Getting to grips with the regional politics of water in Africa

Cross-border water governance is a world where technical and political communities collide, where principled and scientific approaches to resource allocation cross political interests and economic stakes. For World Water Day, we draw from seven ECDPM studies on regional water management in Africa to propose directions for more pragmatic and effective approaches.

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      Ever since the Rio conference in 1992, the 22 March is World Water Day – intended to highlight the importance of water as a public good and a shared responsibility. The theme this year is ‘leaving no one behind’. This oft-heard refrain reflects an ambition for comprehensiveness and inclusion in water management, as reflected in the sustainable development goals. While few will disagree with the principle, governing freshwater resources in a comprehensive, inclusive way, let alone in a consensual way, is a major challenge, especially when several countries are involved. That has been the focus of ECDPM’s recent work on the political economy of transboundary water management, which is part of our research on the political economy dynamics of regional organisations (PEDRO).

      In case studies covering the SADC water protocol, the functioning of the Niger Basin Authority (NBA), the International Congo-UbanguiSangha Commission (CICOS), the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), and the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), we argue that understanding the local and national politics around water is key to adjusting expectations and approaches.

      External support tends to focus on the watershed, considered the most appropriate scale to organise water management in transboundary basins, and river basin organisations across the continent have adopted a fairly standard set of supranational structures to that effect. The studies however suggest that this ‘best-practice’ approach is often at odds with the realities of decision-making within and between neighbouring countries on the development of water resources for energy and other productive means.

      As a result, long-term failure of many transboundary river basin projects to implement these regional agendas has led to fatigue both among member states and the donors that fund regional projects. While comprehensive regional and multisector plans do exist in most African river basins, collective action often fails to take place due to competing or conflicting interests across boundaries, sectors and actors.

      Paradoxically therefore, the key to understanding regional cooperation may be at the subregional or national level, where interests take shape and positions are formed.

      Manantali Dam (built in 1988) on the Bafing River in the Senegal Basin (Wikimedia)

      To test this, we looked into more detail into the determinants of Mali’s engagement in the Senegal and Niger basins (only in French at present). As a landlocked and water-stressed country, Mali illustrates the diversity of water-related interests and how these play out at the regional level. The country is part of two major river basins, but plays a profoundly different role in the respective river basin organisations.

      Because it co-owns infrastructure on the Senegal river, together with the other members, Mali has a genuine stake in the Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal (OMVS) and supports the regional organisation to take the lead in the further development of hydro-electric infrastructure and interconnections with Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea. Malian decision makers have a palpable interest in keeping the affordable energy supply from the shared dams, not least because limiting power cuts in Bamako is high on the agenda of a contested government.

      Mali, a landlocked country caught between two major transboundary river basins (ECDPM, 2019)

      In the Niger basin on the other hand, interests within and between countries are much less aligned, as downstream countries have a vital interest in the river and sometimes even threatened military action. Mali supports dam construction both up and downstream, but for very different reasons. In the downstream Northeast, for example, Mali has long been trying to build the Taoussa project between Timbuktu and Gao – mostly because it would generate activity and reduce marginalisation in an area under constant threat of violent extremism – and may be willing to make environmental and economic concessions to see the project realised.

      But more complex are the plans for the upstream Fomi dam project, just across the border in Guinea. Mali hopes to use the dam to feed its large-scale state-run irrigation schemes, and is in constant need for reliable energy. However,  the dam risks causing major environmental damage by reducing dramatically the seasonal flooding of the Niger river’s inner delta, the world’s third-largest internationally recognised and protected Ramsar wetland site, home to about 2 million Malians. Even if the World Bank has withdrawn support for the project, Mali and Guinea continue to promote it, and Guinea in turn may be moving ahead with Chinese support, in a bilateral agreement with Mali rather than in coordination with the whole basin.

      The inner delta of the Niger River in Mali (NASA)

      The Mali case illustrates the limits of comprehensive ‘best practices’ approaches for transboundary water questions. When contexts differ so much and the reality of politics overrides aspirations, we argue in favour of a more adaptive approach to regional water management: one that focuses on those areas where change is feasible and on specific cross-border problems such as the Fomi project. If a viable solution for both countries can be found, it can be used to build collective action, even if the resulting solutions are less than ideal. Partial change can be better than a ‘principled impasse’.

      Overall, the competing interests around water cooperation mean that governance is rarely a simple matter of applying the right principles and methods, but rather a complex interplay of political, developmental, and environmental interests within and between countries, in which there will always be winners and losers. As the case shows, countries rarely rely on the regional bodies alone, preferring instead a hands-on bilateral approach to secure their interests with neighbouring states.  

      That is not to say that transboundary water organisations are irrelevant – rather they are a key actor in helping muddle through a complex and ever-fluctuating environment.

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