Dakar Water Hub Keynote Address on Water Insecurity and Prosperity in West Africa

2 May 2024 by The Water Diplomat

Zai pits

In the third week of April, Dr Boubacar Barry, scientific advisor to the Dakar Water Hub, presented a keynote address on water security as a constraint to - or enabler for – prosperity in West Africa. The keynote address was held at a seminar in Accra organized by the Water Resource Management Commission of the Economic Community of West African States and the International Water Management Institute. Dr. Barry touched on a situation analysis with regard to water resources in the region, followed by an analysis of food security challenges and responses, and ended with a review of the role of hydro diplomacy.

Firstly, in terms of the situation analysis, an important starting point is the observation that most of West Africa suffers from economic rather than physical water scarcity. Physical water scarcity is a situation in which water resources utilisation exceeds sustainable limits, and economic water scarcity is a situation in which available water resources can meet local needs, but human, institutional and financial capital is lacking to actually harness and use these resources.  In West Africa furthermore, there is a water-food- energy nexus at work whereby water resources can be harnessed to delivery hydropower, which in turn enables water pumping and other forms of mechanisation for food production. Food production requires the harnessing of water resources for irrigation, and water supplies are also needed for the provision of drinking water and sanitation services.

Currently, the water-food-energy nexus is challenged through the effects of climate change. Increasingly irregular rainfalls lead to less food being produced and the need to increase food imports. In addition, higher temperatures imply higher evaporation rates, less water available in reservoirs and more power cuts. The challenge is to secure chap and regular energy to ensure more food production, more irrigated agriculture, and adequate food transport, transformation and conservation. Within this there is a need to find the right energy mix (solar, hydropower, biomass, fossil energy).

In West Africa, each element of the nexus faces challenges. Overall, a large fraction of the population struggles to get access to water, food and energy. In general terms, the urban population gets better access to these services while the rural population has barely access to clean water, a large fraction of the rural population is still food insecure, energy is provided by fuelwood that is getting scarce around villages, water is provided by irregular wells and fragile boreholes, and food is provided by rainfed crops.

The water resources of the region are governed by six River Basin Organisations, of which the Niger Basin Authority, the Volta Basin Authority, the Gambia River Development Organisation and the Senegal Basin River Development Authority are the most well-known. These organisations have developed plans for the production of energy and food, and to a lesser extent the provision of water for drinking purposes.  There is a need to link power production to irrigation along the rivercourses.

Turning secondly to the issue of food security challenges in the region, a first point to note is the extreme climate variability of the area, the prevalence of both droughts and floods against the background of complex hydrology. These factors could lead to a loss in food production: in a World Bank scenario of temperature increases of 2-3°C, major changes on food production can be expected, and rain dependent farming areas could be producing only half of their current yield. These fluctuations are not unfamiliar in Africa, which has a natural legacy of extreme rainfall variability which reduced hydrological security. Africa therefore already has the experience of endemic droughts and floods, without factoring in climate change. N Evidence from Burkina Faso shows a gradual southward movement of more arid zones between 1950 and 1999.

Paradoxically, the Sahel is generally rich in groundwater resources, further underlining the difference between physical water scarcity and economic water scarcity. In addition, over time we are witnessing a steady increase in surface water flows, which - if improperly managed managed - can lead to further degradation of soils.

Taken together, a number of issues interlock to create a 'wicked problem' for the region: water scarcity, climate variability, climate change, land degradation, water quality and health issues, low agricultural productivity, poor access to infrastructure, production inputs and rural services, and the resultant drop in food security due to years of neglect of food staples and livestock sectors. This is compounded by human agency: inadequate public and private sector investments, especially in rural areas, a weak enabling environment: governance, institutions, and finally transboundary conflicts in water management. At this point, years of recurrent drought have led to food shortages and hunger.

Ongoing research in the transboundary Liptako-Gourma area in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso show an evolution in armed violence and forced displacement, in spite of a reasonably uncoordinated but well-intentioned water projects in the area. Unfortunately, the majority of  investments in the water sector are focused on a single sector and do not capture the water food energy nexus. Similarly, only a small proportion of humanitarian responses in the area are multisectoral in character.

