The programme manager, Co-operation in International Waters in Africa Resources at the World Bank Rex William, spoke with The EastAfrican.
What is the Co-operation in International Waters in Africa Programme about?
It is an initiative of the World Bank to foster co-operation in the use of trans-boundary water resources, such as the River Nile.
We realised countries needed support in establishing a structured way for co-operation in utilising resources in river basins like the Zambezi, Niger, Okavango, Senegal and Volta.
We are working with SADC and Igad also on the exploitation of ground water, especially in the water scarce Horn of Africa.
Our three building blocks are a framework for co-operation and these are: Information, data and research; and advising on investments that have utmost impact for all stakeholders.
How do you contain the politics around the Nile waters?
We provide reliable information that has helped build trust. This has eased tensions, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam.
The Nile Basin Initiative provides a common framework agreement that is now the subject of political discussions. Our view is that increasing the pie is more important than what each country gets from the river directly in terms of volumes.
Does increasing the benefits include better watershed management?
We are involved in technical work. The World Bank supports communities on programmes such as reforestation and other water retention initiatives at a country level.
Ethiopia, for instance, has done very well with regard to terracing. In Somalia, small scale sand dams are helping with retention.
We still have disputes like that between Kenya and Tanzania over construction of dams on the Mara River at the heart of which is the management of the Mau water tower in Kenya.
We will advise the two countries based on the impact of the dams and their potential to disrupt water flow.
What is essential is to provide development without having an adverse impact on the ecosystem; where benefits outweigh the costs. On the Mau we support technical work and give insights on approaches that can make the watershed more productive and resilient.
There seems to be no top line approach to resolving the water hyacinth infestation of Lake Victoria, which could with time, encroach on the Nile.
The water quality on Lake Victoria is deteriorating not just from the invasive weed but also from poor waste management and sanitation. Through the Lake Victoria Basin Commission, the World Bank is supporting projects to address these problems.
What is key is concerted, collective action from communities, municipalities, governments and regional organs like the Nile Basin Initiative. And climate change is here.
We are seeing more variable water levels along the Nile. Temperature rises are bad news for water resource development, something we are monitoring through our flood prediction services. Through trans-boundary co-operation investment in projects that have maximum impact and promote resilience.
These could include water storage in mountainous or forested areas. Climate change is a big threat to food and energy security. One of the key strategic challenges is how to dissuade countries from unilateral national initiatives in favour of sustainable common approaches.
What are you doing in regard to ground water?
We have established a centre of excellence in the SADC. The problem with groundwater is finding out exactly how much is available and for how long it can be exploited sustainably.
The issue is determining what governance mechanism should be put in place, when for example countries share aquifers as is the case with Kenya and Somalia.
Through co-operation, such countries can invest in deep ground water test wells to get data that can be used to establish likely management approaches.
The Lake Chad basin is drying up and a proposal to replenish it with Congo River water has been floated.
We are supporting research on what the basin can sustainably handle through the Lake Chad Basin Commission. It has not been scientifically established that it is drying up though water level changes have been noticed.
Inter-basin transfer schemes, however, are the last resort as they could affect the donor basin. The focus should be on demand management.
There is a huge deficit in urban water supply. But numerous cities such as Windhoek in Namibia are doing well through water reuse and recycling to potable water standards.
Coastal cities also have the option of desalination which is becoming more feasible with solar energy of which in turn is cheaper than diesel.
But there is an environmental complication on the disposal of the by product brine, which is usually channelled back into the sea. Cities are learning from each other and recently the World Bank supported a delegation from Dodoma, Tanzania to learn from Cape Town, which saw the dangers and came up with mitigation measures in time.
How are communities involved in Nile Basin Initiative decisions?
We give technical support to the Nile Basin Discourse, an umbrella of 500 community-based organisations in the 11 Nile riparian countries.
The Rusumo Falls hydroelectric power is a good example. We also have university programmes including internships, where students from different countries discuss solutions to various issues surrounding the Nile.