Africa: Interview With David Grey of the World Bank

Addis Ababa — David Grey is head of global water resources at the World Bank. Speaking after a key meeting in Addis Ababa at which African ministers dicussed the equitable utilisation of their shared rivers to avoid future conflict, he tells IRIN of the crucial need for Africa to tap its enormous water potential, overcome funding shortfalls and surmount other obstacles such as the inevitable suspicion that exists in jointly harnessing the rivers.

How much will water utilization contribute to Africa?

When we think about benefits we look at four different types - the first is the benefits to the river, making it a critical environmental asset, the biodiversity. The second are the direct economic benefits through cooperation - optimizing power production, food production, and industrial production. The third is reducing the political costs if you like - reducing the tensions between states. A policy of food self-sufficiency means you don't trade in food - you want to grow it all. A policy of food security means you are prepared to trade. And the same with power. Self-sufficiency is often massively sub optimal, massively inefficient. The fourth is the benefits that can be derived from beyond the river: greater trade, greater opportunity and making friends - cooperating. This is the dream.

Why are African countries finding it so hard to cooperate on water utilization?

I think we are seeing extraordinary things in Africa. Let's remember this is a continent that is divided by lines drawn on maps in London, Paris and Berlin etc. Given there was no account taken of ethnic and other divides like hydrologic, geographic divides, Africa is making remarkable strides in dealing with the fact there are sixty international river basins in Africa, more basins per country, more countries per basin than any other continent. This is not a problem particular to Africa - this is a global issue.

Nevertheless there is still suspicion between the countries isn't there?

I would argue that in the 260 river basins across the planet that are shared by more than one state there are tensions in every single one of them, without exception, to a greater or lesser extent. In some cases it is so small you wouldn't see it and some cases very large indeed. So there is suspicion between all states that share river basins without exception, including in Africa.

Is there a point where you can't satisfy the demands of both or three of four countries?

There might be but, at the same time, if that is the case there stands to be a loss where everybody loses, and those countries, as the demands grow on a river, recognizing the need for optimization across the river basin and finding ways to share the benefits of optimal production is the way forward. This was the basic principal of the European Union at the end of the Second World War.

Are there any clear examples on the Zambezi, the Senegal or the Nile where cooperation has worked?

Cooperation right now in the Senegal, the Mantanali dam in Mali, which is 300 kilometers inside Mali and co-owned by Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. They have agreements over releases, flood recession and agriculture and environmental assets. This is an exception case of an institution of three governments that has extraordinary principles - principles of indivisibility and perpetuity, solidarity and the management of the river and many instruments built into the agreement that promote that.

Is the World Bank prepared to fund schemes in Africa?

There is no question that the World Bank is prepared to fund sensible development between states and within states in Africa, no question whatsoever. But clearly this has to fit within the priorities of the governments and those priorities that are stated in their poverty-reduction strategies. The World Bank would actively promote cooperation on rivers because we believe that this will result in the least cost development of many commodities like agriculture products, joint protection of environmental assets, cross-border parks and power generation and trade.

It is much more sensible to meet demands for food and power through security rather than self-sufficiency, and security means interconnections between states - open borders and mobility of commodities. In some of the river basins it's fair to say that nothing much flows between the countries except the river; no labour, no telecommunications, no industrial products.

Why do ministers say that funding is the main obstacle?

Funding is hard to access. Funding from the World Bank will respond to priorities stated by governments. I was recently in a meeting with water ministers and all were saying funding is very hard to access, but it transpired during the discussions of the 40 ministers in the room, only nine of them had water as a priority in their poverty-reduction strategies.

Now unless these water ministers can persuade the finance ministers that water is a priority then they are not going to get any funding. This is a competition. I often wish in the World Bank that I had a bigger budget but I compete with my colleagues from health and education and name a government that doesn't have financial constraints for public sector investment and name a minister and a government anywhere in the world that doesn't complain he is not getting enough.

And what is the money on the table from the World Bank for these countries?

The money at this stage is for project preparation, projects under preparation and at the relatively early stages. There is a whole set of intensive activities underway now to identify joint development opportunities. Money will not be on the table until the projects have been defined in detail, but the scale of these projects is likely to be in the order of perhaps US$3 billion and that sort of financing will be put together by a range of different financiers, including the World Bank.

If financing for these projects is not forthcoming then the projects fail?

It is absolutely critically important that the finances are identified to support the joint developments that the countries in the basins of Africa identify because to develop the institutions and the legal frameworks and the hopes and aspirations and for there not to be the investment to support the realization of those dreams would be disastrous.

Would you say it's been most difficult to get the countries of the eastern Nile to cooperate?

I would say that the countries of the eastern Nile have had the most to resolve in terms of past differences but the most to gain from the resolution of those differences. So I would say that whilst the difficulties have been great the incentives to resolve the difficulties are greater.

Is there a fear that there could be conflict as countries seek to harness water resources?

I would argue that there are very few cases of conflicts between states where you could identify any particular cause of the conflict. I would argue that where countries share rivers that the transboundary river can be one part, either very small or a very significant part, of a dispute between states. I don't believe and it is very rare in history to see a cause of a conflict has been just about water, but I do believe that water has been a significant part of many disputes. There are on-going disputes in the Nile basin and there may be again in the future and water at the community level is the cause of local-level disputes and even deaths. In the Nile I think there is too much at stake and too much to gain from cooperation and too much to lose from disputes.

So while you might get governments to agree it is more of a challenge to get people on the ground to support this?

I think there is a point that a very wide range of stakeholders need over time to understand the potentials, the opportunities and the hopes. It is hard to understand when you are a farmer in Rwanda that you are a part of a community of interest that is the Nile. And you are a farmer in Egypt and you are part of the same community of interest as that farmer in Rwanda. The challenge is to strengthen and build that.

But if a farmer in Rwanda takes more water out of the Nile doesn't that mean less for the farmer in Egypt?

The wonderful logic of geography is that the farmer in Rwanda needs investment to protect watersheds, to have electricity, to have schools and clinics but Rwanda is quite wet. There is plenty of water in Rwanda. The Nile is a very good case in point where people in the headwaters desperately need development and investment, but don't necessarily need huge amounts of water.

So upstream in Rwanda there needs to be better management of the water?

But who is going to pay for that? If Rwanda is to invest in protecting the watersheds and stopping erosion, re-foresting and protecting parks, who then should pay? Because every dollar a farmer invests, maybe he gets ten percent of benefit and 90 percent of benefit flows downstream. So [it's a matter of] developing the structures within which benefits can be shared so that the farmers in Rwanda benefit from conserving the watershed and that water is generating power and producing food for people downstream - and this is the same story for Guinea on the Senegal. How do the poor people in Guinea benefit from downstream development?

So how far away are we from any of these projects where countries agree to invest jointly so that everyone benefits?

Well I hope we will have the first projects ready to go in two years. Possibly less than two years but this sort of projects, the scale, needs a great deal of time. The consultation processes, the environmental assessments, social involvement, participation of stakeholders. This can't be done overnight, it takes time. But it is very clear the sooner the benefits can be realised the greater the commitment of cooperation.

How much can Ethiopia benefit from cooperation with neighbours over the Nile?

Massively. What I am hearing from here in Ethiopia from very senior figures is that this can be transformational. It can transform the economy over time because it means opening up borders.

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