Thirdly, water can act as a vector for peace in the Sahel by working with local actors to strengthen water cooperation.  High levels of undernourishment prevail in the region, and within the population groups suffering from malnutrition, smallholder farmers make up 50% of the population. Landless rural dwellers and the urban poor each make up 20%, and pastoralists, fishermen, and forest dwellers make up the remaining 10%. What is essential within this framework is the productivity of water, which is low by global standards in Africa. Investing in irrigated agriculture can make a huge difference to food production, even though the last decades have seen a decline in lending in this area. Ensuring water security requires an investment in infrastructure and institutions: water needs to be brought to the poor, and education is needed for it to be put to better use. There is considerable scope for improved agricultural production and food security through irrigation (39 million hectares) and rainfed agriculture (146 million hectares). Of the 39.4 million hectares of land that is potentially irrigable, only 7.1 million hectares, or 18% of the potential – are currently under irrigation.

Therefore, a blue green revolution is needed: Agriculture must be transformed to deliver food security, ecosystem services including clean water, flood protection and carbon sequestration. A strong agriculture sector also promotes economic growth, and resilient rural communities. This will require innovative farming methods and technologies adapted to climate change as well as translating research and knowledge into action – engaging in policy, working with practitioners, facilitating capacity building. A coherent agriculture and natural resource management programme is needed to address major issues of water scarcity and land degradation, which emphasises integration – across disciplines and scales for innovation.

The face of water management is changing: problems are becoming more complex and therefore solutions need to be more holistic, with new integrated scientific approaches, new actors, new roles, and new paradigms. The approach needs to be more demand-driven and  product-oriented approach with a greater focus on developing shared goals and priority setting around high impact pathways. This will require reforms: sectoral reforms are needed to craft solutions suited to local needs and move away from a blueprint approach. There are policies which lie outside of the water sector which have a huge influence on water resources – diets, trade, agricultural subsidies, and energy, therefore harmonisation needs to be part of this reform.

Diffcult choices need to be made now rather than later: rather than sharing the pie, the pie needs to be increased, and the benefits can be shared. Investments are needed to enhance production and adapt to climate change. Water storage must be enhanced, both for agriculture – water and for the environment. Balance needs to be found between upstream and downstream, between productivity and equity, between the needs of this generation and those of the next, and therefore our current consumption patterns need review.

An integrated approach to agricultural water management requires asking the question how the water resources available in a basin can be used to its greatest advantage (e.g. how to minimize outflows of water that do not contribute desired returns). To do this we need to consider the entire spectrum of agricultural water management investment options. We need to recognize multiple uses and users of water: energy, drinking water, environment, industry, agriculture ... dealing with competition and sometimes allowing a shift of water from agriculture to other (higher value?) uses. We need therefore to understand dynamics within & across field, system and basin scales.

For such planning it is necessary to assess upstream-downstream interactions as well as the impacts of proposed interventions. It is necessary to look at increasing the economic productivity of all sources and qualities of water – surface water, groundwater, rainfall, and wastewater. For this, we need also to recognize the key role of reliable data as basis for sound management & decision-making and to dvelop and implement appropriate policy and institutional reforms when required.

Some of the best bets within this spectrum include integrated soil fertility and water management in rainfed areas, revitalizing underperforming irrigation, sustainable groundwater management, safe reuse of wastewater use, improved planning and allocation of river basin water , improved wetland management in agricultural landscapes, water and land for pastoral livestock systems, and a global soils, water and ecosystems knowledge base.

Hydrodiplomacy is a very important ingredient in this blue green revolution. Africa’s water resources are predominantly transboundary in nature, which means that any form of appropriation or control by individual States is impossible. The example of the Senegal Basin River Development Authority stands out in this regard, as it emphasises the collective right of use, enjoyment and administration of shared waters. For this reason, it has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. Joint transboundary water management for collective progress requires political commitment at the highest level as well as a clear legal framework.

Similarly, the Gambia River Development Organisation stands out for its leadership in the region. Cutting across three river basins in four countries with three working languages, this organization looks back at 45 years of successful cooperation between states. It has resulted in sub-regional integration of infrastructure through 1677 km of electricity grid, a guarantee of mutual stability and peace, and the protection and conservation of ecosystems and measures to adapt to climate change.

Finally, the initiative of the Dakar water Hub deserves mention to support one of the world’s first transboundary agreements on subterranean water through the cooperation agreement on the Senegalo Mauritanian Aquifer.

All of this shows us the pathway for a blue green revolution in the region to enhance water and food security in the context of peaceful transboundary cooperation.