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Water: Share and share alike

By Emilie Filou in Tunis
Posted on Monday, 23 November 2009 16:37

Algeria, Libya and Tunisia are showing how cooperation on resource sharing can meet both social and environmental demands ?

They say that out of sight is out of mind. This could not be more true of groundwater resources. Africa has a long tradition of looking after its surface waters – many lakes and rivers such as the Nile are managed by regional authorities – but groundwater has remained conspicuously out of the equation. Invisible and seemingly endless, there has been little incentive to regulate or explore water supplies – until they showed signs of running out.

In arid or semi-arid areas such as the Sahel, groundwater provides the bulk of water resources. Most aquifers do not follow boundaries. Their use is not regulated, and countries have therefore exploited them, oblivious of their neighbours’ practices or the impact of theirs.

With growing needs, demand for groundwater resources has shot up dramatically: annual withdrawals from the North-Western Sahara Aquifer System (NWSAS), a 1 million km2 system shared by Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, increased six-fold between 1950 and 2000. Such demand has had serious consequences: groundwater springs have started drying up and salinity levels have increased. Authorities realise that indiscriminate use of aquifers is no longer an option.

But it was not until 1999 that a formal project involving all three countries took shape in the Observatoire du Sahara et du Sahel (OSS). OSS’s mandate is to prevent and fight desertification by promoting cooperation.

Ousmane Diallo, water programme coordinator at OSS, says the embryonic work on NWSAS provided an ideal starting point. “Our premise was simple,” he says, “if you don’t know your resource, you cannot manage it.”?

With the support of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme, OSS set out to provide Algeria, Tunisia and Libya with the tools to monitor and manage the NWSAS, including a comprehensive and common database documenting the aquifer. OSS embarked on a data-gathering crusade to build better models. “It was very laborious at first,” explains Djamel Latrech, NWSAS project director. “No one wanted to share their data, so we had to gain their trust.” The project started off with a minimum of information – whatever countries were prepared to hand over. OSS prepared a first database and more data followed.

The next step was to act on results from the database. Again, the OSS encountered resistance. “Decision makers don’t like to hear that they have to change, so we had to show them it was in their interest and that suspicions about who takes what were counter-productive,” says Latrech. OSS ran scenarios based on different levels of withdrawals, from ‘business as usual’ to significant reductions. “The real trigger was when we looked at environmental and socioeconomic impacts,” he explains. “Problems such as the increased salinity of soils were very tangible: you couldn’t see the water but you could definitely see the salt, and it was on their territory.”

With countries on board, OSS started work on a consultation mechanism. The project would be financed by member countries in charge of managing the database and monitoring risks across NWSAS. In 2007, such a mechanism was established, one of the first of its kind.

Few other aquifer systems have achieved such results. Egypt and Libya set up a basin authority for the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System in 1992 (Sudan and Chad joined at a later stage), but the project never took off because of a lack of political will.?OSS’s participative approach and diplomatic skills were instrumental to its success. Its approach was replicated on another Sahel aquifer. In June of this year, the water ministers of Mali, Niger and Nigeria, which share the resources of the Iullemeden Aquifer System (IAS), signed a memorandum of understanding for the creation of a consultation mechanism by 2011.?OSS had to overcome the same initial reluctance to share information and cooperate as did NWSAS. “To bring ministers to turn an invisible resource into a visible issue was difficult,” says Abdelkader Dodo, IAS project director. But as with NWSAS, what started as scientific and technical cooperation eventually gathered political momentum.

OSS is also in the early stages of a project with the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a drought-control organisation involving Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and Sudan. Here, the co-operation mechanism exists but there is virtually no knowledge of groundwater resources. “There is a strong security element regarding water in that area, and we must ensure it is an opportunity for peace, not a potential source of conflict,” says the OSS’s Diallo. National surveys have been completed and the region’s database should be ready in 2010.

The next two years will be crucial for the NWSAS. Countries must find ways of reducing, or at least maintaining, levels of withdrawals. They face tough but fundamental questions about their use of water resources, particularly with regard to agriculture (which makes up 80% of demand). Implementing water- saving measures such as drip irrigation or switching crops is one option, but questions about how much food production should be replaced by imports or other ?activities are also on the cards.

Good neighbours?

Ultimately, what donors like UNESCO are hoping for is a change in national legislation. “Our aim is that surface and groundwater be managed together, with specific regulation on groundwater,” says Holger Treidel, assistant programme specialist at UNESCO IHP. “It’s obviously not the kind of thing that can be achieved in three or four years; you have to start with the basics.” ?

Much remains to be done, but the continent is ahead of the game. Last December, the UN adopted the Law of Transboundary Aquifers. The resolution encourages countries “to make appropriate bilateral or regional arrangement for the proper management of transboundary aquifers”, a point that vindicates the recent work at the NWSAS, IAS and IGAD.There are nearly 40 major transboundary aquifers in ?Africa. Not all are overexploited, but their sustainable management is the only guarantee they will not reach that point.

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