Cover Image
close this bookWater Management in Africa and the Middle East: Challenges (IDRC, 1996)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
Open this folder and view contentsPart I - Concepts
Open this folder and view contentsPart II - Subregional contributions
Open this folder and view contentsPart III - Special issues


Eglal Rached

Senior Program Specialist, Middle East and North Africa Regional Office, IDRC

Cairo, Egypt

It is increasingly apparent that a huge international water problem will be looming over development in the coming decades. Vivid attention to this situation was recently drawn by Dr. Ismail Serageldin, Vice President of the World Bank, who warned that "unless current trends are reversed, we will have a major water crisis around the planet."

Nowhere more than in Africa and the Middle East (A&ME) is water likely to become the most critical resource issue and the most limiting input to food security and economic and social development. The countries with the most limited water resources are in the Middle East and northern and southern Africa. Despite the common impression of Africa as a jungle, 54% of the continent is arid to semi-arid, and only 14% is humid to very humid. The remaining 31% has good rainfall. According to estimates, Kenya's water supply will shrink by 50% and Nigeria's by 40% in under a decade. The situation in the Middle East and North Africa is even worse: only 19% of the land surface receives good rainfall; with the partial exception of Turkey, the whole region is arid to semi-arid.

In A&ME, water supply for agricultural, domestic, and industrial use, as well as for environmental use (rivers, habitat preservation, transportation, fishing), has kept pace neither with population growth, which is the fastest in the world, nor with economic growth, which is booming in many countries in the region. As a result, by 2025, the amount of water available per person in the Middle East and North Africa is expected to drop by 80%, in a single lifetime, from 3430 m³ to 667 m³. New or additional sources of water are becoming scarce and more expensive to develop, and waste products are increasingly contaminating available surface and groundwater sources. Because of its scarcity, water is also becoming one of the most important causes of internal and international conflicts.

Although the crisis threatens all of A&ME, individual countries and specific subregions face different situations, constraints, and opportunities. These are related to the wide range of geography and topography, climatic and hydrological conditions, and institutional, political, economic, and cultural situations in the region. Few of these variables are well understood, and all of them need to be carefully assessed before viable and sustainable solutions, tailored to each situation, can be identified.

Conscious that any move toward resolution must be based on what people on the ground know, can do, and want to do, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) convened, in December 1994, a Pan-African workshop on water management for researchers, practitioners, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and policymakers. The purpose of the meeting was to take stock of the present situation and to get a better understanding of the opinions and priorities that should be taken into consideration when setting strategies for sustainable water management. It was anticipated that this assessment would provide the basis for designing a priority research and development agenda that would strengthen efforts of those already involved in research, advocacy, development, and environmental water activities.

The IDRC initiative aimed to identify research priorities and options from the perspective of users' and communities' needs and priorities. Three areas of emphasis were singled out:

-22383. power to access and use water, including sources of stress involving water supply, abuse of water resources, resulting conflicts, and processes to resolve such conflicts;

-22382. demand management and water conservation, including sectoral water allocation and efficient demand management to improve availability and quality; and

-22381. future options for improving water supply, including alternative technologies and analyses of the potential for efficient and equitable management of water supply by communities and local groups.

The workshop had 12 formal presentations: three overview papers on key water issues; seven subregional papers; and two additional papers, one reviewing NGO perspectives on water and the other on choices and impacts of sectoral water allocation in Africa. Two papers were contributed later to highlight specific issues; one paper was on women's roles and constraints as water users and managers, and the other was on grass-roots utilization of water resources. Each presentation was followed by an open discussion. Three task groups then identified priorities for research and development. IDRC is publishing the proceedings of the meeting to widely disseminate the accumulated knowledge, to facilitate further sharing of opinions and debate among the various actors involved in water management, and to assist in formulation of priority research and development areas for A&ME.

Regional characteristics

Northern Africa and the Middle East are the most water-scarce regions in A&ME. Countries have consequently invested heavily in the mobilization of their water resources. Between 1970 and 1990, large-scale systems for water supply and conveyance systems were built, and the total irrigated area increased dramatically. The improved water infrastructure stimulated economic growth and reduced somewhat the damaging effects of droughts. However, many of these countries are entering a critical phase. Almost all the states of the Arabian Peninsula, plus Jordan, Israel, and Libya, already consume much more water than their annual renewable supply. Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Syria are fast approaching this situation. At the same time, opportunities for building dams and abstracting groundwater are becoming more scarce and more expensive, and widespread pollution and salinity of surface and groundwater sources are further reducing available supplies. Under these conditions, the most important course of action shifts to the management of demand, particularly through the economic valuation of the resource and more efficient allocation of water among different sectors. Given that most of these countries devote 60-90% of their water to irrigation, water conservation in the agricultural sector is considered one of the most important future options. The conjunctive use of rain and groundwater resources to improve rainfed agriculture is another promising option.

On the supply side, cost-effective options have been almost completely exhausted. In addition, most, if not all, have serious social and environmental problems that in the past went unsolved. Water recycling is commonly practiced in the region for irrigation but, if not very carefully controlled, entails both human health and soil-quality problems. A number of water sources are being explored, including some high-cost, highly centralized options such as sea and brackish water desalinization, water imports, and cloud seeding.

Fortunately, low-cost, decentralized options are also beginning to attract the attention of water managers. Of particular interest is the improvement of rainwater or flood-water harvesting, either for supplemental irrigation or for aquifer recharge. Rainwater collected from rooftops can also be an important source of potable water. Agricultural techniques appropriate for water scarcity, such as use of poor-quality or saline water for irrigation, are also gaining attention, though here, too, careful technique selection is required to protect aquifers and preserve soil quality. In addition to cost effectiveness, water-harvesting techniques have several advantages, including simplicity and suitability for community-level planning, funding, and overall management (and therefore for sustainability); ability to provide water to isolated communities; erosion control; soil-harvesting potential; and flood control.

Rural and pastoral communities in North Africa and the Middle East have for centuries practiced water-harvesting techniques, conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater for dryland irrigation, and rainfed agriculture. Their knowledge of, and experience with, these and other interesting examples of local water resource management have considerable potential for transfer within North Africa and the Middle East or to other parts of Africa.

In contrast to North Africa and the Middle East, rivers and streams are the main sources of water for most of East and West Africa; underground and flood-water resources are largely unexplored. Only about 45% of the irrigation potential is utilized in the Sahel region; there is, therefore, considerable scope for irrigation extension. However, a number of constraints hamper the development of these resources. Some of these restraints are technical, but most are institutional, socioeconomic, and cultural. Significantly, national governments have emphasized large-scale schemes and the installation of water-supply systems, rather than their maintenance. Today, these governments find themselves strapped by limited finances and technical staff, administrative backlogs, inappropriate or expensive institutional structures, and poor legislative support. Because of high development costs and the plethora of management problems resulting from big irrigation schemes, large-scale supply options have lost favour. An approach that transfers management of water to local communities and builds on local knowledge, institutions, and solutions for better water management has considerable potential. The greatest challenges are to design and implement low-cost technologies for improving water supply and management at the local level.

Some of East Africa and much of West Africa fall within the humid tropics, where abundant water resources are available. There too, despite this availability, numerous water-related problems exist. Despite the proclamation by the United Nations in 1980 of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-90), aimed at supplying 500 000 people with safe drinking water and adequate sanitation by 1990, more than half of the African population has neither safe drinking water nor sanitation. As in the drier areas of sub-Saharan Africa, irrigation is largely neglected in the subregion and a significant potential for expansion remains. With a rapidly expanding food gap, particularly in cereals, the expansion of the irrigated sector is becoming urgent. Because of economic and social costs associated with large-scale irrigation systems, the potential for small-scale, community-based irrigation systems is considered the greatest, especially if combined with water harvesting and improved water efficiency.

