Cooperating over shared water in West Africa

In northern Senegal, the town of Podor sits on the southern bank of the Senegal River. Its inhabitants only have to look over to the opposite side of the watercourse to get a view of the valley stretching North into Mauritania.

Baaba Maal, today a world-renowned singer, was born in that small town of farmers and fishers, right where the two West African countries meet. “When I was a kid, we would cross over to the other side of the river to cultivate the land. For us, there was no border,” the Senegalese artist reminisces in conversation with Geneva Solutions.

From the Fouta Djallon highlands in Central Guinea, the Senegal River flows north towards the Malian border, then turns west, slithering between Mauritania and Senegal, to end its 1,086km journey in the Atlantic Ocean.

Like with the hundreds of other transboundary rivers in the world, the fates of the four West African countries that it crosses over are inevitably linked. The river basin is home to some 3.5 million people, who depend on it for food, drinking water and work. It provides 60 per cent of Dakar’s water and all the water of Mauritania’s Nouakchott. The Manantali dam in Mali, generates energy for Dakar, Nouakchott and Bamako.

That level of development has stemmed from half a century of cooperation. Faced with a series of deadly droughts that hit the Sahel in the late 1960s, Mali, Senegal and Mauritania joined forces in 1972 to form the Senegal River Basin Development Authority, commonly known as the OMVS for its French initials. They were later joined by Guinea in 2005.

Tasked with sustainably managing the river for the riparian countries, the OMVS is often cited as a leading example of how states can work together to tackle the common problems related to water access.

Shared water equals shared crisis

As global freshwater resources shrink because of climate change and pressure from human activities, the world has to grapple with the consequences, including farmers not being able to grow their crops and a lack of  clean drinking water as well as conflicts between communities over dwindling resources.

But water doesn’t respect political borders and the problems are not confined to a country’s territory. There are over 263 rivers and lakes shared between countries, accounting 60 per cent of the world’s freshwater. This means that a drought or a chemical leak that affects the water flow on one side of the border will have consequences for the communities downstream in the neighbouring country.

However, only two thirds of these watercourses have international cooperation agreements. In many cases, shared water resources are at the heart of conflict and tensions. In the east of Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have been wrapped in a long running power struggle over the Nile river. Suspicions as well as differences in economic and political interests have turned water diplomacy efforts sour.

“Water diplomacy is the ability to talk to each other on transboundary water resource issues and to find common rules for resource management as well as mechanisms to resolve conflicts and tensions that can arise from different uses of a watercourse,” Mara Tignino, a legal specialist at the Geneva Water Hub, explains.

To get to that stage, countries have to first face a fundamental question. “One of the pillars of international law is territorial sovereignty and countries have to be prepared to limit their own sovereignty as they move towards viewing rivers as a common shared resource,” she adds.

The Senegal River is a true example of water diplomacy, according to Makane Moise Mbengue, international law professor at the University of Geneva.

“Water diplomacy means riparian countries cooperate, exchange information, settle disputes peacefully, notify each other, and even develop projects together,” he tells Geneva Solutions. “If you take into account these components, you find them all in the Senegal River context. And as surprising as it sounds, it's not the case in all river basins.”

“Effective water diplomacy requires trust and confidence, and if you see that in many river contexts, the water diplomacy is not working well because you don't have that among the riparian states,” he adds.

In the case of the Senegal River, Mbengue explains there are a number of factors that have provided fertile ground for trust building. “We're talking about countries that share French as an official language, share a common colonial history and the majority of their population is Muslim,” he notes. Families are also often mixed and spread out across the neighbouring countries.

A test for water diplomacy

However, the states haven’t always seen eye to eye. At the end of 1980s, desertification and droughts gradually pushed Arab herders that traditionally grazed on the northern part of the Senegal River Valley further south, into the lands of African farmers. The increased agricultural activity and the reshuffling of water flow by the OMVS’s dams – built to boost development – had also affected the balance between herders and farmers.

This sparked tensions between local communities that had lived for centuries along the river banks and revived old border disputes between Mauritania and Senegal. A conflict broke out, leading to killings among rival communities and expropriations on both sides.

The governments severed diplomatic ties, yet they stayed on speaking terms within the OMVS. “The countries realised their interdependence when it comes to water resources,” Mbengue says. The organisation has survived a number of military coups, with two in the last thirteen months in Mali and the latest in Guinea on 5 September.

