Past, present and future perspectives


Central Africa rarely experiences problems of water availability, because rainfall is high and generally predictable. However, there is growing competition between user groups, and access to water, particularly in rural areas, is seen as a priority for development. Localized problems of water quality are being raised, especially in coastal areas, where industrial, agricultural and domestic wastewater discharges are high, and where there is an additional threat of saltwater intrusion.


With the exceptions of the deserts of northern Chad and the Sahelian parts of northern Cameroon and central Chad, the central Africa region is well-endowed with water resources. The total annual renewable resources for the region in 2000 were estimated at 1 775 km3/yr (UNDP and others 2000). There were significant variations between countries however, with the DRC having the greatest water resources (935 km3/yr or 18 000 m3/capita/yr), and Chad being the driest country (15 km3/yr or 1961 m3/capita/yr) (UNDP and others 2000). Although water use has been on the increase, water deficit is generally unknown in the region. The Congo River basin is the largest in Africa, covering 12 per cent of the region, and is shared by nine countries. The water resources of this area are vital to support livelihoods and economic development, in particular, by providing irrigation water for the cultivation of cash crops. There is some inter-annual variation in rainfall in Central Africa, where flooding is more common in the humid zone. Only in Chad and northern Cameroon is drought a serious threat, and drought frequency has increased over the past 30 years (IPCC 1998). In 1973, drought killed 100 000 people in the Sahel, and even countries in the humid zone suffered lowered rainfall and reduced crop yields (Gommes and Petrassi 1996).

The Lake Chad basin is a depression of the seven countries grouped around it, forming a freshwater lake (the Conventional Basin), which is shared by Cameroon (9 per cent), Chad (42 per cent), Niger (28 per cent) and Nigeria (21 per cent). Lake Chad is an important source of water and economic activities, including agriculture and fisheries. Satellite images show that the lake has shrunk considerably over the past 30 years, and is now 5 per cent of its former size, due to persistent low rainfall in the region. IPCC predicts reduced rainfall and run-off, and increased desertification, risks in the Sahelian belt (IPCC 2001), which could mean further reductions in the size of the lake. This would threaten the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers in the region, and poses a challenge for IWRM and international cooperation to ensure sustainability of the resource.

Access to freshwater resources in Central Africa

In 1998, the annual withdrawal of freshwater for central Africa was estimated to have been less than 1 per cent of the total available. However, the uneven distribution of water resources, with respect to time and population distribution, has created challenges for water supply. The traditional response to this challenge has been to dam rivers and to distribute water to the people, rather than resettling people closer to water resources. The DRC has 14 dams, Cameroon has nine, and Gabon and Congo each have two. Their main functions are to provide water for domestic consumption, and to provide hydroelectric power, although it is estimated that only half the potential for hydroelectric power is exploited (WRI, UNEP and UNDP 1992). Because of the relatively high reliability of rainfall in this sub-region, irrigation is not always required, and the agricultural sector only consumes 33 per cent of all withdrawals, whereas the domestic sector accounts for more than 50 per cent of all withdrawals (UNDP and others 2000, Shiklomanov 1999). Despite these efforts to provide water to municipalities in central Africa, there are significant shortfalls, for example, in Chad, where only 27 per cent of the population has access to improved water sources (WHO/UNICEF 2000).

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Figure 2e.9: Water use by sector in Central Africa, 1900-2025

Source: Shiklomanov 1999

The reasons for the relatively low access to water in the sub-region include poor economic growth and, thus, low investment in infrastructure development and maintenance, as well as rapid population growth and migration to urban centres. The demand for water for domestic use is predicted to increase fivefold over the next 25 years, due to population growth and increases in per capita consumption (see Figure 2e.9). Significant improvements to the existing infrastructure and supply networks are thus required, in order to improve access to potable water over the next 20-30 years. Increasing demand from other sectors is also expected, as agricultural and industrial developments expand to meet economic growth imperatives.

Improving availability and access to freshwater resources in Central Africa

The increases in demand for water in central Africa are unlikely to lead to conditions of water stress or water scarcity, because the estimated withdrawals are still small compared to the available resources. However, reductions in rainfall related to climate change are expected in parts of northern Cameroon and Chad, and this will exacerbate already inadequate water supply systems. Therefore, localized problems of water supply may be exacerbated. In addition, further studies are required to investigate the ecological consequences of damming rivers, diverting flows and abstracting water, before ecologically and socially acceptable standards can be established.

Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria formed the Lake Chad Basin Commission in 1964, and were later joined by Central African Republic in 1999. The objective of the Lake Chad Basin Commission is to ensure the most rational use of water, land and other natural resources, and to coordinate regional development. In March 1994, the commission approved the Master Plan for the Development and Environmentally Sound Management of the Natural Resources of the Lake Chad Conventional Basin. This document consisted of 36 projects relating to: water resources; agriculture; forestry; biodiversity management livestock; and fishery developments. Funding was made available through the GEF, in order to coordinate these projects by means of: the establishment of joint regulations on the development and use of resources; information collection and sharing; and joint actions and research programmes. An international campaign to save Lake Chad was also launched. In July 2000, the Lake Chad Basin Commission states met, and agreed on a proposal to establish the whole of Lake Chad as a transnational Ramsar site. Other projects agreed to include the development of an Inter-basin Water Transfer Scheme, and strengthening of Joint Patrol Teams (Lake Chad Basin Commission 2000).