Patricia Kameri-Mbote

IELRC Briefing Paper 2005-1

Stakeholder Participation and Transboundary Waters: The Nile Basin Initiative

Transboundary waters (watercourses that traverse different states) are challenging to manage. States’ interests differ according to their national requirements, and the needs of groups of people within those states can also diverge. These conflicting interests could lead to violence, which could be avoided if states and other basin users cooperatively manage the resource. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which brings together the countries that share the basin, offers some unique lessons on the role of stakeholder participation in encouraging cooperation and preventing conflict.

About 160 million people depend on the Nile Basin, which covers an area of about three million square kilometres in ten countries (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi). Relationships between these countries have traditionally suffered from mutual recriminations, regional conflict, drought, and other problems. Formally established in 1999, NBI brought them together to develop the resources of the Nile for the benefit of all, or, according to its vision statement, "to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from the common Nile basin water resources".

The NBI has established a two-part program to develop the basin in a sustainable and equitable way. First, the Shared Vision Programme helps create an enabling environment for addressing issues such as regional power markets, water resource planning, confidence building and stakeholder participation, socioeconomic development, and benefit sharing. Secondly, the Subsidiary Action Programme involves two specific groups of riparian countries: the Eastern Nile Subsidiary Action Programme (ENSAP), covering Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and Sudan, and the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme (NELSAP), which represents Sudan, Egypt, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These subsidiary action programmes intervene at the inter-basin level to reduce poverty, foster economic development, and increase opportunities for cooperation between riparian countries.

The NBI was developed at a very high political level; building a cooperative framework in a multi-state environment is a fragile process, easily threatened by mistrust, so only national governments were directly involved in the NBI’s development. However, since the inhabitants of a river basin play a critical role in the success of any internationally negotiated management arrangement, interstate negotiations should also include stakeholders beyond the national governments. Basin users’ competing needs should be managed by using local level mechanisms and nationally devised principles, and by eliminating legal and policy conflicts between different states. The Nile Basin Discourse, established by a group of civil society organizations across the basin, seeks to do this by:

  • Promoting a broad-based, open dialogue on development in the Nile Basin;
  • Developing a database of stakeholders;
  • Facilitating interaction between stakeholders;
  • Catalysing national discourses in the 10 riparian countries;
  • Creating space for national discourse on the status of people dependent on the Nile; and
  • Capturing the voices of all stakeholders at national and subnational levels, especially local residents, community-based organizations, and others concerned with poverty, food security, economic and social human rights, and the threats posed by accelerating environmental degradation.

Increasing stakeholder participation through the Nile Basin Discourse will improve the NBI’s effectiveness, but establishing the discourse has not been easy. Governments are still wary of engaging civil society due to the fragile state of cooperation in the basin. Open stakeholder participation raises significant questions; for example, given the open nature of the dialogue and the diverse entities involved, how does one establish an agenda that is not dominated by the interests of powerful groups?

In conclusion, stakeholder participation in the management of transboundary water must be examined in the context of procedural rights, such as those outlined in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration:

  • Access to information by all;
  • Public participation in decision-making;
  • Freedom of association; and
  • Access to justice.

Engendering stakeholder participation in transboundary water management is not a smooth process; it is essentially political and easily captured by interest groups. A management regime must endeavour to engage all stakeholders equally – however expensive that may be – to guarantee success.

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