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Multilateral cooperation

“Baby in need of strengthening”

The water level in Lake Victoria is declining / Der Spiegel des Victoriasees sinkt.

The water level in Lake Victoria is declining / Der Spiegel des Victoriasees sinkt.

Water is a vital resource for which there is no substitute. In Africa, most water resources are in huge lakes and in mighty rivers that cross borders. It is a question of survival that riparian countries cooperate on sharing the precious liquid. [ By Hans Dembowski ]

“The areas that are flooded now will be dry in a few months time, it is a pity we cannot store the water.” Jennipher Namuyangu is Unganda’s minister of state for water. In September, she spelled out the irony of recent floods that had devastated her country’s north: this area is normally affected by draught, so people are used to needing more water than they have, not less.

The government official worries that unusual weather is occurring ever more often. She notes that snowcaps are melting on African mountains, and that there is less water in Lake Victoria than there used to be. “The climate is changing,” is her assessment. “We must be prepared. We will need resources.”

The impacts of global warming on African water-supply systems were on the agenda at an international conference convened by InWEnt in late September near Bonn. Participants agreed that developing countries need solid scientific information, and that the relevant data will have to be provided, at least in part, by donor countries. Moreover, the poor regions of the world will need support from the international donor community to adapt. It is indeed a global challenge to manage water resources well in the era of climate change.

In Africa, however, this challenge is especially daunting. Poor countries will suffer most from the greenhouse effect, and their infrastructures are already in a very bad shape. If the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of those without sustainable access to safe drinking water is to be met by 2015, the continent will need investments to the tune of an annual $ 20 billion. That is the estimate of Kordje Bedoumra, a director with the African Development Bank. He warns that official development assistance “will never be enough to cover the need”. In other words, national governments must become active – and that includes raising funds domestically.


Common interests

Making matters more difficult, more than two thirds of African water resources flow in mighty surface and underground water courses, which cross borders. Therefore, it does not make much sense to attempt to deal with the issues only at the level of the nation state. The Nile is the most obvious example. Its basin is relevant for countries on the shores of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean.

It is common knowledge that Egypt and Sudan depend entirely on Nile water. However, people living in regions of countries as far away as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Tanzania also use Nile-Basin water. Other African rivers of international relevance include the Senegal, the Niger, the Congo and the Zambezi. Tanzania and the DRC, therefore, are not only members of the Nile Basin Initiative, in which seven other countries take part; they are also involved in SADC`s Transboundary Water Management along with 12 other countries. “SADC” stands for Southern African Development Community.

Roughly 75 % of Africans depend on such transboundary water resources, according to Anthony Turton of South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). He argues that a new paradigm is needed concerning the use of water. The conventional wisdom considers water a given quantity, to be used only once. In reality, water can – and must be – used several times. In Turton’s words, water is “not a stock, but a flux”.

In any case, water is an indispensable good, for which there is no substitute, no matter how much one is willing to pay. If this crucial means of life is to be made most efficient use of, it must be managed diligently. Wastewater must be treated in order to serve as a vital resource once more further downstream. Moreover, dams to store water and irrigation schemes must be designed well to avoid waste and salinisation. On the other hand, the precious liquid used in the fields does not simply vanish: some of it stays in the plants, some of it trickles back down into the groundwater, and some of it evaporates into the air. Naturally, the environmental consequences differ in every case. However, they can – and should – be calculated, as what people do in one country has impacts on other countries along the same river.

Whether there is enough water or not can fast become a question of survival and thus of national security. Karin Kortmann, parliamentary state secretary at Germany’s Development Ministry (BMZ), therefore says that “good water policy is peace policy”. Other public goods related to the issue include flood control, food security, the reliable provision of hydropower, economic growth and the prevention of diseases. River management is thus “an important aspect of regional integration”. That is how Francis Daniel Bougaïré of Burkina Faso’s Water Ministry summed up other participants’ contributions at the conference at Bonn’s Petersberg Hotel.


A networked system

Throughout Africa, national and regional institutions have been set up to tackle the complex water issues, it was stressed at the conference, and progress in this respect has been fast since the turn of the millennium. According to Stephen Maxwell Donkor of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the system of networked river-basin agencies is in principle “functional and suitable”. He does admit, however, that “it is still a baby and needs strengthening”.

