Water Cooperation Essential as Africa’s Water Crisis Intensifies
There is a growing global water crisis, driven by climate change, population growth, increased water-intensive production, and the neglect of water infrastructure. The latest edition of the UN World Water Development Report states that globally, 2 billion people (26% of the population) do not have safe drinking water and 3.6 billion (46%) lack access to safely managed sanitation.
Water availability per capita has been decreasing worldwide. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has seen a 40% decline in per capita internal renewable water resources between 2000 and 2018, the largest decline of all regions in the world, albeit from a low base. From 2008-2018, water stress increased by 14.2% in SSA and 13.3% in Northern Africa, the largest increase of all regions after South-Eastern Asia (15.5%) and Latin America and the Caribbean (15.4%). Economic water scarcity (the condition where there is sufficient water to meet human and environmental needs, but access is constrained by a lack of water infrastructure or poor water resources management) is most severe in SSA. This is reflected in service coverage statistics: while the rest of the world has seen a decline in the population without access to basic water services from 2000-2020, SSA is the only region where these numbers have been rising. In 2020, 70% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa did not have access to safely managed drinking water services (compared to just 4% in Europe and North America).
To address the water challenges the world currently faces related to droughts, floods, and a lack of sanitation and drinking water, the UN held the 2023 Water Conference, the first freshwater conference hosted by the UN since 1977. An outcome of the Conference was the Water Action Agenda, a collection of over 700 voluntary pledges to help deliver on water action from governments, businesses, NGOs and others.
An analysis of all of these pledges by the World Resource Institute finds that while more than one-quarter of the commitments are potential game-changers, the rest of the pledges are unlikely to generate real change. A stand-out pledge identified by the WRI is a joint commitment from the Niger River Basin Authority and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV). It includes financial backing of $21.2 million through 2029 to strengthen climate change adaptation and mitigation throughout all nine countries the Niger River runs through (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria). The strategy includes nature-based solutions, such as climate-smart agriculture and wetland restoration, to address the challenges posed by the region’s erratic rainfall patterns and desertification.
This type of project is made possible by the existence of an operational arrangement (legal and institutional structures) for governing the transboundary marine resource. Additionally, the development of a Climate Resilience Investment Plan by the Niger Basin Authority created a framework for successfully leveraging investments. Many transboundary water (TBW) resources on the continent lack these kinds of arrangements and vision, stifling the potential for innovative transboundary actions to be taken. Only 29% of transboundary river basins and less than 10% of transboundary aquifers on the continent have TBW agreements, with only 19% having basin-wide agreements. Moreover, many TBW agreements do not account for the effects of increasing climate-induced water variability, constraining their flexibility to adapt to changes in water quantity and distribution over time.
The escalating tension between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile is illustrative of what can go wrong without a fair, meaningful, agreement to govern the use of shared water resources. Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan have been in negotiations over the use of the Nile River Basin’s waters for over a decade. Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia have been escalating since 2020 when Ethiopia filled the GERD reservoir despite Egypt’s demands that the dam should remain empty until an agreement was reached. Egypt is concerned that the Dam will affect the flow of water into the Nile which Egypt depends on heavily for its household and commercial water supply. While Ethiopia’s highlands supply over 85% of the water that flows into the Nile River, Egypt has long referred to colonial-era 1929 and 1959 agreements to stop the construction of any large infrastructure projects on the tributaries of the Nile. The 1959 agreement allocated the entirety of the Nile River’s waters to Sudan and Egypt, leaving no water to Ethiopia or other upstream riparian states. Negotiating a modern, equitable, basin-wide agreement to ensure the between the 11 riparian countries (drawing on the experiences of successful African management frameworks, including the Niger Basin Authority) is critical for avoiding further disputes.
As the World Water Development Report highlights, water cooperation is critical for combatting the water crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa and ensuring peace and security. Water security in the region’s many transboundary basins and aquifers can be improved by creating strategies and platforms for strengthening communication and the exchange of information not only between governments but all water stakeholders from the community, academia, and business.
 WHO, UNICEF, World Bank. (2022). State of the world’s drinking water: an urgent call to action to accelerate progress on ensuring safe drinking water for all. Geneva: World Health Organization.
 AfDB. (2022). Climate proofing Transboundary Water Agreements in Africa. https://www.afdb.org/en/documents/climate-proofing-transboundary-water-agreements-africa
 Mbaku. (2020). The controversy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2020/08/05/the-controversy-over-the-grand-ethiopian-renaissance-dam/
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