Water resources have the potential to contribute to sustainable social and economic development. However, water boundaries (rivers and their basins) don’t align with political geography. To address a development problem that involves water, where should institutional boundaries lie? Which parties are the “right” parties for addressing a particular challenge?
A hydro-supportive approach that gets the geography of a specific development opportunity or problem right. It respects political boundaries and the development planning within them and includes different user sectors. It assists with coordination between the involved parties and most importantly, considers how water and its management can contribute to addressing the problem. The alternative, hydro-centric, approach starts with the water resource and seeks to direct its use often with a priority to water-related goals.
Here are three examples from Southern Africa. One illustrates how hydro-supportive approaches could provide water security while two are examples where hydro-centric approaches weakened food and energy security.
Water Security: just one benefit within the Lesotho Highlands Project
The main purpose of this ongoing project is to provide water security for the South Africa’s economic heartland while supporting economic development in Lesotho. The project diverts the water that would eventually flow into South Africa into another tributary from where it can more easily be accessed without energy intensive pumping. Water security to support social and economic development is the primary motivator for South Africa and Lesotho shares the financial benefits while also generating hydropower for local needs.
Planning for this project was driven by user sectors and coordinated bilaterally. It was not organized as a river basin project although other riparian states were consulted.
Food Security, viewed as a water issue vs. a multi-sector development planning problem
As a landlocked and primarily agricultural country, Malawi sees the Zambezi and its major tributary, the Shire, as a means of transport. But navigation is difficult, expensive to sustain and controversial. Mozambique’s transport policy has been to build a railway that would open up large areas of its northern provinces for food production as well as providing an outlet for its mines. Although Malawi will also benefit from this railway, their preference for river navigation saw them developing an inland port on the Shire tributary at Nsanje without Mozambique’s agreement, leading to an embarrassing standoff – and a “white elephant” construction.
Although discussions had been going on for over a decade about water management issues, they had focused on environmental issues and the establishment of a joint river basin institution involving all riparian states. This hydro-centric approach, which failed to appreciate Mozambique’s development goal of supporting its food production, led to conflict and a waste of scarce development resources by Malawi.
Addressing the needs and concerns of both countries was a multi-sector development-planning problem – not just a water issue.
Energy-Security: failure to utilize hydropower in the Zambezi
Since 1980, the political objective of Southern African countries has been to develop the Zambezi’s substantial hydropower capacity. However, once again, the hydro-centric focus on setting up river basin institutions and protecting the aquatic environment saw infrastructure development neglected. The failure of consultation between the water and energy sectors and subsequent failure to develop hydropower projects contributed to serious energy shortages in the region which undermined social and economic development. This failure has also undermined trust in institutions for regional cooperation and resulted in the development of coal fired power stations that add unnecessarily to the region’s CO2 emissions.
River basin organizations can support decisions using information, providing options, and facilitating engagement, but river basins are seldom the locus of development decision making. Taking a hydro-centric approach to development plans is not helpful to meeting social and economic needs, as these plans must be made and implemented within political geographies not basins. At the resource scale, water management is not in itself a development goal but a means facilitate development. Hydro-supportive approaches are likely to be more effective in this than hydro-centric approaches. Through their engagement with water user sectors, they achieve better integration between different users as well as water-related goals such as the sustenance of the aquatic environment, inform inter-sectoral and regional development planning and achieve better development outcomes.