Magazine article UN Chronicle

Empowering People: Through Integrated Water Resource Management Practices

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Empowering People: Through Integrated Water Resource Management Practices

Article excerpt


Approximately 64 per cent of Africa's land surface lies within its 63 transboundary river basins as compared to 47 percent globally. For the southern Africa region, defined by the boundaries of member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), 16 transboundary basins provide nearly 80 per cent of the region's available water resources. All but one continental SADC state has over 50 per cent of their land mass in transboundary river basins. Some countries rely on more than 50 per cent of their water needs flowing from outside of their borders. In this context, water cooperation has been a serious matter for many African countries throughout their history and is increasingly so as their economies grow and become increasingly integrated.

In the recent past, rapidly increasing demands on water resources as a result of growing populations and increased industrial and agricultural development have put many river basins under stress all over Africa. Semi-arid to hyper-arid climates in southern Africa lead to a very high natural spatial and temporal variability in the availability of water resources. Only 10 per cent of rainfall is available as stream flow in rivers, compared to the global average of around 30 per cent. With climate change impacts, stress on water resources will further exacerbate the already high natural variability. In this context, water cooperation and sound water resources management is not merely an option but a dire reality.

In the arid region, demand for water for human consumption and economic development also competes with water needs to maintain the health of ecosystems. Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) aims to balance water demands for economic and social development with the needs for environment and ecosystem health. The IWRM approach is particularly important in Africa where the majority of people's livelihoods are directly impacted by, and have a direct impact on, the health of ecosystems and a variety of services that a healthy ecosystem can provide. Overextraction of water for economic activities may have severe adverse impacts on other economic or social activities that depend on the healthy ecosystems.


Poverty is often a root cause for poor management of natural resources and the resulting ecosystem degradation. IWRM practices will not be sustained if they are imposed on communities that have few, if any, livelihood and food security alternatives. For IWRM to work, communities should not only be involved or engaged in local practices, but also be empowered by them. The following case studies show how better catchment management practices by villagers can result in their empowerment.

In Mpulungu, Zambia, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, sedimentation and overfishing were identified as major problems to the Lake Tanganyika ecosystem. A decline in the catch of Buka Buka Fish (Lates stapperssii), from the mid-1990s to the present, clearly indicated an alarming change in the ecosystem. Fishermen's lives were affected negatively; nonetheless, they thought they had no other means and continued to fish, sometimes risking their own lives by seeking fish far from the shore to avoid sediment-impacted areas. The average income per fisherman's household in Mpulungu was $517 per year, much lower than Zambia's average income of $1,160 per capita, (1) and it was declining. In 2009, a revolving fund dedicated to the environmental and economic management of Lake Tanganyika was introduced by a project implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Training for alternative income generating activities as well as sustainable catchment management was offered to the 11 targeted communities to reduce the human pressure on land and fishing. …

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