April 2013, No. 1 Vol. L, Water


Approximately 64 per cent of Africa's land surface lies within its 63 transboundary river basins as compared to 47 per cent globally. For the southern Africa region, defined by the boundaries of member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), 16 transboundary basins provide nearly 80 per cent of the region's available water resources. All but one continental SADC state has over 50 per cent of their land mass in transboundary river basins. Some countries rely on more than 50 per cent of their water needs flowing from outside of their borders. In this context, water cooperation has been a serious matter for many African countries throughout their history and is increasingly so as their economies grow and become increasingly integrated.

In the recent past, rapidly increasing demands on water resources as a result of growing populations and increased industrial and agricultural development have put many river basins under stress all over Africa. Semi-arid to hyper-arid climates in southern Africa lead to a very high natural spatial and temporal variability in the availability of water resources. Only 10 per cent of rainfall is available as stream flow in rivers, compared to the global average of around 30 per cent. With climate change impacts, stress on water resources will further exacerbate the already high natural variability. In this context, water cooperation and sound water resources management is not merely an option but a dire reality.

In the arid region, demand for water for human consumption and economic development also competes with water needs to maintain the health of ecosystems. Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) aims to balance water demands for economic and social development with the needs for environment and ecosystem health. The IWRM approach is particularly important in Africa where the majority of people's livelihoods are directly impacted by, and have a direct impact on, the health of ecosystems and a variety of services that a healthy ecosystem can provide. Overextraction of water for economic activities may have severe adverse impacts on other economic or social activities that depend on the healthy ecosystems.


Poverty is often a root cause for poor management of natural resources and the resulting ecosystem degradation. IWRM practices will not be sustained if they are imposed on communities that have few, if any, livelihood and food security alternatives. For IWRM to work, communities should not only be involved or engaged in local practices, but also be empowered by them. The following case studies show how better catchment management practices by villagers can result in their empowerment.

In Mpulungu, Zambia, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, sedimentation and overfishing were identified as major problems to the Lake Tanganyika ecosystem. A decline in the catch of Buka Buka Fish (Lates stapperssii), from the mid-1990s to the present, clearly indicated an alarming change in the eco-system. Fishermen's lives were affected negatively; nonetheless, they thought they had no other means and continued to fish, sometimes risking their own lives by seeking fish far from the shore to avoid sediment-impacted areas. The average income per fisherman's household in Mpulungu was $517 per year, much lower than Zambia's average income of $1,160 per capita,1 and it was declining. In 2009, a revolving fund dedicated to the environmental and economic management of Lake Tanganyika was introduced by a project implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Training for alternative income generating activities as well as sustainable catchment management was offered to the 11 targeted communities to reduce the human pressure on land and fishing. Sebi Nafukwe, one of over 700 women who benefited from the training, took a small loan of $60 and started growing rice. She is now making $279 per year from the sale of the rice. With this new income, she and other women benefiting from the revolving fund are now supporting their families' nutritional needs and are sending their children to school. A local fisherman, John Simwiinga, started fishpond farming with a loan of $1,300 and now earns $1,900 every six months. Simwiinga enjoys not only his higher income, but also the stability which is provided by his fish pond farming. The community development committees, created when a revolving fund was established, played a key role in applying peer pressure to repay the loans at a rate of 100 per cent. To apply for a loan, recipients must be socially responsible and active members of the community with no history of domestic abuses or violence. Willies Simfukwe, District Commissioner of Mpulungu and chair of the district development coordinating committee, explains that the economic gains have not only contributed to the main objective of the project -- to reduce sedimentation and overfishing -- but have also stimulated a change of attitude among the communities. People developed a habit of saving, which was uncommon before. Empowered community members participated actively in erosion control activities with full awareness of the interlinkages between their livelihoods and the ecosystem. As a result, sedimentation loads were reduced from 158.99 tons per day to 114.76 tons per day from the largest river of the four flowing into the lake from this area through tree planting and other erosion control measures practised by villagers.

