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Intergovernmental cooperation

West Africa sets an example

by Peter Pieck
Many water problems in Africa affect several countries, so international solutions are called for. Regional river-basin organisations are needed, such as the Autorité du Bassin du Niger (ABN). It is the largest body of its kind in West Africa and implementing a comprehensive plan to develop the catchment area of the Niger. Others should learn from its experience. [ By Peter Pieck ]

In the first years after the ABN was formed in Guinea in 1980, it worked in a similar way to many African agencies: rather bureaucratically, moderately productively and with almost no support. This changed in 2002, when the nine member states – Burkina Faso, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Chad – commissioned its Executive Secretariat to create a “shared vision” for development of the Niger Basin. The approach was confirmed by the Paris Declaration in 2005, and the ABN has enjoyed considerabe donor support since then. Today, the international community is making water management a priority. There are increasing expectations on regional organisations to plan and manage development.

Sustainable development of the NigerBasin through integrated management of water resources and ecosystems is expected to improve the living conditions for the local people by 2025. The Niger, Africa’s third longest river, stretches over 4,000 kilometres, with 105 million people living in its catchment area. The three priorities of the shared vision are:
– development of infrastructures (dams, hydroelectric power stations, irrigated perimeters),
– conservation and protection of the ecosystems of the river basin, and
– capacity building for the actors involved.

This shared development strategy is reflected in an action plan and investment programme. More than 600 projects and programmes and their estimated costs are listed. The investment programme requires the sum of € 5.5 billion in 20 years (2008-2027). About 80 % cent of that amount is earmarked for infrastructure.

The first five-year plan is expected to increase energy production and create more agricultural areas. In April 2008, the member countries adopted the action plan, the investment programme and a water charter, which defines the rights and obligations of each country and the ABN in managing catchment resources. In June 2008, the donors gave more or less binding commitments totalling € 900 million. It is now up to the ABN to make the vision a reality.

The nine member countries of the ABN are represented in political terms by their heads of state or national ministries (of water). At the working level, technical experts represent countries. Policy decisions are implemented by about 55 members of the Executive Secretariat of the ABN, which has its headquarters in Niamey, Niger.

A key problem is communication between the “centre” and the “periphery”, i.e. between the Executive Secretariat and the member countries, so the ABN has set up “national focal structures” in each country. These are teams made up of a designated contact person and experts from various disciplines. They form the link between the national governments and the ABN’s Executive Secretariat. They allow constant communication between the headquarters and each country and have the requisite expertise.

In all of the ABN countries, civil society is also represented, by unions of farmers, fishermen or women’s groups. Last year, “national coordinating bodies” were formed, and they attend all important ABM meetings as advisers.

Demanding agenda

It is not easy to define precisely the ABN’s mandate. Its role is to implement water management, plan the socio-economic development of the river basin, monitor its implementation and, if necessary, adjust it. Among other things, the mandate covers fields such as environmental protection, agriculture, international law, hydrology, shipping, energy production and support of the private sector. This is a daunting agenda. In comparison, the Danube Commission’s tasks are basically limited to monitoring the water quality and preserving ecosystems.

The ABN agenda demands a coherent concept, individual components of which fit together and create synergies. The donors also consider this important. For the ABN, it all adds up to more work, more complicated procedures and a greater need for qualified staff – particularly as implementation has now begun.

Funding is a crucial challenge. The Executive Secretariat was restructured in 2005, to adapt it to its new tasks. For instance, higher qualified and therefore more expensive experts and management staff were appointed. The ABN’s work is expensive in any event. Representatives from all nine countries must travel to workshops. Moreover, the ABN is taking on a greater number of tasks, even though there has been no change over the years in the annual contributions from the member countries (determined according to size and economic power). Last November, the ministers in charge resolved to increase the contributions of the member countries by 50 %. This decision indicates how estimated the ABN is.

A new study commissioned by the ABN is expected to identify new directives for sustainable funding. The amount contributed by donors is increasing. In 2008, they gave € 30 million. In contrast, contributions from the member countries amounted to only €1.4 million. However, absorbing funds sensibly is easier said then done. Most donors are prepared to fund projects or one-off investments, but not current expenses. They regard the equity financing of new agencies, for example, more as an indicator that the supporting agency is willing to cooperate. In future, however, donors will have no option but to assume at least part of the direct costs for the management of individual projects and programmes that the ABN conducts.

The ABN actually has two mandates. For one thing, it is supposed to plan and monitor the development of the river basin, coordinate the various initiatives with one another and harmonise different approaches. On the other hand, it carries out development projects itself. Obviously, any river authority will have greater credibility if it makes a noticeable difference in the lives of the people instead of only drafting strategy.

Among the ABN’s projects are the gathering and analysis of hydrological data, the fight against the silting of the river and the rehabilitation of hydroelectric power stations. Also it provides capacity building, which is co-funded by Germany’s Development Ministry (BMZ). Other important donors are the World Bank, the EU, Canada and France. So far, ABN’s dual mandate has never been challenged.

National versus regional interests

The ABN is moving in a political environment that comprises both national interests and regional ones. There is no doubt that it advocates regional interests. Its goal is to direct all developmental measures planned in a way which is optimal for the entire catchment area and not just for individual subregions or countries. Nevertheless, national interests must be taken into account, so that there is no long-term risk of particularising the member countries or even rupturing the unity of this West African community, to date its biggest strength.

Coherent approaches are evident, for example, in the construction and future operation of the three large dams and hydroelectric power plants which are planned in Fomi (Guinea), Taoussa (Mali) and Kandadji (Niger). A dam can increase food and energy production but, at the same time, lower the water level downstream, reduce production capacities and damage the environment. Such risks must be checked. The member countries have principally decided to cede part of their sovereignty to the ABN in the interests of the common good. However, national interests could diverge on specific projects.

This is the ABN’s key task: it may not have the sovereign authority to ban, for example, a member country from carrying out a particular project, but it is certainly able to defend the overriding interests of the basin as a whole. Thus, it makes sure that studies following internationally accepted criteria are carried out before a project starts to identify the socio-economic aspects and its positive and negative effects on the environment. Also the socio-economic consequences of constructing a dam are to be shown. The ABN organises the input from international experts. It ensures that information reaches all members quickly and in full. It initiates discussion and approval processes at the policy and technical level. And, if necessary, it mediates between the parties.

The ABN requires diplomatic skill, political independence, persistency and good arguments to balance the many diverging interests. It has already come up with many solutions, but some important questions still remain unanswered. They include:
– How can countries which are in the catchment area but not directly on the river itself take part in ABN development (“benefit sharing”)?
– Who is in charge of the dams when they begin to operate?
– What role is the ABN going to play?

The ABN appears to be the one organisation able to find the right answers to these questions. It is in this position thanks to its planning work and project experience, as well as its ability to organise communication between countries.