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Doha Discussion Centres on Managing Shared Watersheds in Africa in a Changing Climate


A group of high-level experts led by the African Development Bank (AfDB) gathered for a panel discussion during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP18) on December 5 in Doha to take stock of the existing challenges being faced by transboundary natural resources management within the context of climate change.

The AfDB has played a critical role so far in transboundary management of natural resources but the challenge now is to fully take into account climate change as a factor within this management.

The case of how shared watersheds across Africa are being affected by climate change was the specific focus of the discussions. Sering Jallow, Director of the AfDB’s Water and Sanitation Department, noted that Africa is currently using less than five per cent of its water resources and has about 80 transboundary water basins that serve multiple functions. The transboundary water basins cover approximately 64 per cent of the continent’s land area, which contain 93 per cent of the water resources and are inhabited by 77 per cent of the population. The importance of preserving shared natural resources cannot be overstated.

Panelists highlighted major challenges in the management of transboundary natural resource management, notably low financing, weak capacity, and poor monitoring systems. In addition, Dervaiz Amir of Global Water Partnership (GWP), highlighted the absence of basic institutions at country and regional levels dedicated to adaptation to climate change.

“Climate change is happening and we are feeling its impact but what will be the consequence of inactivity?” the panelists asked.

For his part, Teferra Beyene Asfaw of the Nile Basin Initiative warned that “inaction today will mean missed opportunities to ensure peace and security.”

As climate change affects Africa more than any other continent, Abdirahman Beileh, Acting Director of the Agriculture and Agro-Industries Department of the AfDB, highlighted the need for Africa to climb up the development ladder using its own resources, while not exacerbating the environmental impacts. He added that this has to be collective international effort where “the AfDB is one of the tools to assist the African continent.”

But despite these challenges, many opportunities were shared. Ravi Pravu of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) shared his insight on the opportunity to integrate complex information, to easily access hard evidence on which to base decisions, and to identify existing good practices that can be scaled up.

Water Advisor Albert Wright closed the event by making an urgent call for a collective ownership and an integrated approach for resource management in general, praising AfDB’s support in creating a unified landscape.


Africa has about 80 transboundary water basins that serve multiple functions. The transboundary water basins cover approximately 64 per cent of the continent’s land area, which contain 93 per cent of the water resources and are inhabited by 77 per cent of the population (Africa Water Atlas, 2010). The water basins also contain forests that host most of the terrestrial biodiversity.

The importance of preserving shared natural resources cannot be overstated. Water resources are a necessity for life, industry, energy, agriculture as well as the aquatic life that provides sources of proteins and livelihoods for the riparian communities. Most of the arable land in Africa is also situated around river basins and as such the agricultural productivity and food security is directly linked to securing the water resources for future use. Forests can serve as carbon sinks and also as channels for ecosystem based adaptation. While having a direct impact on the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities, forests also protect and stabilize watersheds and soils in addition to maintaining land productivity and reversing land degradation.

Climate change is already impacting Africa’s water resources through recurring droughts and floods. The increasing drying of some regions contributes to the arid land area that currently covers 60 per cent of total land in Africa. Droughts are Africa’s principle natural disasters with over 30 per cent of the population exposed to this phenomenon. The intermittent floods that affect low lying areas have severe impacts on the livelihoods of the communities.

Climate change modelling predicts that approximately 20-30 per cent of the plant and animal species assessed thus far are likely to be at an increased risk of extinction if average global temperature increase exceeds 1.5-2.5oC (Forests for People, 2011). The disturbances, expected as a result of increased climate variability and change, are likely to exceed the normal ranges of variation thus exacerbating tree mortality, destruction of undergrowth and soil degradation. Other impacts such as the frequency and intensity of disease outbreaks, wildfires and risks associated with extreme events will also be exacerbated. The decreased ecosystem services in terms of water cycle regulation, soil protection and biodiversity conservation will imply increased social and environmental vulnerability particularly given the natural resources dependency and poverty levels in Africa. These impacts will be accentuated in the transboundary forests, which cover approximately 21 per cent of the African landscape

The increasing water demands in the transboundary rivers and lakes due to increasing populations, settlement patterns and partly fuelled by the recent so-called “land grab” also poses risks for loss of biodiversity and diminished ecosystem services. Transboundary forest parks are witnessing increasing deforestation and biodiversity losses. The destruction of mangroves is threatening the sustainable livelihoods of millions of riverine communities. The recent droughts experienced in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel also attest to the threat on livelihoods presented by climatic events and the reduced ability to cope with consecutive dry years as a result of reduced recovery time between the events.

The existing challenges to the management of transboundary natural resources will undoubtedly be exacerbated by climate change. The variability in river flows, erratic precipitation levels, increasing temperatures and sea level rise will impact the sustainable use of these resources.

Africa has a low adaptive capacity to climate change as a result of relatively high poverty rates, a high dependence on natural resources for economic stability and a deteriorating natural asset base. Given the low adaptive capacity of Africa, the new and additional risks as a result of increased climate variability and change are severe challenges for poverty eradication and overall economic growth.

Significant resources are required to meet some of the challenges presented by a changing climate and pilot innovative approaches to joint and shared management of the vital water and forest resources. Such support will reduce the risks to the ecosystems and also the populations that are directly and indirectly dependent on these resources. Proactive management will have to be framed within a regional context, bringing the state actors together to address common issues and also strengthening the regional institutions such as the existing River Basin and Forest Conservation Organizations. The frameworks could provide regional strategies for building climate resilience that can also promote resource benefit sharing.

Several African countries are developing Climate Change strategies that build on the National Adaptation Plans of Action (NAPAs), which often include priority actions in the water and forest resources as two of the vulnerable sectors. The actions identified in the NAPAs and also in the National Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) that are being developed can inform Regional Strategic Programs for Climate Resilience. The regional approach not only promotes benefit sharing, but also contributes to regional integration with more countries having access to climate investment resources.  


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