Integrated water resources management in Africa: Issues and Options

Submitted by Nitya Jacob | published 29th Dec 2022 | last updated 5th Apr 2023


By S.M.K. Donkor and Yilma E. Wolde, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa

In high rainfall, high productivity zones, increasing land pressure and fragmentation of land holdings have resulted in fertility decline of arable lands. In low rainfall and drought-prone areas, over-grazing by cattle beyond carrying capacity and shifting cultivation by increasing encroachment of marginal lands continue to undermine the already fragile ecological balance. Over the past three decades, Africa's semi-arid lands have come under pressure of people and livestock at a rate considerably faster than the more fertile areas. Consequently, conditions of hunger, and even famine are increasingly becoming evident in these areas as is the occurrence of drought. This has set in motion endemic poverty and degradation of land and water resources, which continue, unabated.

Floods and Droughts

Many parts in Africa are subjected to floods which causes damage to crop, homesteads and cattle. There are recurring floods and peak floods in wet seasons sometime with catastrophic consequences. In 1988 there were serious floods in Kenya, Nigeria, Gabon and Sudan that led to loss of life and dislocation of economic activities. Between February 1989 and September 1990, 26 floods was recorded in various countries in the African continent. The problem necessitates the incorporation of resources development planning. The need to implement soil and water conservation measures in these regions remains indispensable.

Lack of Follow-up

There have been many international initiatives and strategic development approaches which were discussed at various fora like the 1977 United Nations Water Conference, the 1992 Dublin Conference on Water, the 1992 Rio Summit on Environment and Development and the 1995 ECA/WMO Conference on Water Resources Assessment. However participation at some of  the meetings and conferences was not at a policy-making level and consequently the issues did not get political support. As a result, there has often been lack of follow-up and implementation of the initiatives for water resources development and management.

Options to promote IWRM

Institutional and legal Infrastructures for planning and management of water resources The ultimate goal of the Mar del Plata Action Plan (MPAP) of the United Nations Water Conference 1977 was to bring about a better economic and social progress through accelerated development of water resources. This can be achieved by means of appropriate institutional and legal infrastructures set up for orderly administration, planning and management of water resources. The emphasisare on the need for harmonisation of water activities among all national institutions responsible for water affairs and for each country to review the water legislation and enhance co-ordinated planning.

To improve the situation, several countries in Africa including Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Chad, Lesotho have carried out institutional and legal reforms either on their own or forced by circumstances to effect changes. In this respect some countries have strengthened their water institutions , others created new ones like central policy-making and co-ordinating bodies and semi-autonomous public agencies; others have reassigned functions among institutions and still others have reassigned ministerial  responsibilities for water agencies.

Regional evaluation of institutional and legal infrastructures

A study in 1990 on institutional and legal infrastructure reported that the recurring infrastructures existing then at the national level revealed four main types.

Type I: Within this institutional infrastructure, policy continue to be fragmented in various ministries dealing with water and expressed in legal enactments or administrative directives of agencies operating under these Ministries. Examples of this type were in Ghana, Lesotho, Sierra Leone and others.

Type II: In this type of infrastructure there is an overall policy making and co-ordinating body for water under a Ministry which has responsibilities other than water. The Ministry of Water Resources,  forestry, and Fisheries in the Gambia was an example. Others were in Uganda, Zambia and Malawi.

Type III: In this type, a ministry solely for water resources has been set up to direct the policy for planning and management of water resources. Examples were: Burkina Faso, Kenya and Nigeria. Ethiopia was included in this category as of 1996. Overall policy-making and co-ordinating bodies for giving central direction to water resources utilisation and conservation still are not established in many countries. Demand management mechanisms are weak because of absence of relevant rules and regulations for water allocation.

In addition, the service situation lacks sustenance to justify setting appropriate tariffs. There are also cultural, religious and other factors against implementing water tariffs. Lack of inadequate funds and trained personnel has resulted in unsatisfactory operation and maintenance of water supply and sanitation systems. Mechanism for integrated multipurpose development of river basins as a basis for socio-economic development remains undefined.

