Stretching 4200km as it courses through West Africa, from Guinea to Nigeria, the great Niger river is under pressure. Sediment build-up limits navigation, fishing and power generation, only 20% of available farm land in the region benefits from irrigation and ecosystem degradation in the river basin is widespread. Poverty among the 110 million people whose livelihoods are directly affected by this huge water resource is reaching critical levels.

But the first phase in a signature project for the Africa Region’s regional integration unit is about to take off. It will support rehabilitation of regional water infrastructures, including two existing dams, and bring much needed finance to improve the management of ecosystems including irrigation schemes, watershed restoration, erosion control and agro-forestry.

Last month the World Bank approved a credit of US$500M for the development of the Niger Basin. The programme will be divided in two phases that will span a total of 12 years if all goes according to plan. The first five-year-long phase will focus on the five countries on the River’s main stem – Guinea, Mali, Niger, Benin and Nigeria. It will be funded with $186M divided in three International Development Association (IDA) credits, $9M to Benin, $18M to Mali, and $135M to Nigeria; and two grants, $9M to Guinea and $15M to Niger. The second phase will include the remaining four riparian countries, Burkina Faso, Cameroun, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire, under the Niger Basin Sustainable Development Action Programme.

Collaborative framework

The lengthily titled, yet ambitious, Niger Basin Water Resources Development and Ecosystems Management programme, is designed to achieve a sustainable increase of the water resources productivity, boost hydro power generation and foster economic growth in the riparian countries.

Launching the programme in July, the World Bank said it was first crucial to create a collaborative framework to benefit the people living in the Basin, and so the project will strengthen the Niger Basin Authority (NBA) as a critical governing structure managing the common goods and ensuring adequate coordination.

The project development objective, a Bank statement said, is to enhance regional coordination, development and sustainability of water resources management in the Niger Basin. But improved institutional coordination for regional management and development of water resources is just part of the story. There will be tangible physical improvements, specifically in the form of rehabilitated hydroelectric plants in targeted areas. Also crucial to the scheme are improved irrigated agriculture and watershed management.

Rehabilitation, optimisation and development of regional infrastructure will focus on upgrading the existing large water network and supporting the regional planning framework. In particular, the Kainji dam and hydro power plant and the Jebba hydro power dam are to benefit from some of the monies being made available. The scheme will also assess management options for the further development of the region’s water infrastructure.

A third component reinforces the sustainable management of selected degraded ecosystems and will be boosted in order to support income-generating activities, such as fishing, and improve irrigation schemes, watershed restoration and agro-forestry.

‘The project fits the World Bank’s
strategy of supporting Africa’s regional integration effort, which results in cross-border economic and social benefits, promotes country and regional ownership, and provides a platform for policy
harmonization,’ said Mark Tomlinson, director of the Regional Integration Department in the Africa Region of the World Bank in Washington.

‘The Niger Basin’s tremendous potential for development and investment is still under-developed: only 20% of the irrigable land is developed, only one
fifth of the hydro power potential is generated and only 30 of the 200Bm3 of annual river discharge is stored. This is the rationale for the World Bank’s involvement, coupled with the riparian countries’ commitment to move away from unilateral planning to coordinated regional development actions.’

Presently, seven out of the nine riparian countries are among the bottom 20 poorest countries in the world and nearly 75% of the population lives in rural areas, depending heavily on the water infrastructure for their food security and social well-being. The World Bank says this programme represents a critical effort in achieving the regional growth agenda and provides a means of tapping into the many existing opportunities.

Apart from strengthening NBA’s institutional framework, the programme will refurbish and optimise the regional water base. This is central to the riparian countries’ development strategy as it will increase opportunities for multipurpose, income-generation activities such as irrigation, fisheries and ecosystem regeneration. The upgrading of the Kainji and Jebba hydro power plants in Nigeria is a key component as it will reduce the severe regional energy crisis, provide cheaper and reliable power, and supply additional energy to Niger and Benin.

‘This programme is a unique opportunity to jointly develop the water resources, promote shared benefits and foster regional integration,’ said Ousmane Dione, the World Bank Task Team Leader for the project. ‘In a rare occasion on international waters negotiations and despite the stakes, the countries embraced the vision of hydro-brotherhood with the amazing positive role of Nigeria, instead of the usual hydropolitics and associated competition. Developing a collaborative framework to benefit such a large population requires strengthened regional institutions but also long term commitment from the donors to ensure that investments are not neglected and benefits lost due to lack of proper management, operation and maintenance.’

Irrigation needs

It is difficult to imagine a more important issue than that of meeting irrigation water needs, both for food security and economic development. It is vital across the whole African continent. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme – ‘Opportunities from freshwater in Africa’, several large regional water resources are used for irrigated agriculture. They include the Limpopo basin, which provides 82% of the potential irrigation area of approximately 0.3M ha, and the Nile basin, which provides over 50% of the potential 10M ha.

