The Ministry of Water Resources recently said that it needed some 7.6 billion dollars to harness the country’s rivers and aquifers.

Water problem has of late become of great concern to many African countries. At a recent conference attended by 1000 delegates in Addis Ababa, water experts said that Africa was facing a water crisis affecting 300 million people.

A recent WHO/UNICEF report reveals that more than 2.6 billion people in the world do not have basic sanitation and more than one billion people still use unsafe drinking water.

According to ECA Policy Research Report, Africa is one of the world’s driest continents. The diminishing availability of usable water in the face of rising demand creates the potential for disputes and conflicts over water resources, both within and between countries.

Moreover, the uneven distribution of water resources – the result of erratic rainfall and varying climate – has stratified the continent into areas of abundant water resources and areas of extreme water scarcity and stress.

Central Africa and parts of East and West Africa have abundant water resources, while North Africa, the Sudano-Sahelian region, and Southern Africa suffer chronic shortages, with very erratic rainfall.

Recurring cycles of long droughts, sometimes followed by floods, accentuate water scarcity and imbalances across the continent. Water originates outside the borders of many countries – such as Egypt (almost the entire flow), Mauritania (95%), Botswana (94%), and the Gambia (86%) – and most of Africa’s water resources cross borders. Thus regional cooperation and integrated water management are vital.

Ample opportunities exist for advanced cooperation on water. Africa has some 80-transboundary river and lake basins, and the catchments areas of the 17 largest exceed 100,000 square kilometers each.

Large transboundary rivers flow through many countries. For instance, the Nile has 10 riparian countries; the Congo (which holds almost 30% of Africa’s freshwater resources) has 9, the Niger 9, the Zambezi 8, the Volta 6, and Lake Chad 5.

Moreover, several international rivers cross many countries – 12 rivers traverse Guinea alone. And in 14 African countries almost all the landmass falls within transboundary river and lake basins.

The increasing water intensity of modern development, including irrigation, has raised the stakes on the sharing, common use, the environmental protection of these resources.

Recognizing this potential, and to promote regional cooperation, African countries began making transboundary river agreements in the 1960s.

But these cooperation efforts focused on the joint development and use of transboundary river and lake basins as sources of freshwater.

With a few exceptions, such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC), little attention was paid to the development of legislative instruments and common vision for sharing water.

Sharing the economic and social benefits of joint actions should in many cases receive priority over sharing water resources in quantitative terms.

Over the past decade, however, new urgencies have driven new approaches to regional cooperation, as reflected in the 1992 adoption of the principles of the UN Conference on Water in Dublin, the 2000 adoption of the African Water Vision for 2025, the institutionalization of the African Ministers Council on Water in 2002, and the 2002 adoption of the Accra Declaration on Water and Sustainable Development.

These actions have brought water issues to the fore of Africa’s development concerns. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – with its emphasis on regional cooperation and integration – is another landmark in this process, offering a rare opportunity to link national and sub-regional approaches to managing water resources.

The need to move from analysis to action is recognized by all stakeholders in Africa under the aegis of the African Ministers Council on Water, the UN Water/Africa group, in collaboration with other regional bodies such as the African Development Bank and the African Union, convened the First Pan African Implementation and Partnership Conference on Water at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in December 2003 to conclude the International Year for Freshwater.

The conference concluded that water resources shared by communities and countries must be jointly managed on an equitable and sustainable basis.

The main challenge in water resources management is to create an enabling environment that encourages joint management of transboundary water resources.

To ensure the availability and effective use of water resources, today’s multiple arrangements should be rationalized – guided by the principles of equitable rights and sustainable and efficient water use. The weaknesses of river basin organizations should be addressed in line with best practices in Africa and elsewhere.

Cooperation should not be limited to countries shared water basins. It should extend to cooperation between sub-regional groups as well.

Regional economic communities overlapping river basin organizations should work together to achieve the goals of the African Water Vision for 2025 and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

Moreover, interaction between those groups and national water structures would ensure that national goals are aligned with development possibilities – including those for increased hydropower.