The sixth Nile Basin Development Forum (NBDF) was successfully held between February and May 2021, despite the travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The largely virtual event held in the form of online webinars attracted 824 participants from 55 countries around the world under the theme: “Rethinking regional investments in the Nile Basin: Water, Energy, Food, Environment and Climate Change.”
Dr. Michael Kizza, the by then newly appointed NBI Deputy Executive Director, which convenes the tri-annual science dialogue, spoke with The Nile’s Henry Lutaaya about the forum:
The Niles: Why did NBI choose the theme “Rethinking regional investments in the Nile Basin”?
Michael Kizza: NBI is an inter-governmental organisation set up by ten member countries that share the Nile Basin to promote equitable utilisation of water resources.
When NBI was set up way back in 1999, one of the main objectives was to promote cooperation on the Nile Basin water issues.
Secondly, it was established to support water resources management and, thirdly, to support water resources development.
Countries take the issue of development very seriously. As you know, the Nile Basin is composed of countries that are still in their developmental stage and therefore have many challenges that border around high poverty levels and growing demand for social services.
The basin is also a very complicated area to the extent that only a part of it receives heavy rainfall. The other half receives very little rainfall, yet those who receive little rainfall sometimes suffer from flooding.
You want to ensure that everyone is happy.”
Even among those that receive a lot of rainfall, all the water goes away during the rainy season and experience water shortages during the dry spell.
These natural challenges have been complicated by two key general problems to the Nile Basin; very high population growth rates coupled with economic growth. The combination of high population growth and economic growth means that the demand for water, food, energy is growing much faster. Yet, the water resources that are needed to meet this growing demand are not expanding.
Secondly, the challenges are regional in nature. The challenges you have in Uganda do not stop at the border – they are transboundary in nature. If each country tries to solve its own problems, it will not result in the best solutions.
If, for example, Uganda tried to reclaim wetlands to settle or feed its growing population, it would not only negatively affect the regional climate but it will also undermine the quality of the water reaching downstream countries since wetlands play a critical role in water purification.
Out of the recognition of the need to promote cooperation and collaboration, NBI was tasked by its governing organs – the Nile Council of Ministers and the Nile Technical Advisory Committee – to promote investments in water resources infrastructure and promote the understanding of the importance of transboundary investments.
NBI has done a very good job over the years in ushering in transboundary cooperation by creating an environment where countries can talk to each other rather than quarrel.
The next step is to ensure that you use the resources equitably and sustainably. You want to ensure that everyone is happy without compromising the needs of future generations.
Therefore, the primary role of NBDF has been to bring together all the people who are dealing with water resources to talk about them.
Because the NBDF brings updated information, it provides policymakers and the scientific community with a vital platform to share information on what is happening.
We, therefore, wanted to use the 6th NBDF to know what is happening in the different member states regarding investments, but also for us to report on what we have been doing regarding the area of investments since the last NBDF.
In this regard, the theme of rethinking investments was meant to ensure that we remain focused on the urgent challenges facing the region and evaluate our performance against the ideas for which NBI was established.
There was a feeling that we have been carrying out investments ever since NBI was established 22 years ago. But while we have achieved many things over the years, if anything, the problem has grown bigger.
For example, the water demand is rising as the population is expanding. The economies are expanding and therefore need more and more water, energy, and construction materials, some of which depend on the river’s life.
We wanted to find solutions to some of these challenges.
TN: Why are some of the investments not moving very fast?
MK: Why are the problems growing bigger despite the efforts of the countries and all other regional players? How can we become more efficient and leverage resources to ensure that we invest in more sectors that benefit the people?
The rethinking part was not to say that what we have been doing is not good but rather that we can find more efficient ways of using our investments.
TN: Following the dialogue, what are the critical areas of investments that emerged?
MK: The critical areas of investment are very many, but for me, they are founded on a number of realities or facts. Fortunately, these have been captured in NBI’s six strategic goals, which are:
The challenge posed by rapid population growth and economic growth is causing exponential growth in demand for water. With economic growth, water usage and energy per person is higher for richer people than for poor people.
For example, when you’re planning for a water system in the face of a rising population and rising incomes, you have to consider the fact that richer people use more water.
You also have to prepare for ways to clean up the environment. As you may, know rivers that pass through urban areas or highly populated areas tend to be more polluted because they are usually dumping grounds for the people who live along those rivers.
So, some of the discussions were, for example, about what does science say about the impact of different economic activities in wetlands.
How can we produce more food to feed a bigger, richer population more efficiently by using the same amount or even less water than we’re using today?
Climate change is making the existing problems much worse.”
On food security, some of the emerging proposals include, for example, how can countries collaborate to invest in the production of more food more efficiently?
Studies indicate that if everyone developed their irrigation plans without due consideration of available water, we would have a very big water shortage before 2050. This justifies why we need to plan together, but also it means that we have to look for more efficient ways of producing more food with less water.
Energy security is one of the strategic goals of the NBI. We had numerous discussions about how we could advance the region’s hydropower agenda.
Can countries come together to finance joint projects in their energy sector? This is actually what we mean by sharing benefits as opposed to sharing the resources.
Sharing benefits speaks to the need to focus on getting the best from the resources instead of sharing the resource.
It speaks to the need to exploit the resources considering the needs of others as opposed to competing over the same resource when each country undertakes individual projects.
TN: How have new challenges such as climate change impacted the NBI agenda on investments?
MK: Climate change is making the existing problems much worse, causing recurrent droughts and floods. An increase in temperature is compounding the already serious challenge of decreasing water levels or the worsening quality of the water in the rivers and lakes.
But when you work together, because you’re dealing with problems beyond each and everyone, you can manage it and ensure that it’s handled better. Otherwise, working alone will likely worsen the problem as everyone tries to compete for the same resource.
TN: What sorts of investments or changes are needed to address the increasingly complex challenges on the governance front?
MK: Governance requires political will and the need to invest time in appreciating the challenges of other countries. By design, cooperation involves a process of giving and taking.