It is estimated that Egypt and Sudan utilise 70% of their respective shares of the basin land of 4.4M ha and 2.8M ha, while the corresponding figures are significantly less for other areas, especially Congo (0.4%), Zambezi (5%), and Niger (33%). With its 30.3Mkm2 of irrigation potential, Africa provides considerable opportunities for further expansion of irrigated agriculture.

The UNEP study also finds that, in meeting urgent water needs, there is scope for alternative technologies, such as rainwater harvesting, wastewater recycling and desalination. Wastewater recycling is practiced in particular in Southern Africa. As early as 1994, Windhoek, Namibia, was recycling 13% of its wastewater for domestic consumption, while Harare, Zimbabwe, was recycling 10%. Gaborone, Botswana, plans to recycle 60% of its urban flow by the year 2020. Artificial groundwater recharge may be applied to enhance the sustainability and yield of aquifers. In Egypt, for example, at present 40Mm3 per year of drainage water is re-used for irrigation. An extra 30Mm3 per year in Egypt could be considered for re-use in the future. Another way of recycling is re-use of treated wastewater which could be increased from the present 5Mm3 per year to 25Mm3 per year by the year 2010.

Per capita electricity consumption in Africa is still low (515kWh/capita) compared to the world’s average (2326 kWh/capita). At the household level, only 20% have access to electricity: however, in Northern Africa household access is significant, averaging 86%, with some countries including Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia reaching 95%. In contrast, the rest of Africa averages 15%, with Central Africa having the lowest rate at only 9%, according to the study.

Utilising potential

Although many of Africa’s rivers could be utilised for electricity generation, less than 5% of the economically feasible hydro power potential, of 1M GWh per year, is being utilised. Hydro contributes about 20% to overall electricity generation.

Yet the potential for generating electricity from hydro power on the African continent is vast. The Congo river, for example, accounts for nearly 30% of Africa’s surface water reserves and has the largest hydro potential in the world.

It is estimated that taming the flows of the Congo to accommodate hydroelectricity schemes could generate 40GW of power, or sufficient electricity to supply the whole of Africa with enough in reserve to contribute significantly to exports. South Africa’s power generating company, ESKOM, has plans to develop a hydro dam at Inga on the river. It will have a series of turbine installations at the Inga Rapids. Reports on the scheme say its installed capacity would be more than twice that of the huge Three Gorges project in China and it would cost an estimated $50B.

But schemes of such a scale come at a huge cost, not just in capital investment, but often in their environmental impact. It is in such circumstances that small-scale generation can present important opportunities with, perhaps, fewer of the environmental costs. Distributed generation in the form of small power plants have the potential to meet the energy needs of rural and off-grid communities. Classified into three types: small (1-10MW), mini (100KW-1MW) and micro (<100KW), such schemes are, perhaps, especially appropriate for development in the African continent.

There is no doubt that hydro power has the potential to supply low-cost electricity in several countries. However, the spectre of drought is raising its head with increasing severity and frequency, and often unpredictable changes in rainfall patterns pose a major difficulty for hydro power development.

Elsewhere in Africa, this time in one of its smallest countries, Lesotho, the World Bank is also funding the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). It is Africa’s largest infrastructure project, involving the construction of five dams, one of which is already built and another under construction. The project also involves many miles of tunnels through the Lesotho mountains, along with a small hydro component.

Delivering Lesotho’s water to Gauteng province, South Africa’s industrial heartland and wealthy suburban Johannesburg residents, the project has not been without its critics, not least for the perceived inequities between those in the rich areas of the city and the poor of South Africa’s townships disenfranchised during apartheid who, it is said, will be least able afford its expensive water.

Critics of the scheme say social impacts in Lesotho have been especially hard on the rural highlands communities who have lost fields, grazing lands and access to water sources.

This huge inter-basin water transfer scheme comprises five proposed dams, 200km of tunnels blasted through the Maluti Mountains, and a 72MW hydro power plant that will supply power to Lesotho. It is one of the world’s largest infrastructure projects under construction today.

The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) is managing the scheme and is responsible for resettlement and compensation issues, environmental protection and overall construction management. In South Africa, the project is overseen by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) through the Trans Caledon Tunnel authority. The entire project is expected to cost $8B.

Access issues

The availability of fresh water and access to it are important determinants of patterns of economic growth and social development across Africa. It is especially the case on the continent where most people live in rural areas and are still heavily dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Although Africa is endowed with immense renewable natural resources, including fresh water, rainfall patterns and that ubiquitous enemy, climate change, and human factors such as population growth and pollution, increasingly threaten the sustainability of resources.

The vast Niger scheme, as it prepares to get under way, presents perhaps an opportunity to learn a way ahead. Writing for the World Bank, Tim Carrington says the challenge will be in implementing a multi-country, multi-faceted programme, with various institutions now responsible for planning and coordinating programmes in new ways. ‘They’ve never done anything like this before,’ said Ousmane Dione, a project team leader working on the scheme locally.

The message from fishermen, herders, local leaders, traders, farmers and high level authorities is clear: major efforts are necessary to preserve sustainable livelihoods along the Niger. It is a big task that lies ahead.