Can we cooperate successfully over international basins? Lessons from the Senegal River countries

By Trayana Vladimirova

Originally published in May 2013

Approximately 60% of the world’s fresh water is drawn from rivers shared by more than one country. Water is a flowing resource and unlike other resources it is not static. It creates hydrological interdependence between the countries sharing the water of international rivers as the use of water in one place affects its use in other places. With countries heavily dependent on international rivers, the issue of managing water scarcity has many political connotations – states are forced to cooperate with other states because of their common river. However, this cooperation is not always smooth as they tend to be interested in allocating water as an input rather than as an output. The issue of cooperation over international basins poses serious challenges to states’ sovereignty – international basins are a non-state actor which by creating hydrological interdependence between countries, frames environmental, rather than political or legal limits to sovereignty.

Karen Litfin describes sovereignty as comprising three elements: autonomy – the independence to act, control – the ability of states to effect the resources within their boundaries and legitimacy – having the right to make rules. According to her, sovereignty has two interpretations: juridical (Westphalian), where states increase there autonomy and control, whereas their legitimacy remains the same and operational, where states decrease their autonomy and gain higher legitimacy in exchange.

This theory explains how states usually cooperate over international basins. They use both the operational and juridical interpretations. They sign international agreements (operational interpretation), but then they unilaterally build infrastructure (juridical interpretation). The result is often ineffective basin organisations, incapable of creating working cooperation between countries. This happens everywhere – in North America, Europe, Africa, etc. Is there an alternative?

The only international basin cooperation which is organised in a different way is to be found in West Africa. The Senegal River Basin Organisation Member States – Senegal, Mali, Mauritania and Guinea use only the operational interpretation of sovereignty. They established The Senegal River Development Organisation (OMVS) by an international treaty. At the same time, they built common infrastructure, which is owned jointly by all of them. Their cooperation works on the principle of equity, which comprises two elements benefit sharing and burden sharing.

The OMVS countries built two dams – Manantali and Diama, for which they needed huge loans from the World Bank. But unlike the conventional practice, they shared the financial burden of these large loans so that each economy does not carry the full weight of investment. Loans are guaranteed equally by Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea, whereas loan repayment is proportional to the benefits each country derives from the dams.

As far as benefits are concerned, they could be classified according to the famous Sadoff and Grey classification:
• benefits to the river – most of them came as an attempt to mitigate the consequences of big development projects, which decreased the biodiversity of the river, changed the river flow and changed the quality of water;
• benefits from the river – improved electricity and water supply; access to clean water has improved the lives of many but not all people; reduced need to import fuel for Mali, reduced electricity prices, expansion of irrigation, stimulating economic activity, modern farming techniques, allowing growing of off-season crops, better telecommunications by using the infrastructure of the dams to lay transmission lines, which use dual-purpose fiber optic technology. As a result, for instance, Senegal has one of the most modern telephone networks – 80% digital.
• benefits because of the river – avoidance of conflict. In 1989 there was an inter-ethnic conflict between ethnic groups from Senegal and Mauritania caused by a dispute over farming and animal grazing rights with potentially 50,000 people fleeting their homes. In 1990 the OAU (currently the AU) made an unsuccessful attempt to mediate a solution. However in 1991 the two countries worked out a bilateral agreement based on the recognition of their shared interests in the Senegal River.
• benefits beyond the river – enhanced legitimacy and space for regional integration

However, as many will argue, development is not about big project, but about people and the environment. Much of what has been said above was in regard with the horizontal cooperation between states, but what happens on the ground?

Firstly, the Senegal River cooperation is to be treated critically. It is subject to the usual challenges of development such as the elite capture of benefits, environmental degradation and livelihood disruption for the vulnerable. Those who benefited from the new services were only those who could afford access to them and many people still rely on the untreated water drawn directly from the river. However, overall more and more people have access to fresh water as the prices of water are decreasing.

Secondly, there were some social implications because the benefits from the dams privilege particular sectors of the economies over others. However, some attempts are made to alleviate this. For example, there was a dispute between the women making mats and the fishers. The income of the mat makers was heavily dependent on a particular type of grass. It had to achieve a particular length to be suitable for making mats, which depended on the rain falling before the grass area was flooded by the river. The fisher did not want to wait for rain as this was going to shorten the growing season of the fish and reduce their income. Joint solution was reduced through the OMVS expertise – a small amount of water was released to irrigate the grass area and then a flood followed.

Thirdly, the change in the river flow made some people abandon their homes in search of work. But on the other side of the coin, these changes generated new economic activities like ecotourism and market gardening. The OMVS also operates at local level through its local coordination committees. The Global Environmental Facility (GEF) is doubling the number of these committees. Currently the local committees are creating work places for local people to assist surveillance of the river.

It should be noted that the most successful and efficient method of cooperation over international basins can be found not in the ‘First’, but in the ‘Third’ world. It works on the principles of benefit and burden sharing, using the operational interpretation of sovereignty and creating a win-win scenario. The Senegal River cooperation is not a universal model that should be implemented everywhere. It is a practical solution that works in the particular social, economic and cultural context. It does not solve all problems of development, but at least there is a shared vision among the riparians of what development is. The case of the Senegal River countries shows that if there is willingness among countries, a practical solution could always be found and we can efficiently cooperate over international basins.