The situation in southern Africa is, in many respects, similar to that of North Africa and the Middle East. Water is in limited supply in most countries of the subregion. Most watersheds are already tapped by large-scale abstraction schemes, and plans are under way to tap the remaining ones. Botswana and Namibia have already reached their internal water-supply limits. The same applies to Zimbabwe, where, in September 1995, a water-shortage alarm was issued when the lack of water throughout the country had become critical. Major dams, including those supplying large towns and cities, were only 18% full, and 11% of the boreholes and 20% of the deep wells in rural areas had dried up. Despite a major operation to drill boreholes all over the country, the rural areas, where most of Zimbabwe's 10 million people live, were badly affected. Crop production was slashed by the failure of the rains in the summer growing season, and energy was in critically short supply as a result of the lowest rainfall in the river catchment since 1907. Government officials warned that "if consumption continues at the current level, we are likely to run out of water before the next rainy period."

Water stress is particularly important in South Africa because of the size of its population and economy. Key policy options are similar to those of the Middle East and North Africa and include demand-side management, the decentralization of water management to communities and to private local structures, and water harvesting for small-scale agriculture.

Some overriding issues for debate

Early in the workshop it was pointed out that a sharp difference exists between the immediate water problems in North Africa and the Middle East, on the one hand, and those in sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa) on the other. In North Africa, the Middle East, and South Africa, the urgent need is to divert water from agricultural use to domestic, municipal, industrial, and environmental uses for two reasons: the demand for freshwater has exceeded the supply for many years, and agriculture is providing a declining share of the gross national product and employment. The reverse is true of humid, subhumid, and even Sahelian Africa, where irrigation has remained largely unexploited and where more water could be productively and equitably applied to agriculture. Expansion of irrigation would also reduce vulnerability to drought and increase food security.

Different views were expressed on the issue of large- and small-scale irrigation and dam projects. Although the majority of participants felt that small-scale, low-cost, locally applied technologies offered considerably greater potential than had been recognized, and with fewer disadvantages, proponents of large irrigation projects believed that there is no way for such projects to be avoided if rapid and substantial agricultural production increases are to be achieved. The challenge is to do them right when there are no feasible small-scale alternatives. There was, however, consensus on the need to satisfy human needs for food, water, and economic opportunities while reducing environmental degradation.

The analogy between the energy and water sectors was presented and discussed at some length. Both resources are generally oversupplied relative to demand, underpriced relative to their intrinsic and economic values, and governed by institutions geared to increase supply rather than manage demand. The analogy may be particularly useful for Africa, where a relatively high proportion of energy comes from hydroelectricity and many major water projects are designed for both electricity generation and irrigation.

The issue of water pricing raised considerable debate. Underpricing of water, which is practiced today in most countries of the region, allows low-value users such as agriculture (which accounts for 88% of end-uses overall) to consume large quantities of water and to use it wastefully. The result is depletion, degradation, and physical and economic losses. Underpricing also results in unreliable service, unwillingness to pay, and decline in capacity to provide services. Higher income people and industry are generally able to cope with this situation, but poor people and local industry cannot. The result is that the vast majority of poor people are denied adequate water and sanitation services.

On the other hand, the introduction of water pricing is not an easy task. Complex social, cultural, political, and economic factors will influence water availability, allocation, and use. As well, pricing may have inequitable impacts on different classes and sectors. Although some participants suggested that other avenues (for instance, improvement of water-management strategies at the farm level, or improvements in operation and maintenance of irrigation schemes) should be considered for water conservation, others suggested that water pricing was unavoidable and not as unpopular as one might think, provided reliable services and quality are assured. Indeed, in many places where people buy water from vendors, they pay a high price for it. No one at the workshop advocated a purely market solution for water. The participants agreed that some constraints were necessary to ensure that the market operated efficiently and equitably.

