the region.

Senegal put up 42 percent of the cost of the dams, but was assigned 33 percent of the hydropower benefit and 58 percent of the irrigation benefit. Mali contributed 35 percent of the cost of the dams, but received 52 percent of the benefit of the hydropower, 80 percent of the navigation benefit.

The disruption of seasonal flooding by the Manantali and Diama dams has severely undermined previous agricultural practice (and the costs of water from the new irrigation have proved too high for many) while increasing incidence of disease like schistosomiasis, but despite the flaws in design and implementation of the projects themselves, the basin-wide agreement still offers a promising model of how to approach negotiating shared water resources.

It can be contrasted with the situation on the Nile River, where a fifty-year old treaty rigidly defines the beginning and end of a closed argument over how many cubic metres per second of water the downstream countries are entitled to. The 1959 terms that guarantee Sudan and Egypt a set allocation of water are constricting water use by the eight other countries upstream.

The benefit-sharing approach adopted on the Senegal River allowed the parties additional room to negotiate mutually acceptable development of the river, in ways intended to serve the specific and various needs and interests of each. The construction of a dam in one location was not on the table simply as the deprivation of users elsewhere of water.

Dr Nicholas Azza, a water policy specialist with the Nile Basin Initiative, points out that benefit sharing has to be attractive in order to get off the ground. “The sum of benefits to be gained from cooperation needs to be greater than the sum of benefits available to countries acting unilaterally.”

The Southern African Development Community’s ongoing effort to establish and strengthen river basin organisations is already working along these lines, says Dr Kenneth Msibi, from SADC’s Water Division.

Outlining how optimal, sustainable use of water might be achieved, he outlined several essential ingredients. These include expert study to provide a knowledge base for effective development; consultations with water users ranging from mining and industry to municipalities and small-scale farmers; basin-wide cooperation (shaped by recognition of common interests and the shared nature of the resource, as well as political will).

Assemble these, he suggested, with the “trigger” of the region’s sharpening water scarcity to bind negotiations together and move them along, and Southern Africa may have the recipe for the effective and cooperative use of its shared water.

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