A group of refugees in the Lac region, Chad, collect water during a World Food Program operation. Access to clean water is one the most urgent needs in the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad region. Photo: Espen Røst/Bistandsaktuelt

Following the transboundary water path

NAI researcher Shilpa Asokan has to consider many factors as she takes on the huge task of mapping Africa’s water challenges.

With her research experience in the field of water and climate, Shilpa Asokan aims to reduce the gap between research and policymaking with regard to transboundary water management in Africa. The African continent comprises 13 major transboundary river basins, which are natural geographical units, beyond national borders and other human attempts to divide land and resources.

“Successful transboundary water management calls for a holistic approach – beyond national interests – to developing the basin in particular and the region in general”, says Asokan.

“The current state of management of water resources in Africa is inefficient because of the general political instability, ethnic conflicts and humanitarian crises in the region. Climate change and associated impacts can increase the vulnerability of this already fragile situation.”

Shilpa Asokan. Photo: Mattias Sköld

Management of transboundary water in Africa is complex and potentially one of the driving factors for regional conflicts among the shared countries. The case of the Nile River Basin, where the power struggle between upstream and downstream countries is raising tension in the region, is one such example. Another case is the proposed inter-basin water transfer by diverting water from Ubangi River in the Congo Basin to replenish Lake Chad in the Chad Basin, which is reported to be mired in complications. Asokan then compares the drying up of Lake Chad – its surface area has decreased from 25,000 km2 in the 1960s to about 1,350 km2 in 2000 – with that of the Aral Sea in Central Asia, which she investigated previously.

“In the case of Lake Chad the main reason for the decrease in lake surface area is climate change and associated severe drought. Human intervention through water abstraction from the rivers has also played a role in leading to its current condition. Desiccation of the Aral Sea on the other hand is almost entirely due to human-induced water diversion for irrigated agriculture from its main rivers”.

In geopolitically sensitive parts of Africa, although water can often become a cause of disputes between countries, there are cases where water-sharing practices among countries foster regional cooperation.

“If two countries are at war, existing water-sharing agreements often help in bringing together the government and policymakers around a table to discuss, negotiate and come to an agreement”, Asokan says.



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