Indeed, there is always the concern that multilateral forums remain mere debating societies. International progress thus always depends on national government bodies performing well too. Unfortunately, much is still amiss in Africa, according to donor agencies. Claudia Radeke of Germany’s development bank KfW, for instance, laments that water utilities tend to be run inefficiently for political reasons. They are often overstaffed, as government officials provide relatives and friends with cosy jobs. Even worse, many do not charge tariffs, and even the utilities that do so, typically do not generate enough revenue to fund necessary investments. As a result, services remain inadequate and unreliable. KfW therefore promotes sector-wide reforms, which, to Radeke’s regret, “only drag on slowly” in some countries.

Margaret Catley-Carlson, chairperson of the Global Water Partnership, believes that water issues are generally not getting sufficient attention in many developing countries’ cabinets. Ministers of water tend to be lightweights compared with their colleagues in charge of finance, defence or the police. She would like to see them fight for more money.

Other experts from developed countries, however, wonder to what extent donor governments are also guilty of paying inadequate attention to water. Uschi Eid, the vice-chair of UNSGAB (UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation) therefore urges everyone in a position of influence to emphasise the matter in order for it to rise on the international agenda. She admits that rich countries are more prone to support poor countries’ health and education sectors than to invest in water facilities. One reason, she indicates, is that electorates of industrialised nations are environmentally concerned, and thus tend to worry about the consequences of large-scale dam projects.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, African politicians also express unhappiness with donor attitudes. For instance, frustration was vented at the Petersberg Roundtable, because donors so far show little interest in the construction of a major dam in Tanzania. The country’s government is considering this project to safeguard water supply for Dar es Salaam, the country’s big urban agglomeration.

In a similar vein, Ugandan participant Jennipher Namuyangu bemoaned that sanitation “has been neglected for a long time”. Of course, this topic is of great relevance for public health (Eid, 2007). Nonetheless, Namuyangu says it is hard to mobilise funds. After all, politicians from recipient and donor countries alike prefer photo opportunities at newly installed drinking-water faucets to inaugurating latrines.

Obviously, much remains to be done. In the view of Karin Kortmann, parliamentary state secretary at Germany’s Development Ministry, water diplomacy has made promising headway in Africa in recent years. “It is now time to act accordingly, moving on from negotiations to implementation”, she said at the conference. Admitting that Germany was among the nations that are responsible for climate change, she emphasised her government’s long-term willingness to support African countries in water matters.


[ Interview with Tassiou Aminou, Niger’s minister of water ]

The Sahel region experienced extraordinarily intense rainfalls in August and September. Uganda was the most affected country, and won most of the media attention. Other governments in the region, however, felt the challenge too.

How was the situation in Niger after the torrential rains?

We have certainly had enough rain this year. Normally the rainy season starts in May or June, but they were not very rainy this year. But after mid-July, we had a lot of rain through all of August and the first half of September. Roads and communications infrastructure have been damaged severely. Many people were flooded, some even lost their lives.

Is the unusual rain a consequence of global climate change?

That is hard to say. All summed up, the amount of rain we had this year was not exceptional. We had much heavier rains back in the 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, in the past few decades, we have struggled more to cope with droughts than floods. However, rainfall has been quite strong in the past two or three years, and that may well be due to climate change. What is really new is the intensity of the rain: for example, 150 to 200 ml in 24 or 36 hours. That is not to be taken lightly.

The entire Sahel region has been exposed to severe rains. Is international cooperation needed to overcome the crisis?

Yes, of course, and we are already working together. We have organisations such as the CILSS, the “Comité Inter-Etats de Lutte contre la Sécheresse dans le Sahel” (Interstate Committee to Fight Drought in the Sahel) and others devoted to regional lakes and rivers, such as the Niger Basin Authority, the Lake Chad Basin Commission, and a number of others. Recent events have shown that individual states are quite powerless when it comes to handling such crises. No single government can manage such catastrophes on its own. Increasingly, national governments are recognising that disasters must be addressed both at the national and international level, and the water-basin organisations are among the first places to go. We have no choice but to cooperate across national borders.

What role does the global community play?

As a first step, information is vital. We must alert the people of disasters. We have meteorological data that allow us to see general trends up to three months ahead. These forecasts are not very reliable, but they do allow us to take early action in order to not be completely unprepared when disaster strikes. Another step can be taken in advance: we can put people in locations that are not flood-prone. Right now, many people in Niger live in villages where floods have repeatedly occurred. But relocating all of these people is a difficult task – and an expensive one. This is an area where the international community can help.


The interview was conducted by Hans Dembowski at Petersberg Hotel in late September.