Water Problems in Africa

Climate proofing Transboundary Water Agreements in Africa

Climate proofing Transboundary Water Agreements in Africa


Africa’s water resources have the potential to stimulate economic growth, secure livelihoods, and alleviate poverty. Transboundary water (TBW) resources are especially important in Africa, where 63 international transboundary river basins cover about 62% of the region’s land area and account for 90% of the total surface water.

Water agreements between countries sharing a TBW resource often constitute the main governing apparatus in the use, development, and management of shared water resources. However, the last SDG indicator 6.5.2 report shows that in Africa only 29% of transboundary river basins and fewer than 10% of transboundary aquifers are the object of TBW agreements and, of these, only 19% have any basin-wide agreements.

In addition, most TBW agreements assume that future water supply and quality will not change and fail to consider increasing climate-induced water variability. Therefore, most TBW agreements lack the capacity to adapt to temporal and spatial changes in water quantity. 

In response, the African Development Bank has developed a report on Climate-proofing Transboundary Water Agreements in Africa, as basis to establishing a systematic approach to tackle the lack of flexibility in water allocations and water variability management in TBW. The report assesses the current state of TBW in Africa, with respect to their susceptibility to the effects of climate change, and reviews how the agreements guiding their management support climate adaptation. It also highlights mechanisms that can be applied to agreements on TBW in Africa to increase their flexibility to address variabilities in water availability resulting from climate change.


Climate-proofing transboundary water agreements in Africa


Sustainable socio-economic development is founded on water security which is vital for food and energy production, health, and livelihoods and enables industrial development, liveable cities, global biodiversity and sustainable ecosystems. Currently, one in every three people in Africa faces water insecurity. Only 58% of Africans have access to safely managed drinking water services. This figure is even lower in sub-Saharan Africa where, in 2017, only 27% of people had access to potable water. Across the continent, 72% of people lack basic sanitation services. As a result, there is a high incidence of disease that reduces human vitality and the overall economic productivity of Africa. The transformational potential of water is enormous, considering less than 5% of cultivated land is irrigated today and only 10% of hydroelectricity potential in Africa is utilized.

Climate change further amplifies water-related development challenges in Africa through changes in water regimes and increases in water-related natural disasters, such as floods and droughts. The risks climate change poses to water resources and, by extension, food security, human health and ecosystem health and services, will have increasingly severe consequences on African lives and the prospects of driving increased sustainable development. Managing these risks will require careful interventions and longer-term strategies to mitigate, and adapt to, the effects of a changing climate.

Realizing Africa’s significant development potential depends on the sustainable management and use of transboundary water (TBW) resources. Transboundary river basins (TBRs) cover 62% of the total area of the African continent with 90% of surface water in Africa falling within 63 TBR catchments. Furthermore, transboundary aquifers (TBAs) underlie 40% of the continent’s land, which are inhabited by 33% of the population (381 million). Tapping into Africa’s TBW resources will significantly strengthen water security, improve livelihoods, and fuel economic growth in the region. Effective, sustainable and cooperative management and development of these resources is the key to unlocking dramatic improvements for Africa’s people Across the globe, water agreements between countries sharing a TBW resource often constitute the main governing apparatus in the use, development and management of shared water resources and are also used to promote transboundary cooperation through the joint management of shared water resources. In Africa however, only 29% of TBRs and fewer than 10% of TBAs are the object of TBW agreements and, of these, only 19% have any basin-wide agreements.

The benefits of improved cooperation over the use and management of TBWs include accelerated economic growth, improved human well-being, enhanced environmental sustainability, and increased political stability, and these same outcomes could be at risk as most existing TBW agreements fail to even consider increasing climate-induced water variability. Most TBW agree[1]ments are based on an assumption that future water supply and quality will not change and often therefore, lack the capacity to adapt to changes. Empirical evidence already suggests that the likelihood of political tensions over shared water resources is related to the interaction between resource variability and the lack of institutional capacity to absorb or manage the change. In situations in which resource availability falls below levels allocated in a treaty, non-compliance can follow, which may give rise to geo-political tensions and affect the credibility and trust built through TBW agreements, leading to deteriorating inter-state relationships. Climate-proofing a TBW agreement refers to the incorporation of clauses and provisions within an agreement to ensure the sustainability of the defined rules, regulations, procedures, and processes and allows for built-in flexibility to adjust to the consequences of climate change.

Flexible agreements can result in more predictable water supply to all riparian states, greater incentives to develop necessary water storage infrastructure and to effectively manage the operation of existing infrastructure, and more transparent and accountable water institutions. Other major outcomes include increased water and food security, environment and ecosystem protection, and the reduced need for complex and burdensome legal, administrative and enforcement activities. TBW agreements in Africa will require climate-proof[1]ing to ensure the efficient, equitable and sustainable management and development of these resources and, at the same time, to protect basin communities from the economic and social implications of increasingly common extreme events, such as droughts and floods, and changes in water availabilityDrawing on existing studies, literature and data, this report examines TBW agreements in Africa and uncovers mechanisms for climate-proofing existing and future agreements to enable climate change adaptation. The context of climate change effects on water supply is outlined. This is followed by an evaluation of TBW resources in Africa, to assess their risks from water supply variability, followed by an assessment of existing TBW agreements. Mechanisms within the agreements are analysed, which have varying degrees of success in allowing adaptations to manage climate change impacts. Finally, an evaluation of climate-proofing strategies is presented, recommendations are made on climate-proofing existing TBW agreements, and guidance to be considered in preparing new agreements is proposed.


The analyses reveal that 12 of the 63 TBRs in Africa are considered at-risk for climate change effects. Of these, half have no agreement or no basin-wide agreement, making the management of these river basins difficult and the risk for adverse climate change effects very high. The situation with TBAs in Africa is also grim. Of the 6 TBAs that are considered to be “hotspots”, only 2 currently have agreements and only 1of these is a fully scoped agreement signed by all parties. Establishing and implementing TBW agreements is a complex process requiring lengthy negotiations between basin states covering a range of issues, where full agreement is sometimes difficult to reach. Once established, the implementation of these agreements is subject to continual changes in resource availability, through climate-induced water supply variability or changing demand due to economic development and growing populations. The omission of mechanisms to adapt to these changes has serious implications for the current and future management of TBWs. Agreements with fixed rules and procedures impede the effective and sustainable management of resources, mainly through the risk of a breakdown in cooperation between riparian states as promised allocations and benefits become effectively unobtainable.




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