Debating Strategies for Reducing Poverty in Transboundary River Basins

19 April 2010 | News story

More than 50 water management policy specialists and practitioners met in Nairobi on April 15-16 to ask how people living in poverty can be helped by coordinating the management of water across international borders.

‘Transboundary water management’ is not a new issue. There are more than 260 transboundary rivers worldwide, home to some 40% of the world’s population, that either cross or form the boundary between states. More than 70% of Africa's population live in transboundary river basins and 60% are groundwater dependent.

The problem is that if there is no cooperation in how the waters they share are used, then countries may miss out on development and economic opportunities. Upstream dams for example, may leave downstream countries without the water they need. Or diversion of water for irrigation by one country may dry out wetland ecosystems and devastate fisheries in another.

Typically, the highest profile concerns over transboundary waters are security and reducing the possibility of conflict, so-called ‘water wars’. The Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), which convened the Nairobi meeting, aims to explore options of supporting cooperation on transboundary waters that will also directly help lift people out of poverty.

Mark Smith, Head of the IUCN Water Programme, used principles from the IUCN toolkit “SHARE – Managing Water Across Boundaries” and experiences in the Volta river basin from the IUCN Water and Nature Initiative (WANI) to argue that you can.

“Sharing benefits from good water management in international river basins can certainly include the priorities of local communities,” he said. “In the Volta basin now, transboundary water management is about much more than what the Foreign Affairs Ministries of Ghana and Burkina Faso say to each other. It is also about how communities living on either side of the river, but in different countries, can cooperate to solve problems, protect the environment and work together to make sure each has the water they need.”

The key is to take a people-centred approach. In the Volta, they have local transboundary water committees. “The committees solve local water problems across the border and organise cooperation to sort out their own priorities. They have helped set up vegetable farming and install village water supplies, as well as restore the banks of the river to stop soil erosion on both sides of the border,” said Ousmane Diallo, IUCN Regional Coordinator for Water and Wetlands in West and Central Africa.

“Importantly, the committees send representatives to national water forums. They then work to make sure that lessons learned locally, and the priority needs of people living along the river are taken into account by the Volta Basin Authority, which has the job of coordinating water management in the basin.”

Workshop participants decided that it will be vital to learn lessons from examples like the Volta. The pay off should be cooperation of transboundary water management that does the job of helping both to build peace and international security, and to reduce poverty.

For more information, please contact: ousmane.diallo@iucn.org