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Water and land rights – hand-in-hand for sustainable development

Jerome Koundouno's picture
Jerome Koundouno

The recent Stockholm World Water Week provided plenty of opportunities to explore the links between water and land rights, and the importance of these rights for ensuring sustainable development at both local and national level.

Water and land rights – hand-in-hand for sustainable development

Women smallholders replanting rice in the irrigated area around the Bagré dam in Burkina Faso (Photo: Barbara Adolph/IIED)

This was my second time at World Water Week. As regional coordinator of the Global Water Initiative (GWI) in West Africa, based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, I travelled to Stockholm with colleagues from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and partners from Mali and Senegal.

'Water for development', the theme that set the scene for this year's conference, made the link with two big events on development and climate: the sustainable development summit taking place in New York in late September and the United Nations climate change conference in Paris (COP21) in December.

As a result, many of the sessions and workshops were about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how to ensure water is thoroughly integrated into the expected climate agreement.

This year's theme fitted particularly well with our GWI work in West Africa on how to make large water infrastructure – especially dams and irrigation schemes – better in terms of benefit sharing and food security for local people.

We presented a side event 'Towards economically viable and socially just dams in West Africa' in collaboration with representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale (IPAR, a Senegalese think tank) and local communities of the Niger River Basin.

We also contributed to the workshop 'Water as a driver for sustainable development and poverty eradication', which focused on water and land rights. One of our main messages based on lessons learnt was that if governments want to build large multi-purpose dams to meet energy and irrigation objectives for the country, as they do, then they have to ensure proper conditions for sustainable development at every level.

No national without local

This means that we cannot talk about national development without talking about local development, and we cannot talk about macro-economic performance without paying attention to the rights of local communities over natural resources.

Our message included solutions, based on experience from, for example, the Kandadji dam in Niger, which shows that to succeed in meeting national development needs, it is necessary to invest in and foster local development.

During the week, the High Level Panel of Experts on Food security and Nutrition presented its latest report entitled 'Water for food security and nutrition'. One of the recommendations is on promoting a rights-based approach to water for food security and nutrition. Here we are, talking about rights again.

The right to food was referred to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the human right to water recognised in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly.

Both are fundamental and bring many challenges if we go back to the needs of food security and sustainable livelihoods for smallholder farmers in large irrigation schemes in West Africa: can we talk about rights to water and food without these farmers having secure land rights over the plots they grow?

The rights-based approach discussed in the session I attended reinforces the need to advocate for protected and secure land rights of smallholder farmers through innovative legal approaches and tools.

Investment impacts

The conference's Africa focus day was also very interesting with the sessions hosted by the African Ministers' Council on Water (AMCOW). Especially the one on investments in agricultural lands and water security in which the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) presented its research on the impacts of large scale investments in agriculture on water resources, ecosystems and livelihoods in Sub Saharan Africa – followed by the high level ministerial panel.

The IWMI study highlighted the need to improve coordination of land, water and environmental policies. I agree, particularly if we look again at the reality on the ground in large scale irrigation schemes or rice production in West Africa. The Fomi dam example on the Niger River in Guinea – which aims to provide irrigation downstream in Mali, but with strong environmental and social impacts on the Niger Inner Delta – is a good case to illustrate the necessity of inter-sectoral coordination.

This was the opportunity to highlight the need for complementarity and coherence in water and land governance and rights, to achieve sustainable irrigated agriculture for local communities while safeguarding the environment.

Incidentally, the ministerial session also gave us the opportunity to get in touch with the Senegalese minister for water. He is the current president of the ECOWAS water coordination committee in charge of leading the next Water Minister Council to adopt the ECOWAS directive on large water infrastructure. An important meeting that we, as IUCN, IIED and GWI, are supporting given that this directive is the output of a long regional dialogue process promoting better infrastructure.

As I said, Stockholm provided many opportunities!

Jérôme Koundouno (jerome.koundouno@iucn.org) is regional coordinator of GWI West Africa. This blog was originally posted by IUCN.