Institutions as a priority

Institutional issues emerged throughout the workshop as being at the root of water-management problems. The collection, treatment, distribution, and disposal of water are generally overcentralized, with little community participation. All too often, planners don't consult the people most directly involved in deciding how water should be distributed. Planners also fail to ensure that users, who are customarily expected to share in the maintenance of facilities, bear such responsibilities in proportion to their benefits from the system. As a result, government agencies are overextended, lack the proper incentive structure, and are unable to provide high-quality services. In addition, water-management responsibilities are fragmented, with little regard for conflicts or complementarities among social, economic, and environmental objectives. Finally, because of underpricing, water utilities may be unable to recover their own costs, which leads to a vicious cycle of inadequate maintenance, poor services, unwillingness to pay even nominal charges, and then still lower revenue, and so on.

Participants suggested that key changes require the separation of water management from delivery. Policy, planning, and regulatory functions should be separated from engineering, construction, and operational activities at each level of government. Operations should be assigned to specialist agencies where appropriate, and responsibility should be decentralized to the extent possible. Without assuming that local management is inherently equitable and efficient, participants nevertheless felt that the role of government should be primarily to create an enabling environment in terms of policy, legislation, institutions, and public awareness and to generate local initiatives and individual incentives. Moreover, these are just the functions least likely to be effectively delivered at local levels.

Participants from NGOs and advocacy organizations put particular emphasis on the need to involve communities in the development, implementation, and management of water projects. A number of presentations highlighted the fact that, too often, community participation is used by authorities to download the financial and labour costs of construction and maintenance of waterworks. It was pointed out that community participation was in itself misleading because it often did not take into account existing power structures within the community and frequently ignored the specific interests, roles, responsibilities, and needs of women in water management and utilization.

Over the next decades, the single most important consideration in water management will have to be that of institutional design - developing a set of rules that users, suppliers, and policymakers understand, agree upon, and are willing to follow. Organizational blueprints do not exist, nor are they likely to be readily adopted. Instead, within broad frameworks set by government, users and suppliers need to design their own institutions, matched to their particular set of physical, economic, and cultural conditions. At the same time, it is also important to keep in mind that decentralization and market systems have their own problems: perverse incentives also face private firms and local management institutions responsible for systems operation and maintenance.

Another issue of growing important is the international conflicts over water quantity and (recently) quality. Rights to use or harvest are creating difficult issues for governments throughout the region. Participants stressed the need to quantify transborder impacts of water use and disposal. High priority must be accorded to improved methods for conflict resolution and joint management, whether these involve two communities on opposite sides of a border or entire nations depending upon the same watercourse or aquifer.

The above list is by no means exhaustive. Participants discussed numerous technical, socioeconomic, and political issues facing researchers in A&ME, which included the following:

-22380. How can better integration be achieved between land and water management, ensuring sustainability of flora, fauna, and habitat?

-22379. How do existing tenure and property arrangements, including common property concerns, affect the way water is managed and services delivered?

-22378. What is the appropriate role for and the most effective ways of incorporating indigenous knowledge into water decision-making and management?

Although consensus was not reached on solutions and the types of interventions required, questions and differences were clearly articulated and point to the need for more rigorous examination of the substance and specifics behind the issues. In some cases, enough information is already available for improved water policies and practices. In many others, however, additional research is required before agreements can be reached on appropriate priorities and strategies.

Finally, it is important to stress that the majority of the presentations in this publication have been prepared by scientists living and working in A&ME who deal on a daily basis with the looming water crisis. They are therefore the ones who are in the best position to suggest alternative solutions or processes that might lead to possible solutions.

For its part, IDRC will continue to place a high priority on the support of applied research on water management in A&ME. As in the past, the great bulk of that research will be proposed, implemented, and carried forward into policy proposals by researchers from the region.