Uvira, a very poor town in the South Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was another site around Lake Tanganyika that suffered heavily from erosion. High sedimentation loads to the lake impacted the Lake's aquatic ecosystem, while mountains with bare surfaces prone to landslides and little productivity were a problem to local communities. The people and the ecosystem in the region also suffered from repeated violent conflicts. Armed groups cut trees for charcoal and firewood. Local people, particularly women, were afraid to go to their fields to tend their crops due to the risk of being killed or raped.2 The UNDP-GEF project worked with a consortium of 27 communities in the region, and a consortium of 5 local associations including a women's association, to promote erosion control measures and improved catchment management practices. Seven nurseries were established in collaboration with local community-based organizations, producing almost 2 million seedlings of a variety of indigenous trees. Over 1 million trees were planted from March 2011 to November 2012 for agroforestry and rehabilitation purposes. In total, 832 were planted and 167 rehabilitated through the project-supported activities. Many fruit-bearing trees were planted to supplement the nutritional needs of local communities. Precious timber trees such as Haegenia abyssinica and Hkaya anthoteca were also planted for the future generation. To reduce fuel wood consumption, 30 people from the communities were trained in the production of energy-efficient stoves. Over 2,700 energy-efficient stoves were locally produced after the training and sold locally for $5 each. The sales of the energy-efficient stoves resulted in reduced need for fuelwoods as well as over $10,000 in profit for the local communities that could be reinvested in further production of the stoves, making it a full profit-making enterprise. Communities felt not only engaged but also, perhaps for the first time, empowered to be able to look after their families, their land and their resources.

The cases above share several commonalities:

  1. After the interventions, the livelihoods of the communities have become more resilient and people more empowered;
  2. through interventions, communities have become more aware of the interlinkages between their actions and the ecosystems that they utilize, and they have been trained to utilize it sustainably;
  3. those local actions have strengthened community-level environmental governance;
  4. these community-level interventions were a part of larger, basin-wide interventions, thus, feedback loops existed for lessons to influence the bigger basin-wide planning and investment processes in the future.


In the last 20 years, in partnership with GEF, UNDP has been supporting a number of transboundary river and lake basins in sub-Saharan Africa. Financial support from GEF has been instrumental in carrying out transboundary assessments that fill knowledge gaps and promote multi-country cooperation, for which no national government budget can be adequately allocated. Enhanced knowledge of a basin and ensuring equal access to information and data of the basin to all basin states have contributed greatly to building trust among them. As a mutual third party, UNDP is perceived as an ideal partner to assist countries in multi-country negotiations leading to a joint management plan, a legal framework, and/or the creation of a joint commission. UNDP has assisted in the establishment of the Lake Tanganyika Authority (LTA) and provided LTA with regional institutional capacity-building assistance. Similarly, UNDP has provided regional institutional capacity-building assistance with some concrete IWRM interventions in the basins of Lake Chad, Okavango River, Orange-Senqu River and Pangani River. UNDP has also just started a new project which aims to strengthen the IWRM capacity of five African Small Island Developing States (Cape Verde, Comoros, Mauritius, São Tomé and Princípe, and Seychelles). All interventions aim to strengthen transboundary and/or intersectoral cooperation necessary to realize IWRM.

UNDP's goal through these programmes is to assist countries in taking a sustainable and resilient development path towards the full realization of their development potential. In many sub-African countries, scarce water resources pose constraints on their development potential. Through careful and efficient utilization of water resources and associated ecosystems, socioeconomic development of a given basin or a nation can be sustainable. UNDP-GEF projects are promoting policy reforms at the national and regional levels that realize stronger water and environment governance at the local, national and regional levels. An appropriate mix of policy reforms can fix or avoid market failures that cause a number of environmental problems by ensuring that environmental externalities are internalized; can redirect bad subsidies from unsustainable practices and direct both public and private future investments in protecting the ecosystems and enhancing various services that the ecosystems can provide to people and society; and can promote the sustainable utilization of resources. UNDP-GEF project interventions are designed at all levels of water governance. While assisting countries in negotiating international protocols or conventions, UNDP also helps countries pilot a number of activities at the local level for better utilization of natural resources, and supports the improvement of their livelihoods with the goal that national or local budgets will be able to replicate those practices when proven successful.

Transboundary cooperation and IWRM are both necessary for sub-Saharan Africa to achieve its economic development potential while maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem. In Africa, maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem is part of the strategy to achieve its development potential. These approaches become even more essential when some engineering solutions or infrastructure developments, which also play a critical role in development, are included in the basin-wide planning.

Poverty reduction, gender empowerment, food security and education are among many socioeconomic benefits that the project interventions at the pilot communities realized, in addition to environmental sustainability. When IWRM interventions manage to empower communities in so many ways, activities introduced by external support will have a higher chance of being sustained even after the support is completed. Empowered communities can organize themselves better to make their voices heard at the subnational, national and international levels, and demand for improved environment governance and accountability at all levels will further strengthen IWRM practices. UNDP interventions aim to create and support this positive spiral.


1 Gross national income per capita, according to the World Bank (http://data.worldbank.org/country/zambia).

2 Commodities of War: Communities speak out on the true cost of conflict in the eastern DRC (Oxfam Briefing Paper 164, November 2012).