The weakness in institutional infrastructure due to inadequate policies and legislation to guide the multi-dimensional aspects of water resources and its consequence in poor management and proliferation of authorities and duplication of efforts continue to undermine implementation of water resources development programmes. The strengthening of water development institutions including the adequacy of policies and planning is indispensable for development in the near future. The priority target for the future must be building up national capabilities for proper planning, execution and management of water programmes.

Water sector planning

The weaknesses; insufficient cross-sectoral harmonisation, and reconciliation with the national development targets at the macro-economic level. The problem of planning and implementation is a major difficulty. Through Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) of the IMF and the World Bank provision for indirect opportunity to deal with some of the weaknesses of the water sector plans was given. Consequently, the water sector like the other sectors is being reviewed in terms of objectives, targets, plans and resources in order to determine what can be funded having regard to the national resources, and investment funds that can be expected from external sources.

Mobilisation of financial resources

It is noted that, in spite of some financial disbursements from the international community, the levels of achievement have been much below what was estimated at the time of the UN Water Conference in 1977.

Human resources development

One of the most urgent training needs for the water sector is in project planning and preparation at the micro-economic level, water resources sector planning and their relation to national development planning at the macro-economic level. There are avenues to improve the human resources situation at the regional level.

Appropriate technology

"Appropriate technology" may be defined as a method or technique adopted to provide a socially and environmentally acceptable standard of service or quality of product. From this standpoint, desalination in the North African coastal area and recycling of water are seen as appropriate technology.

For better success to be achieved, there is a fundamental need to consider the building up of the technological capacity within the countries in Africa to solve national problems in the field of water resources development, without undue dependence on imported technology or raw materials. The difficulty is that the technological capacity is not evenly distributed over the region. Special attention is necessary in the techniques of irrigation methods, and in the maintenance and operation infrastructures as well as in the areas of improving irrigation efficiency.

There is a need to establish linkages between research and centres of excellence in the countries of the region is essential. The promotion of inter-country technical assistance programmes within Africa and the countries of the South is necessary to build the internal capacities of less equipped countries in the areas of planning, design, operation of water development projects in the region.

Private sector participation

Public water schemes have been found to have lower productivity than those developed by individual users or users’ groups. The recovery cost operation and maintenance costs is a financial and economic issue. It is unlikely that cost recovery objective will be reached without a formal and effective participation of users in management of the project and experiences in southern Africa have demonstrated the positive influence of this participation.

The private sector range from the individual family to small NGO projects and up to large-scale corporate investors. This private sector initiative has been translated into a successful and increased performance of water resources management especially in irrigation schemes. Private agents who manage the entire water scheme or the essential services to water users are free from normal  government procedures and thus, are able to apply private sector procedures in the provision of efficient, cost-effective and timely services to farmers. This service-oriented approach to management has helped to ensure the maintenance and efficiency of water development projects to serve the market and to adjust to change. Besides water management, they are also essential as a source of finance and technical expertise. Governments are responsible for the provision of basic infrastructure such as roads and private sectors will be granted contracts to develop the remaining of the system.

This scenario will only happen if the investments are profitable and secure, thus the necessary political will and investments in infrastructure is needed. This can be achieved by introducing sound macroeconomic policies to promote investments and profitability of water resources development projects and to accompany these policies with a high-quality technical support.

Community participation

In sub-Saharan countries, there is a decreasing rate in the execution of new water supply and irrigation projects. This is further compounded by the failure of existing schemes because of lack of proper operation and maintenance. As a consequence, communities are without proper service facilities particularly in drinking water and sanitation. Community involvement and public participation could be seen as a way to assist in salvaging this situation in Africa.

Efforts have been made to involve communities in water supply and small-scale irrigation as well as in soil conservation and tree planting activities. Although there are cases with successful results, some did not materialise, mainly because of limited technical and administrative capabilities of the organisers and lack of political support.

The micro-dam project in Ethiopia and the soil conservation programme in Lesotho are good examples of water development activities where communities are heavily involved. Needless to say that the Egyptian experience on community involvement and participation in irrigation and other water development schemes is very prominent. In several countries of the Africa region like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda numerous water development activities have been implemented with community involvement.

