Sharing West African Water: An Interview with the Executive Director of the Volta Basin Authority

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Student Reporters Heidi Travis and Arjun Bhargava contributed equally to this post.

The Volta River is spread over parts of six West African countries. The percentage of basin area in each of the six countries is as follows: 2.48% in Cote d’Ivoire, 42.9% in Burkina Faso, 3.41% in Benin, 41.6% in Ghana, 3.12% in Mali, and 6.41% in Togo.  The river flows for a total distance of 1850km.

With population in this area estimated to increase rapidly, (about 55% for Burkina and 57% for Ghana) water use will rise rapidly. Therefore, the necessity to sustainably and equitably manage water resources in the river basin is very important.  The Volta Basin Authority (VBA), headquartered in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, is the institution created to do just this. It was created through a Convention on the Status of the Volta River and Establishment of the Volta Basin Authority signed by the six countries mentioned above 2007.

The VBA is mandated by the member governments to promote permanent consultation tools among the parties for the development of the basin. It is also required to promote the implementation of integrated water resources management (IWRM) and the equitable distribution of the benefits derived from uses. For better socioeconomic integration in this region, it authorizes and develops joint infrastructure projects and works, and contributes to poverty alleviation and sustainable development of the Parties in the Volta basin.

In a conversation with the Executive Director of the VBA, Mr. Charles Biney, we explore issues ranging from climate change vulnerability to tensions caused by water distribution. Mr. Biney discusses the role of the VBA and its engagement with stakeholders. Salient points of our interview are summarized here:

Interview with the Executive Director of the Volta Basin Authority:

Conflict between members: There are tensions in the region, but nothing has escalated into a conflict. Mr. Biney concedes that development in the basin could potentially cause conflicts. Currently, most of the areas have access to water. Water shortage and flooding issues are problems for member countries.

Main sources of water and how it is distributed around the region: Most of the countries have other rivers but they do rely on the water of the Volta.  About 70% of the land mass in Ghana, half of Togo, and 60% of Burkina Faso is covered by the Volta River basin. Issues such as rapid population growth keep declining the amount of water available per head.

Electronic pollution in the Volta: There are problems of pollution but they are localized around big cities and in coastal areas. The basin as a whole is quite pristine because it is quite rural. Illegal gold miners compound the problem.

Most vulnerable areas to climate change: The northern parts of the basin are the most vulnerable areas. The northern parts of Burkina Faso and the southern parts of Mali are dry areas already and impacts of climate change will make things unbearable. The frequency of climate events like droughts and flooding is going to be difficult to predict. Climate change effects will translate to lack of water, increasing poverty, and reduced livelihoods.

Recommendations to other water management commissions in the area: VBA is young and is trying to plan from the experience of other basin authorities. A cooperation agreement with the water agency of St. Normandy was signed during the 6th World Water Forum. VBA likes to share ideas and its suggestions are to increase awareness and improve participation of other stakeholders. People have to be part of projects to make such efforts meaningful to them according to Mr. Biney. Many are unaware of the VBA’s existence in the region and the Executive Director ponders how he will help people.

Connecting with people in the basin: The engagement with stakeholders occurs at many different levels. The VBA has almost finished its establishment of an observatory for water resources and related ecosystems. A component of the observatory involves the use of stakeholders in the actual monitoring of the basin. They are developing a water charter to define how the VBA will use other stakeholders. Other projects use grassroots plans to pilot new programs and engage people.

Our thoughts on the Volta Basin Authority:

As the VBA establishes itself as an institution, the Executive Director has a number of emerging issues to deal with. Population will almost double in 2025 to 33.9million from 18.6million in 2000, and this growth will be a major impediment to sustainable development in the region Mr. Charles Biney acknowledged. Recent events such as the coup in Mali contribute to political instability in the region and this again hinders sustainable development within the Basin.

The important message from this interview though is that all six African countries have recognized the need to manage the shared natural resources through the ratified VBA Convention and have consequently established institutions/projects to support this mandate. The pilot projects designed to involve greater stakeholder participation and the creation of an observatory indicate that the VBA is gaining momentum to achieve its mandated goals.

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