The fact that basin organisation remains unwavered is likely the outcome of a rather unique economic model. The countries have an agreement to share economic costs of the river’s development projects as well as the benefits. The OMVS’s operations provide 60 per cent of Dakar’s water in Senegal and as much as 100 per cent of Nouakchott’s water in Mali.

The revenue from the hydropower plants have also been key to the stability of the organisation. The four countries contribute financially, as does the World Bank, but a large part comes from their own operations.

Another aspect that has contributed to the success of the OMVS, according to Mbengue, is a rare unspoken rule that all projects must be green lighted by all four states. This means having to give up on certain initiatives when they don’t have full support. In the early 2000s, for example, a request by Senegal to irrigate its Fossil Valley, which has been struggling with water scarcity for years, using water from the river was blocked by Mauritania.

New opportunities ahead

While disagreements between the countries are not uncommon, relations in the West African region are stable and cooperation efforts are being expanded into other watercourses. Senegal and Mauritania have been in discussions with The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau to jointly manage the Senegal-Mauritanian aquifer, which supplies over 20 million people – 80 per cent of the countries’ populations – with water.

After several years of talks backed by the Swiss authorities, the EU, the UNECE Water Convention, UNESCO and the Geneva Water Hub, the ministers who oversee water, environment and energy issues in Senegal, Mauritania, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, met on 29 September in Geneva to formally announce the commitment.

Photo sign Min.jpg
Ministers of Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and The Gambia at the UN in Geneva sign a declaration committing to manage together the Senegal-Mauritanian Aquifer on 29 September, 2021. (Credit: Geneva Water Hub)

“We know that water can create a big problem and we don't want a situation in the region where we fight over water,” Gambia’s minister of fisheries and water resources, James Furmos Peter Gomez, told Geneva Solutions. “That's why we welcome this initiative.”

Asked by Geneva Solutions how countries could set aside their differences to make such cooperation work, Mohamed El Hassen Boukhreiss, Mauritania’s minister of hydraulics and sanitation said: “Countries have interests, but we all understand that it is in our best interest to come together to manage this resource.”

Climate change to pose new challenges

As countries find ways to work together to manage their shared resources, challenges are becoming more complex. Desertification is advancing southward, slowly encroaching on the Senegal River. The Senegal River Valley hosts most of Mauritania’s arable land. Like in previous years, populations are migrating in search of water, threatening to revive clashes.

Another worry is water shortage at the source of the river, notes Pape Ndiougqa Ndiaye from the OMVS, who oversees capacity building efforts within the African Network of Basin Organizations.

“If we have one challenge in the future it is to protect the headwater of the Senegal River,” he says, noting that the high commissioner of the OMVS has plans to create an observatory to that exact end.

Mbengue says the OMVS focused solely on economic development for a long time, leaving aside the social and environmental aspects. “During the first 20 to 25 years of its existence, the OMVS did not pay as much attention as it should have to the environment,” he says.

Baaba Maal stresses the need to involve local communities and listen to their concerns. The Senegalese singer is working with the OMVS to raise awareness on water issues in the region through his music, ahead of the World Water Forum next year in Dakar. Culture, he says, is something that everyone can relate to.

Aside from the environmental challenges, the region has also been confronted for years with the expansion of armed groups, notably in the northern part of the continent. Experts say that water scarcity, while not the main trigger cause, plays a key role in fuelling the problem.

“You can't keep people in areas where there is no water. They will migrate, leaving a no-man's-land and studies conducted in the framework of the G5 [Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad] have shown that terrorist groups and traffickers like to settle in these no-man's-lands,” says Mauritania’s Boukhreiss, stressing that cooperation over water can help tackle security problems in the crisis-wracked Sahel by boosting development.

For Senegal’s minister of water and sanitation, Serigne Mbaye Thiam, water diplomacy between states can also be an asset to this end: “Security issues are also cross-border issues. The issues that arise in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger that go as far as Chad, it's not because they haven't spread to Senegal that the country is not concerned by it. We have a duty of solidarity towards these countries.”

“And the fact that there is trust between us and that we collaborate at the level of the OMVS means that we also have trust in the management of these security issues through the dialogue that must exist between our governments.”

This article was realised with the support of the city of Geneva as part of its media support program.