When several countries rely on the same water resources, the potential exists for political tensions or even violence. But projects in Africa prove that regional cooperation can be a win-win situation for countries.
Integrated Transboundary Water Resource Management is one of the issues being discussed during World Water Week at the Stockholm International Water Institute.
“That means that shared water resources like rivers flowing across boundaries, flowing from one country to another, can really be managed in such a way that they bring benefits to the people living in those basins and those countries, “said Anton Earle, program manager for capacity building at the Stockholm International Water Institute.
Cooperation means investing in shared water resources.
“By that I mean you invest in the institutions to manage these waters. And that of course leads later on to investing in infrastructure that can be built, such as dams, water transfers and also small-scale infrastructure, that can make sure that people get access to water services and also make sure that this is done sustainably,” Earle said.
Sustainable water management ensures the protection of ecosystems on which all life depends.
Earle said to get countries to cooperate on water management, they must clearly see how they can benefit.
“The key thing to remember is that countries want to maximize their own interests,” he said. “Showing countries that by cooperating, setting up joint institutions, there’s something for them to gain from it. It’s not just that their losing sovereignty or losing control over a resource that they might perceive as just theirs. There’s actually something to gain.”
To do that, he said, the focus cannot simply be on water.
“We start getting them to think about sharing a basket of benefits of which water is just one of the many benefits,” he said, “sharing resources, sharing expertise, trying to promote joint tourism activities, for instance, on some of these rivers.”
It can also include trading energy generated by water resources.
“In most parts of the world energy production is quite intimately linked with water, whether it’s through hydropower, electric dams or through thermal power stations that need large amounts of water for their cooling. So if you can get countries to say, ‘Well, where are you generating energy most effectively and efficiently? Let’s rather transfer the energy than having to move water around the place,’” said Earle.
Water is considered a precious resource, especially as the world population continues to soar.
“Is water a limited resource? Essentially you have the more traditional understanding of viewing water as a gift from God. Something that just comes freely from the sky…. So that when people start talking about valuing your water and actually being made to pay a price for the water over and above just the price of pumping and building infrastructure to convey it… you find a lot of people are instinctively against a concept like this,” said Earle. However, he has found minds can be changed on the matter.
Earle said, “We do find in Africa once you have explained these sort of concepts to people they very quickly realize that this makes absolute sense. And that any other limited and scare resource that they want to access there is, after all, some type of payment that has to be made.”
Link to the environment
In Africa, there are large rural-based populations. Earle has found they often have a better understanding of the environment than people who live in the West.
“These rural-based populations are much more closely linked to the environment and ecosystems that support them. Having this link to the rural areas and a close affinity to the environment puts them in a better position to quickly grasp the fact that if water is so scarce it should be managed in such a way,” he said.
Earle believes the Horn of Africa could benefit from such water management programs to help deal with recurring droughts.
“What do you invest in first? Do you first invest in your institutions focused on water management or do you first focus all your energy on trying to get general peace and stability in the country at large? And it’s difficult to say because the two things go hand in hand. But essentially what is needed in an area such as the Horn of Africa are better institutions that can prepare for these droughts that do come through,” he said.
He said systems can be put in place to build resilience to drought.