How can water drive peace in the Sahel?

People queue for water in the Pissila displacement camp north of the capital Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. (Credit: Keystone/Marwa Awad/WFP via AP)

The Sahel has been gripped by a security crisis for over a decade which continues to spread across West Africa, threatening the lives and livelihoods of some 80 million people who currently reside in the region.

Water has been one of the most catastrophic victims of the crisis, where the combination of escalating violence, dwindling resources due to climate change and mismanagement of water sources has left many communities cut off from water access entirely.

But while the region continues to plunge into greater insecurity, local actors are working to restore water access and harness the power of water as a driver of peace among fractured communities.

What’s happening in the Sahel

Armed conflicts and the catastrophic effects of climate change have drastically reduced access to basic services and battered socioeconomic development while driving up humanitarian needs in the Sahel. A record 29 million people across six countries are now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, rapid population growth and mass internal displacement driven by escalating conflict and extreme weather caused by climate change have put unendurable pressure on local communities and resources, increased internal conflicts and damaged the fabric of societies.

“We know that the most vulnerable to climate change today are those populations living in conflict settings, living at war, not being able to cope with increasing numbers [of displaced people] and the vast humanitarian needs that these situations are unfortunately leaving behind,” said Patrick Youssef, the regional director for Africa of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), speaking at an event on water security organised by Geneva Solutions in collaboration with Geneva Water Hub and Geneva Press Club this week.

“Because of the lack of mediation, social justice and community justice [in these settings], the fair distribution of water resources is unfortunately totally absent. And when we know that governments are unfortunately taken by military solutions like the ones we see in the Sahel, or in the Central African Republic, access to basic services becomes obsolete.”

People – typically women and children – are often forced to make long and sometimes dangerous journeys to fetch water many miles from their homes. Water points are frequently rendered inaccessible by fighting and militarisation, and formally state-run infrastructures are abandoned or damaged. Extreme weather events causes by climate change such as prolonged drought, decreased rainfall or the recent desert locust infestation devastate livelihoods and dwindle already scarce resources.

“There are over two million displaced people in the Sahel due to insecurity – people who have had to abandon their communities and go elsewhere, putting greater pressure on water sources that become insufficient,” said Jean Bosco Bazié, president of Eau Vive International, a local organisation working in several West African countries, also addressing the event.

“There are water points which are very militarised and that keep populations from accessing water sources, and there are herders who no longer have access to water sources where they used to take their animals.”

Harnessing water for peace

But while water access continues to be jeopardised by the crisis in the Sahel, it is also proving to be a driver of peace among fractured communities, with local actors key to finding lasting solutions for the region.

For example, since its creation in 1994 to implement the peace agreements signed with the armed rebels at the time, Niger’s High Authority for Peacebuilding (HACP) has prioritised water access in its work to build stability in the country, particularly in border areas where conflict has increased since 2014.

Based on consultations with local communities, HACP has facilitated the building of “peace complexes”, where basic services such as health facilities, schools, security and support for young people and women are built around water points, which pastoral communities agree to collaborate over for their common good. Social agreements over shared access help prevent inter-communal violence and protect water sources from attacks, and local management means water access can be sustained in even the most conflict-affected areas.

“In our villages, everything was organised around water points, and water sources were considered sacred. This is part of our culture, and no one would transgress what is considered sacred,” said Bosco Bazié, who helped facilitate a recent roundtable discussion of local actors from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in June to explore potential solutions to the crisis, along with the Geneva Water Hub.

“All [the stakeholders] recognised that we needed to go back to certain values and ways of life and functioning of societies, which should be praised for their ability to allow communities to live in peace and security for centuries.”

For that to happen, water sources should be managed by the local communities, Bosco Bazié stressed during the event.

“The management of water sources ought to be in the hands of local communities rather than the states,” he said. “They must be managed by local communities because as soon as a crisis erupts in an area the first to leave is the state.”

Read also: What does war do to water and how can we respond?

In countries where national and international militaries and non-state armed groups are vying for control, resources are safest in the hands of the local communities who need them most.

“We must build [resilience] by taking into account the abilities and the knowledge of traditional local actors, and so that even if the central state should flee back to the capital – because very often, the feeling that communities have is that as soon as there is a security crisis, people are abandoned –  in order for local actors not to feel powerless, they must be allowed to recreate their ability to manage water resources,” Bozco Bazié said.

“We must absolutely include all sections of society and all communities in everything,” said Senegalese musician Baaba Maal, who also took part in the event. “They have their experience and can bring solutions which we may not understand.”

The role of the international community 

So what part do international actors like Switzerland have to play in helping to find solutions for Sahel’s water crisis?

According to Emmanuel de Romémont, a former general in the French air force and founder of Plus d'eau pour le Sahel (More Water for the Sahel), developed countries should contribute with scientific capacity and knowledge. Groundwater sources, in particular, could hold enormous potential for local populations, the benefits of which haven’t yet been measured.

"The key lies in convergence and coherence, which is not [currently] structured, and managing to coordinate all this,” he said. “We need to improve and transmit knowledge, work on education and focus governance on water. And find out why there is so little investment in the water issue. It is a systemic problem.”

Other panellists insisted that local actors already have plenty of knowledge, but what is often lacking is indeed the resources – particularly in water management, which is still drastically underfunded across the international community.

“The local skills exist,” said Marion Weichelt, former Swiss Ambassador to Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. “What is missing for management is the means to finance national and regional solutions. We need to build and include local communities.”

Bosco Bazié agreed. While many international donors are responding to calls for greater funding to address the humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region, these funds are not being directed towards improving water access or put in the hands of local actors who need them most.

“Donors are announcing astronomical sums for the region, but at the same time there is a mayor of a single community in the north of Burkina Faso who's looking for €15,000 to stop a pond from drying out,” he said. “Between the announcements of billions of dollars for the Sahel and his need for €15,000, is there no way of putting the two together? This is something I cannot understand.”

Missed the event? You can watch a full recording on the Geneva Press Club website here.

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