Author : Michelle Langrand
Site of publication : genevasolutions.news
Type of publication : Article
Date of publication : 06 October 2021
From the Fouta Djallon highlands in Central Guinea, the Senegal River flows north towards the Malian border, then turns west, slithering between Mauritania and Senegal, to end its 1,086km journey in the Atlantic Ocean.
Like with the hundreds of other transboundary rivers in the world, the fates of the four West African countries that it crosses over are inevitably linked. The river basin is home to some 3.5 million people, who depend on it for food, drinking water and work. It provides 60 per cent of Dakar’s water and all the water of Mauritania’s Nouakchott. Mali, Senegal and Mauritania joined forces in 1972 to form the Senegal River Basin Development Authority.
Shared water equals shared crisis
In many cases, shared water resources are at the heart of conflict and tensions. In the east of Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have been wrapped in a long running power struggle over the Nile river. Suspicions as well as differences in economic and political interests have turned water diplomacy efforts sour.
Water diplomacy is the ability to talk to each other on transboundary water resource issues and to find common rules for resource management
“Water diplomacy is the ability to talk to each other on transboundary water resource issues and to find common rules for resource management as well as mechanisms to resolve conflicts and tensions that can arise from different uses of a watercourse,” Mara Tignino, a legal specialist at the Geneva Water Hub, explains.
In the case of the Senegal River, Makane Moise Mbengue, international law professor at the University of Geneva, explains there are a number of factors that have provided fertile ground for trust building. “We’re talking about countries that share French as an official language, share a common colonial history and the majority of their population is Muslim,” he notes. Families are also often mixed and spread out across the neighbouring countries.
A test for water diplomacy
The fact that basin organisation remains unwavered is likely the outcome of a rather unique economic model. The countries have an agreement to share economic costs of the river’s development projects as well as the benefits. Another aspect that has contributed to the success of the OMVS, according to Mbengue, is a rare unspoken rule that all projects must be green lighted by all four states.
New opportunities ahead
While disagreements between the countries are not uncommon, relations in the West African region are stable and cooperation efforts are being expanded into other watercourses. Senegal and Mauritania have been in discussions with The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau to jointly manage the Senegal-Mauritanian aquifer, which supplies over 20 million people – 80 per cent of the countries’ populations – with water.
Climate change to pose new challenges
As countries find ways to work together to manage their shared resources, challenges are becoming more complex. Desertification is advancing southward, slowly encroaching on the Senegal River. Like in previous years, populations are migrating in search of water, threatening to revive clashes.
Aside from the environmental challenges, the region has also been confronted for years with the expansion of armed groups, notably in the northern part of the continent. Experts say that water scarcity, while not the main trigger cause, plays a key role in fuelling the problem.
For Senegal’s minister of water and sanitation, Serigne Mbaye Thiam, water diplomacy between states can also be an asset to this end: « the fact that there is trust between us and that we collaborate at the level of the OMVS means that we also have trust in the management of these security issues through the dialogue that must exist between our governments. »
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts.