Rivers without borders – transforming the way we manage shared watersheds

Synoptic information, hard evidence and good practice are critical to managing transboundary watersheds and resources in Africa. Photo courtesy of US Army Africa.

Pictures speak a thousand words and they can help better manage water resources across Africa’s political borders. This is what Ravi Prabhu, Deputy Director General – Research for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) told the audience during the African Development Bank side event Transboundary Natural Resource Management – the case of shared watersheds in Africa.

Africa is home to 80 transboundary water basins – i.e. drainage basins that span political boundaries – which contain 93% of the continent’s water resources, support over three quarters of its population and hold the majority of Africa’s terrestrial biodiversity.

Sustainable management of these transboundary resources is already being tested on a number of fronts – from population increases and land grabbing to deforestation and drought. Throwing further climate change and variability into the mix is expected to exacerbate these challenges by increasing variability in precipitation and river discharge, driving sea level rise and coastal recession, increasing desertification, reducing water resources and heightening food insecurity.

“How do we alert our policy-makers that we’re in danger?” asked Prabhu. The aim of the session was to examine challenges to transboundary natural resource management (NRM) in light of our changing climate and discuss ways to better manage watersheds that span borders.

The answer, Prabhu explained, is to give policy-makers information they can act upon – information in the form of pictures.

Prabhu is fortunate to have easy access to this kind of information. He presented a map of forest cover for the Great Lakes Region of East Africa from ICRAF’s GeoScience Lab, based on a combination of advanced modelling and information collected on the ground.

Prabhu explained that this kind of synoptic information – information that provides a summary of an issue – is a way of packaging information into one or several ‘pictures’ that can facilitate decision-making. “We’re dealing with very complex systems and we need to integrate that information in ways that decision-makers can find useful,” Prabhu explained, adding that when it comes to this kind of information, “seeing is often believing.”

Dr. Ravi Prabhu speaking at the African Development Bank session in Doha, Qatar.

But according to Prabhu, synoptic information is only one step in guiding decision making for better transboundary NRM; we also need hard evidence. And sometimes the evidence is surprising.

Switching to an image of soil carbon to 30 cm depth, Prabhu explained that having carbon in soil is essential for retaining water and nutrients; moreover it increases the ability of farming systems to adapt to climate change and can take over a century to replenish if lost.

But what is less immediately apparent is that higher soil carbon often corresponds to areas in which better farming practices are underway – and this is the kind of hard evidence Prabhu is talking about.

When it comes to decision-making, whether in relation to water, agriculture or forest policy, this kind of hard evidence is invaluable. “…you need to understand where the hotspots are, where the drivers of change are coming from so that you can direct your investments into those areas and change the practices on the ground that are threatening these lifelines of Africa,” said Prabhu.

To illustrate his third and final message, Prabhu jumped continents and drew on evidence from Salamjee Hill in Bhutan. In 2006, erosion due to poor practices poured soil into the Brahmaputra River basin below, covering fertile alluvial soils with sand and reducing the productivity of the land.

“In any system, the origins of threats tend to come from bad practices,” Prabhu emphasized, showing that good practice – in this case improved agricultural practices and agroforestry introduced by ICRAF –had transformed the landscape and greatly reduced erosion.

“Until we get such practices to scale, until we have the hard evidence that decision-makers, policy-makers and investors need, we’re not going to solve the problems that Asia is facing and that Africa is bound to face with management as population densities increase, for instance in the highlands of East Africa.”

In order to take technologies and practices to scale, Prabhu argued, we need to think about the stewards of the land – the farmers – and provide them not only with the equipment and technology they need, but also with the incentive to make a change. Agroforestry is one way to achieve this, as it results in better management of land and water resources, while providing significant co-benefits to farmers in terms of livelihoods and food security.

“…in any transboundary water basin…what happens up- and downstream is the result of interactions of farmers on their farms, of forest users in their forests, of fisherpeople in their lakes,” said Prabhu, stressing that these interactions greatly affect the resources we seek to manage. “…I think we lose sight of this at our own peril.”

The ADB side-event Transboundary Natural Resources Management – the case of shared watersheds in Africa was held on Wednesday, 05 Dec, 2012 alongside the 18th United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP18) in Doha, Qatar.

More stories from the Climate Change Conference in Doha:

The drivers and levers of deforestation

Shame and pride can be drivers of reforestation

Brazil’s pride in the Amazon keeps deforestation at bay

Is that hot shower deforestation-free?

Not for the carbon – re-thinking climate finance for farmers

Mitigation and adaptation: a perfect marriage made on farms

Going soft on sustainability

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