ECOWAS water ministers agree to build fairer dams

The 15 countries that make up the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) have approved a proposal for a directive on large water infrastructure which would ensure future developments – particularly large dams – respect the environment and benefit all, including affected populations.

News, 16 December 2015
Global Water Initiative – West Africa
The Global Water Initiative sought to improve global food security by enabling farmers to better access, manage and use water resources for sustainable agricultural production
Delegates at the 4th Session of the Ministerial Monitoring Committee of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in West Africa (Photo: GWI West Africa)

Delegates at the 4th Session of the Ministerial Monitoring Committee of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in West Africa (Photo: GWI West Africa)

"The stated aim of the directive is to 'ensure better consideration of environmental, economic and social considerations' in the development of cross-border hydraulic infrastructure projects in West Africa in order to ensure their sustainability." says Mahamane Dédéou Touré from the ECOWAS Water Resources Coordination Unit.

In approving it, the region's governments reaffirm their commitment to a shared and common approach to sustainable management of the water resources their populations rely on to survive.

In the context of climate change, energy and food production were high on the international agenda in Paris at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21). They are also often the driving force behind the national and regional focus on costly and complex dam and irrigation projects – West Africa is already home to 150 dams and there are 40 more in planning or construction. 

But a look at past experiences in the region reveals that the benefits generated by dams rarely reach local people whose rights and livelihoods are most directly affected.

At Kandadji in Niger and at Samendéni in Burkina Faso, 38,000 and 40,000 people respectively are being displaced by the dams under construction. In Guinea, the Fomi dam will displace 48,000 people. Communities who host those displaced are also greatly affected. 

Jamie Skinner, director of the Global Water Initiative in West Africa, says: "If implemented, the directive will mark a tidal shift in the way dams are designed and built in West Africa, ensuring that both local and national populations share equitably in the benefits." 

Key elements of the directive include the need to ensure the informed participation of affected populations in decision-making as well as the use of stronger legal and procedural frameworks to grant local populations benefits such as agricultural land, electricity, drinking water, pasture and fisheries. 

Following the water ministers' approval, the directive will now need to be officially adopted by the ECOWAS Council of Ministers for it to be applied to its member states. States will then need to amend or adapt legislative, regulatory and other measures, where necessary, within three years from its entry into force. The ECOWAS will be responsible for evaluating the directive's implementation every five years. 

If governments and investors do not respect the directive, they risk driving those affected into deeper poverty or worse, sparking more conflict over land and natural resources. The risk of conflict is not restricted to national boundaries – most large infrastructure developments on West Africa's rivers will affect more than one country. The role of transboundary basin organisations – such as the Niger River Basin Authority – are therefore recognised as highly important. 

The directive was officially approved at the 4th ECOWAS session of the ministerial monitoring committee for integrated water resources management (IWRM) in West Africa, held in Dakar, Senegal, on 27 November 2015, and chaired by Senegal's ministry for water.

It is based on the 'Guidelines for the development of water infrastructure in West Africa' developed through a two-year regional dialogue between member states, basin organisations and civil society that began in 2009, led by the ECOWAS Water Resources Coordination Unit, with the support of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and IIED. 

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Notes to editors

The 4th Session of the Ministerial Monitoring Committee of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in West Africa was preceded by the 10th Session of the Technical Expert Committee which took place on 24-25 November. The meetings were hosted by Senegal's Ministry of Water and organised by the ECOWAS Water Resources Coordination Unit, IUCN and IIED. Funding has been provided by the ECOWAS Commission, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation through the Global Water Initiative (GWI) in West Africa, UK Aid (DFID) and the Swedish International Cooperation Agency (SIDA) through the PAGE Programme of IUCN.

For more information on the Global Water Initiative (GWI) in West Africa visit the GWI West Africa website