Water does not respect geopolitical boundaries. Hydrological systems are completely oblivious of international relations. This makes life complicated for the water managers, financiers, diplomats, and most of all – the water users – around the world’s approximately 276 transboundary river basins, 63 of which are in Africa. Sixty percent of the world’s freshwater flows are in transboundary rivers, and 40% of the world’s population lives in their river basins. When water cuts across borders, it poses economic, financial, logistical and political challenges for people trying to manage and develop the resource.
Climate change is increasing uncertainty about where and when water will be available. It is affecting billions of people living in transboundary basins, and as often happens, the poor are the hardest hit. There is a long list of potential problems people will face – supply in water-stressed regions will diminish; some regions are likely to have more water than they can handle; most challenging is the fact that the timing and amounts of future water availability are impossible to predict with certainty. Other risks - the increasing intensity of droughts, floods, typhoons, and monsoons; uncertainties around waterborne disease; glacier melt and decreased storage in snow-pack; glacial-lake outburst floods; sea-level rise and salt-water intrusion - all pose the highest risk to poor communities that are least able to cope.
Stretching for more than 1,800 kilometers across Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Mauritania, the Senegal River is the third longest river in Africa. In a region such as the Sahel, which is plagued by drought, poverty, and underdevelopment, access to a water resource such as the Senegal River is critical to local populations who rely on it for energy production, land irrigation, and potable water.
Africa's patrimony of water resources is unparalleled – the continent has 9% of the world’s water, and only 11%of the globe’s population. The continent is also home to some of the world’s iconic rivers. Who hasn’t heard about the Nile, the mighty Congo, or the Niger?
Under the appearance of sufficient water at the continental average, however, lies a highly uneven resource distribution, meaning that many countries and transboundary river and lake basins face increasing levels of water stress due to rapidly increasing populations and various accompaniments of economic growth. Climate change exacerbates water insecurity, and in turn, vulnerability of the poorest populations.
Next week, the African Ministers’ Council on Water will host the 5th Africa Water Week in Dakar – the continent’s pre-eminent gathering of water experts, policymakers and civil society – under the theme, “Placing Water at the Heart of the Post 2015 Development Agenda.”
I can think of no other venue more suitable for discussing sustainable management and development of Africa’s international waters openly and fruitfully, and for catalyzing new opportunities and partnerships for greater impact.
At the home ground of the OMVS (Organisation pour la mise en valeur du valeur du fleuve Sénégal or Senegal River Basin Development Authority), which has successfully applied benefit sharing principles and equitable institutional and financial arrangements to harness the benefits of basin-wide cooperation, there will be much for CIWA and our implementation partners to learn and cross pollinate in our work across Africa.
Africa’s 63 transboundary river basins cover more than 60 percent of the continent’s surface area and house more than half a billion people. As water issues and the sectors which require water such as agriculture, energy and transportation take center stage on the development agenda, there is growing recognition that sustainable management of shared water resources must become an integral part of the solutions needed to end poverty and boost shared prosperity on the continent.