The Niger Basin: risks and opportunities for cooperation

The Niger River in West and Central Africa is the third longest in Africa and ninth in the world. Its basin covers a total area of 2.13 million km2 over nine countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria (see Figure 6.2). All nine riparian states are in the bottom third of the 189 countries according to the Human Development Index (2018) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with five in the bottom 15.

Map of Niger River Basin

Figure 6.2 Map of Niger River Basin.

Most of them face rapid population growth (an estimated annual average of 3.2 percent) and urbanization in a vulnerable environment characterized by pockets of political instability, insecurity, and difficult climatic conditions.

The Niger River and its tributaries provide water for drinking, agriculture, industry, energy, and transport to the nine riparian countries, making it an invaluable resource that has to be properly managed to overcome the above-mentioned challenges and ensure long-term and fair benefit sharing. While progress in the basin is being made, 30 percent of the population still does not have access to an improved water source, 75 percent does not have improved sanitation facilities, and only 35 percent has access to electricity.10

The pressure to develop and increase access to energy, food, and water means that there is increasing pressure to make use of the basin’s resources for national purposes. Large infrastructure projects for hydropower and irrigation show a potential for conflict around the use of the shared resource, particularly with regard to the flow of the main course of the Niger River. Examples include the Fomi Dam in Guinea, the Office du Niger irrigation scheme in Mali, and the Kandadji Dam in Niger. While minimum flows have been agreed upon in the Water Charter, enforcement, monitoring, and respect of those remain a challenge.

Sound integrated transboundary management, notably through the NBA, is recognized as important to promote development in the basin. This was arguably one of the main opportunities seen by riparian countries in initiating transboundary cooperation.11 The NBA is largely regarded as capable of developing basin development plans based on hydroclimatic scenarios, the basin’s Action Plan for Sustainable Development of 2008 (APSD, PADD in French) being its primary example (the document represents to date the basis of the N BA’s coordination of the basin’s development).

However, climate and river flow variability provide elements of uncertainty in planning resource use. This translates to a larger perceived risk for riparian countries because it is more difficult for the NBA to give clear answers on trends of resource availability, including floods and droughts, and therefore build trust in the institution. Enormous challenges of data collection and verification in what is a very large and poor basin affected by issues of insecurity make it difficult for the NBA to establish itself as a center of trustworthy and useful information, let alone as the initiator of joint infrastructure projects. In this respect, the opportunity seen by countries in NBA-led decisions is reduced.

However, the potential for the NBA to attract external (mainly donor) funding for regional and national activities remains a strong opportunity for riparian countries. The institutional guarantee of validating intervention in the basin through an official space for regional dialogue increases the attractiveness of the NBA as a beneficiary of development finance and thus represents an opportunity for riparian countries and donors alike. This, combined with the more invisible advantages of regular regional exchange at political and technical levels, represents opportunities for cooperation.

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