Blog: Inclusive Water Development: experiences from the WISE-UP project

At the Stockholm World Water Week and in the run up to the United Nations Summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development goals, “water for sustainable development” is top of the international agenda. Ensuring that investments will benefit all, from national to local interests, is the challenge at hand.

A woman and children crossing the river at the border between Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Over the last decade, there has been a revived interest in large scale water resource development. The argument is that large dams for irrigation and hydropower generation can contribute to adapting to climate variability and to mitigating risks, while boosting economic growth and reducing poverty.

However the potential for ecosystem services to contribute to water management, thus for nature to perform as natural infrastructure has frequently been neglected. The key question is: how can portfolios of built and natural infrastructures support pro-poor and climate resilient development? Drawing on research from the WISE-UP to Climate project, we pose this question based on two proposed developments in the Tana and Volta River Basins.

Rural-urban water transfers in the upper Tana, Kenya

The Tana River Basin provides over 70% of Nairobi’s water supply and produces a significant proportion of the country’s hydroelectric power. Many rural households intimately depend on the river’s ecosystem services to support their livelihoods and food production - crops, fish and livestock.

Although the river is coming under increasing pressure and its catchment is being degraded rapidly, the Tana Basin is relatively water rich compared to the neighbouring Athi Basin, where Nairobi is located. To help meet growing demands, the proposed ‘Northern Water Collector Tunnel’ (NWCT) has been designed to transfer an additional 140,000m3 from the upper Tana to the capital. The project is estimated to cost 6.8 billion Kenyan shillings.

Inter-basin transfers are a means to tackle imbalances in the distribution of water. However, strong disagreements over the NWCT have been voiced both in the press and through more formal channels, including the courts. Proponents of the NWCT project claim that water is a national resource and should be used strategically for socio-economic development. Given that more than 50% of the national economy is located in Nairobi, the needs of the capital city override other interests.

The most vocal opposition has come from the government of Murang’a County, who believes that the project will adversely affect local water supply and irrigation projects, and precipitate closure of two small hydropower projects downstream of the proposed tunnel. There is also a strong sense among local communities that the resource belongs to them, and stakeholders have questioned both the jurisdictions of the Athi Water Service Board (AWSB) as well as the consultation process.

The case of the NWCT demonstrates that while investments in both the built and natural infrastructure are needed to sustain human activities, decisions regarding the nature of these investments will likely entail trade-offs between competing interests. Competition can be avoided if there is appropriate consideration of ‘who benefits’ and inclusion of benefit sharing mechanisms, alongside much needed catchment management activities, as advocated by the Murang’a County.

Operating the planned Pwalugu dam, Volta, in tune with the downstream agro ecosystem

In the Upper East region of Ghana, a new dam is planned to be built in Pwalugu. The infrastructure is designed to be a multi-purpose dam serving local and national interests. Its main purposes will be large and small scale irrigation, flood mitigation and hydropower production. The infrastructure is to contribute towards food security and poverty reduction by providing job opportunities in the irrigation schemes.

At present, the communities immediately downstream of the future Pwalugu dam heavily rely on the floodplain - a natural water infrastructure - for their livelihood during wet and dry season. During rainy season, agriculture is practiced on the floodplains where fertile soils have been deposited. Farmers plant after the first rains and harvest before the peak flows in August / September, which inundate the floodplains.

The issue is that in the last twenty years, the start of rainy season has become more erratic and some years it is pushed up to early July - a timeframe too short to grow maize, which requires about 3 months to reach maturity.

To farmers, deciding when to harvest is a gamble between leaving their crops in the fields where it could get washed away but grow a little more, or harvesting premature crops. Additionally, the Bagré dam (Burkina Faso) upstream of Pwalugu releases water in August every year when the reservoir is close to its full capacity. This triggers flash floods that are announced but which can happen even before the natural peak flows and further shorten the crop growing timeframe.

Like in the case of the NWCT, this is not a doomed situation. If coordination with the Bagré dam can be difficult as it involves two countries (Ghana and Burkina Faso), the planned Pwalugu dam presents an opportunity to tune the flooding to the crop growing season and delays the natural and dam spill over flooding till after the farmers have harvested their crops. This is only a single example of how operating the dam in line with downstream agro ecosystem constraints can be a step towards inclusive water development.

To conclude, in order to deliver broader based economic growth, poverty reduction and inclusive development, a more integrated approach to investing in built and natural water infrastructure is needed, together with incentives for different actors to collaborate in the management of their shared environment and resources. As the two case studies suggest, linking built infrastructure to the functioning of natural infrastructure presents opportunities to foster inclusive development.

Authors: Laetitia Pettinotti (BC3), Marloes Mul (IWMI), Beatrice Mosello (ODI) and Naomi Oates (ODI)


'WISE-UP to Climate' stands for 'Water Infrastructure Solutions from Ecosystem Services Underpinning Climate Resilient Policies and Programmes'. The project will run over a four-year period (2013-2017) and link ecosystem services more directly into water infrastructure development, in the Tana (Kenya) and Volta (Ghana-Burkina Faso) river basins. The project is coordinated by a global partnership that brings together the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Ghana (CSIR), The African Collaborative Center for Earth System Sciences (ACCESS) - University of Nairobi, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the University of Manchester, the Basque Centre for Climate Change (BC3), and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The project is funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB).

Work area: 
Global Policy
Environmental Law
East and Southern Africa
West and Central Africa
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