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International decision-making

The people, the river and the border

In the catchment basin of the Songwe River, the institutional order thwarts sustainable resource management. District borders obstruct coherent policy – and so does the national border between Malawi and Tanzania. Joint decision-making will be necessary if matters are to improve.

[ By Frank Udo Höggel and Silvia Künzler-Roth ]

The Songwe River flows through a 4,500 square kilometre catchment basin in Malawi and Tanzania. The river marks a large part of the border between the two countries, before discharging its waters in the north of Lake Malawi.

Rain-fed farming and itinerant cultivation are the predominant forms of agriculture in the upper and middle thirds of the basin. These farmers are poor. According to official estimates, families have less than a dollar a day to live on, unless they enjoy support from urban relatives. The agricultural economy is mostly subsistence-oriented.

Minor production surpluses flow into a centralised trade system dominated by a small number of wholesale middlemen. Better informed and equipped with transport facilities, these middlemen exploit their position at the farmers’ expense. The farmers themselves have little reliable market information. The professional advice they receive from officials is insufficient. In more than a decade of multilaterally promoted structural adjustment, the quality of state-run agricultural services has declined – enabling a group of traders to monopolise important market information. The farmers are certainly not prepared to meet future challenges.

On the lower course of the Songwe, on the other hand, farmers are comparatively well off. Profiting from the nutrient load of annual floodwaters, they can practise intensive rice farming and cultivate perennial tropical plants. However, this area suffers from unsustainable resource management further upstream. Serious challenges include sedimentation (especially of fish spawning grounds), riverbank collapse and falling fish stocks in Lake Malawi.

Broadly speaking, those actors who cause the damage remain ignorant of what they are doing. Information feedback is impeded because overarching resource management is not geared to the catchment basin as a biophysical unit. Rather, it is regulated by administrative units that only cover patches of the Songwe Basin. What is more, transport and communications along the Songwe River provide only a poor platform for the exchange of crucial information. Effective catchment-wide debate and decision-making cannot materialise in this setting.

Six districts in two countries /b>

The Songwe Basin spreads into four Tanzanian and two Malawian districts. For example, 13 % of Tanzania’s Mbeya District lies within the catchment area of the river. In principle, this District’s development strategy is geared to preserving the natural resource base for future generations.

However, administrative boundaries narrowly circumscribe development planning. The civil servants in Mbeya, the district capital, are largely ignorant of the fact that 13 % of the territory displays the physical and socioeconomic features of a complex river landscape.

While the people who live in the catchment area do understand such distinctive features, they cannot convey their knowledge to the appropriate authorities. And in any case, consultation and negotiation hardly extend beyond district borders – and almost completely stop at the national frontier.

Across the whole of the Songwe Basin, the population is growing. Estimates range from one to nearly four percent per year. The growth rates may not be all that high, but farmers will have to meet a rising demand for resources – especially since local towns, which may also be located outside the catchment, need resources. Firewood and charcoal is in high demand, and illegal plundering of resources is the order of the day.

For several years, both Malawi and Tanzania have been pursuing policies of decentralisation, with support from international donors. However, implementation suffers form a range of operational problems. Moreover, some governance functions were transferred to local communities too fast, resulting in a lack of initial support as well as operational and institutional confusion at the local level.

The local people understand the advantages of assuming responsibility and making decisions. But local communities are hardly in a position to fully grasp the biophysical and socioeconomic situation of the catchment area. At least, they are sensitive to biophysical causal relations, which cannot be said of most officials. What rural people lack, however, is the administrative and procedural expertise to funnel local knowledge into official planning procedures.

Many socioeconomic relations extend across the border between the two countries, and both sides are aware of each other's resource management programmes. Nonetheless, there is, so far, no mechanism to enable joint resource decision-making for the catchment region. In 2004, the Songwe River Transboundary Catchment Management Project (SRTCMP) was established, but it has failed to sufficiently assess the complexity of the situation. There is a glaring lack of reliable planning data and a dire need for a quantitative record of the positive and negative impacts of resource management, especially in terms of upstream-downstream dynamics.

The hydrologic cycle of the river basin is central to the lives and security of the people living there. This cycle offers a number of indicators that can be used to calculate the data required. These include
– sediment from the upper reaches of the river deposited along the lower course or at the mouth;
– floodwaters, which are frequently caused by inappropriate resource management and present a threat to the riverbank system; and
– chemical pollution from agricultural activity, which impacts negatively on flora and fauna.


Environment as well as society are suffering because of unsustainable private-interest activities, which affect the public domain, in the catchment area. The impacts of those activities transcend district and national borders. However, the existing administrative bodies are unable to rise to the challenges because
– they remain barely aware of the need to base resource management on a decision-making system that takes into account all relevant information from the entire river catchment, and
– they are so far unaware about potential claims for compensation.

A new understanding of the law, based on the polluter-pays principle, is needed throughout the Songwe Basin. This principle is a feature of Tanzania’s National Water Policy.

The people living in the catchment basin understand the causal inter-relations we have mentioned better than urban officials do. There is hope, therefore, that the ongoing process of political decentralisation will help the two countries to rise to the challenges in future. Cross-border coordination, however, will be vital in any case.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.