Community participation should be orientated towards making the communities have sense of ownership and responsibility. Involvement of the community in water supply projects and the training of grassroots-level technicians have proven successful in many African countries and has helped to reduce investment costs by about 40 to 50 per cent. In addition, experiences indicate that public participation provides the basis to promote health care and mass education programmes with respect to proper water use and storage practices and also in the areas of management, personal hygiene and human waste disposal. Internal dynamism has to be brought to the task of rural poverty alleviation. It would be a valuable venture for countries in Africa to exploit the skills and creativity of their rural communities and mobilise their participation by activating their productive potential. Self-reliance should be promoted to attain sustainable development in water activities and bring about food security. Under the prevailing situation in Africa, where there is a remarkable shrinkage of financial resources, increased beneficiary participation can be perceived as a challenge to counter the onslaught of poverty. Where participatory mechanisms at the grass-roots level exist in the form of peasants associations, co-operatives or women groups as is the case in many countries of the regions, these could be used as entry points for fostering participation. On the other hand in countries where nucleus organisations do not exist, bringing together the beneficiary communities to participate in development projects can develop them.

The community should be mobilised as agents of change concerning the proper use of water and sanitation for improved health. Where women are to assume this additional task, it would be necessary to develop mutual understanding and respect between family members. This effort should not be seen as a competition between men and women but rather should develop harmoniously on the part of a community towards working together to the objective of having sustainable development. Such mobilisation of people can be spurred spontaneously or ignited through trained animators In recent years NGOs and bi-laterals through community participation have successfully implemented numerous water development activities in many countries in Africa, namely, Ghana, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Kenya, Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, Mozambique, Guinea and others. Varying degrees of success were achieved under diverse circumstances and needs.

Gender Issue

The role of women as the group who are custodians and guardians for food and water requirements for the household should be taken into account by the planners and designers of water schemes.


The role for water resources development rests with national governments. Experience shows that in many African countries the financial managerial and technical capability is unable to support accelerated development of integrated water resources in the multi-sectoral activities. It is noted that water activities are implemented in partnership with external support agencies including United Nations specialized agencies like FAO, WMO, UNICEF, WHO UNESCO, UNEP etc., the donor community and financing bodies like UNDP, WB and the ADB. The type and degree of partnership and assistance required varies from country to country. It is therefore, necessary for countries to identify their specific areas of need. In this regard, the assessment of indigenous capacity before resorting to external support is essential. It is also necessary for countries to carefully study the impact of partnership and weigh the absorption capacity of technical and financial assistance. The need to evaluate the cost effectiveness of partnership and the possibility of continuing the activity within their own resources after the project phases out is a matter that requires a careful consideration.

Conclusions and recommendations

In most countries, there is a gross under-utilisation or inefficient utilisation of water resources hence there is a need to put land and water resources potentials to productive use. Development should proceed on basis of sound policies and proper planning strategies that take into account the interfaces and interlinkages with the national socio-economic development perspectives. The exercise should seek to achieve cross-sectoral harmonisation and reconciliation with the national development targets at the macro-economic level. It is with this objective in mind that the following general conclusions and recommendations are drawn.

Africa is a region with complex patterns and striking paradoxes of climate, physiography, economy, social, cultural and political features. The countries of the region are at different levels of development. Given such circumstances, it would neither be possible nor desirable to recommend a single national water development strategy as a comprehensive model. What is obviously lacking is national efforts to develop their own new approaches and strategies suited to their condition in guiding the future courses of action.

The question of maintaining equilibrium on the extent of centralization or decentralization of responsibilities being left for local and national adaptation, there has been a generally successful trend initiated during the United Nations Water Conference in 1977 to designate some national focal point, or centre with responsibility for the management of water resources. This effort should be revived with appropriate resource allocations being provided to enable effective co-ordination and harmonisation of water activities. Another useful instrument to assist in the implementation of multisectoral programmes in a coordinated manner that many countries are adopting as a basic planning unit, is the hydrologic geographical unit or the river basin unit.

