Ensuring water is equitably allocated and governed

We can only survive without drinking water for a few days – it's crucial for our survival. Water is also crucial for supporting people's ways of life, from raising livestock to managing fisheries and irrigating crops. In many parts of semi-arid West Africa water is in short supply and the pressures on existing water resources are set to increase. In this project, IIED helped bring about fairer and more sustainable water governance to ensure poor and vulnerable communities didn't miss out.

Jamie Skinner
Global Water Initiative – West Africa
The Global Water Initiative sought to improve global food security by enabling farmers to better access, manage and use water resources for sustainable agricultural production
Woman collects water for irrigation in Selingue, Mali. Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh

Woman collects water to irrigate crops in Selingue, Mali (Photo: Khanh Tran-Thanh, IIED)

Water resources are increasingly under pressure in many parts of the world, and not just in developing or semi-arid countries. Water extraction for industries, municipal supplies and agricultural irrigation is growing, and many catchments are now facing occasional or regular water stress that affects both water users and riverine ecosystems.

The way in which the available water is shared between users, both upstream and downstream in a catchment, is a key entry point for addressing water governance. The key challenge is broadly to maintain the quality of water supply while arbitrating between its competing uses, such as the needs of individual households, large-scale farms, fishermen, herders or local industries.

IIED's work has addressed water governance in West Africa in two ways: by developing plans to pay for and maintain wells, waterpoints and other water supply infrastructure, and ensuring that large dam and irrigation projects benefit the most poor and marginalised people.

Maintaining drinking water supplies

A failed water point in sub-Saharan Africa is potentially catastrophic. Yet as many as 125,000 handpumps have effectively died. In parts of central Mali, 35% of pumps are broken. The root cause is the water community's failure to plan for the maintenance of the infrastructure in a systematic way.

Funding for new infrastructure has too often taken precedence over maintenance of the old. The achievements in meeting the Millennium Development Goal "to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation" may not prove sustainable if handpumps continue to fail in such large numbers.

IIED led a regional consortium under the Global Water Initiative from 2007-12 that helped people in Mali, Ghana, Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso gain access to sustainable and continuous drinking water supplies from individual drinking water points in rural areas in West Africa. This work was carried out in collaboration with CARE UK, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

Read this briefing on the importance of water infrastructure plans that also addresses questions of who will maintain the infrastructure, and where the money and skills to do so will come from.

Designing large dam water allocation and compensation schemes to benefit the marginalised

Large-scale dams are huge investments that remain a key tool for securing water supplies on international rivers in the face of uncertain climate change.

But once stored how will water be allocated? How will communities who have to be moved and resettled be compensated for their land and lost resources? What direct access will they have to the benefits generated by the dam?

We worked with partners to learn from experience and promote approaches that allow benefits to accrue to local, often marginalised, communities and smallholders affected by large water infrastructure projects, with a particular focus on West Africa and on large-scale, government-led irrigation schemes.

The way schemes are developed and implemented is dependent on the roles and influence of different actors (governments, local authorities, local communities and donors). This can also demonstrate how governance structures and processes result in different outcomes in different countries.

Irrigation schemes are public lands, developed by governments, that are allocated to individual farmers. Land tenure and access to the land are important considerations when analysing more efficient and equitable water management for irrigation.

For example, who has access to such land and with what rights are critical considerations in determining who has access to irrigation water, under what conditions and how this affects livelihoods, productivity and wellbeing. Do the relevant people have the right to secure a mortgage, to let, to lend, to inherit and to sell the land?

Aside from gaining land rights and access to the land, many smallholder farmers may not be able to farm the land at all. Many governments in West Africa proposed to allocate irrigated land to agri-business investors investors, as smallholders are considered unable to reach the levels of agricultural intensification needed to meet national food security in rice production.

Global Water Initiative

IIED has worked across sectors to address such issues, through a Global Water Initiative (GWI) programme that seeks to learn lessons from three existing dams in Senegal, Burkina Faso and Mali, and apply that learning to approaches on new dam projects in Niger, Mali and Guinea, as well as to regional networks of policy and practice.

GWI was an international programme with partners in Central America, East Africa and West Africa, a global policy and advocacy unit in Atlanta, Georgia, and was funded by the Howard G Buffett Foundation. The West Africa programme was delivered in partnership with the IUCN.

Read about the Global Water Initiative's work to improve development outcomes for people affected by the construction of the Kandadji Dam in Niger. Download the report.

Find out more about the Global Water Initiative's research on five ways to share the benefits of future dams more equitably and create development opportunities for communities. Download the report.

Visit the Global Water Initiative West Africa website.