Water use efficiency is a subject of concern to majority of the countries. The problem is of particular significance in agriculture and more so in irrigation which has a heavy demand for water. Where appropriate, irrigation development and expansion should take into consideration the possibilities of adapting necessary design and operational factors to incorporate the use of marginal quality of water from effluent or brackish sources into existing and future schemes.

There has been a growing concern in many countries of Africa for the control and mitigation of flood damages and associated disasters. Whereas the causes of flood may be varied, there are strong linkages between land and watershed management in upper catchments, land use policies in flood-prone areas and the costs of flood damages and of its prevention. This obviously places the subject within many national water strategies.

Sub-Saharan Africa suffers most from poor economic performance, recurrence of drought and crop failures which leads to the onset of famine and mass exodus of people. Despite the prevalence of water scarcity in the region, rainwater that is received has mostly been allowed to flow uncaptured. It is therefore, recommended that all countries adopt and replicate successful water harvesting  technologies for increasing the command areas of small-scale irrigation in parallel with the larger water development and irrigation schemes envisaged in their national development plans.

Closely linked to the economic difficulties, which several countries in Africa are going through, is a common problem of maintaining water systems in a state matching design criteria and meeting operational and efficiency requirements. This applies to all sectors in particular to drinking water and irrigation infrastructures. Emphasis on rehabilitation of inefficient systems, reduction in wastage and unaccounted for water, recycling and reuse of water, and improved operation and maintenance can be more cost-effective approaches than investing in new services.

The provision and expansion of domestic and municipal water supplies, together with hygiene education is considered to be one of the contributors to the social well being of a community. In Africa, 65 per cent are without water supply service and proper sanitation. To improve this, efforts in the water supply development in both rural and urban areas should accelerated and complemented with effluent treatment and disposal services particularly in the urban centres.

Water is a commodity and the cost of providing water services to userss must be met by the
beneficiary communities. In applying the principle of cost recovery or a degree of financial
autonomy in a scheme, two important points need consideration. The first is the guaranteeing of investment funds has been slowing down since 1983 partly as a result of the difficulties of meeting debt service obligations. The problems call for:

the development and introduction of practical measures towards scheme autonomy and cost recovery in conjunction with greater efficiency and reliability of water supply to the various users.

increased attention needs to be given and investment funds to be made available to undertake measures to improving water use efficiency and to reducing wastage and damage to natural resources by rehabilitating infrastructures.

A strong emphasis should be accorded to overall planning for drought conditions and to water conservation in water scarce areas and for the mitigation of flood damages.

International support

The international community has been following closely and supporting activities geared to the use and development of water resources in Africa and more so to its implication on the nexus issues of population, environment and food security.

The establishment of a collaborative mechanism to maintain close linkages by means of strengthening the capacity for the management of water resources through the national co-ordinating bodies  National Water Resources Centres) and the corresponding regional and global arrangements and programmes in support of these efforts is central.

Within the United Nations system, global level co-ordination and co-operation is being maintained by the ACC Inter-secretariat Group for Water Resources. The ACC will continue its activities with a more dynamic force injected by the Secretary General's Initiative on Africa. Inter-agency efforts will be concentrated on agreed action programmes concerning water for sustainable agricultural development, water resources assessment, water quality, human resources development, and water resources management, based on the outcomes of the regional assessments carried out for the formulation of the proposed strategy into the 21st century. In fact all agencies have committed themselves to assist African countries in their development programmes for health, household water security and food security that stand high in the Secretary-General's Initiative on Africa.

At the country level, the main issues relating to partnership is the problem of co-ordination and control of the inflow of technical and financial assistance. In order to regularize situations, it is recommended that (a) all external assistance for partnership programmes should be channelled through governments' normal budget and reporting system. Donors/partners should also make every effort to provide the requested information to governments in timely, complete and accurate manner. (b) Governments should undertake a review monitoring and evaluation of their on-going technical assistance programmes and projects for purposes of accountability and cost effectiveness and to determine whether those could be realised within own resources. (c) Governments should strengthen their capacities on the basis of their assessed needs and priorities and take concrete action in terms of training, financial and equipment requirements. (d) A rigorous follow-up technical and financial assistance should be undertaken through an established co-ordinating mechanism.