|Scarcity of water is particularly acute in East Africa, where a number of factors have converged to deny many in the region access to clean water and sanitation. These challenges are compounded by the fact that millions in East Africa rely on the water resources coming from transboundary watercourses, the most evident example being the Nile, which has eleven basin countries. The necessity for cooperation between states over their shared water resources is therefore high.Yet persisting conflicts over the use, development and protection of transboudary resources could adversely affect the livelihoods and well-being of local communities in the region. These conflicts endure for reasons related to the current situation prevalent most East African countries, including poverty, political instability, the pressure on environmental resources put by population growth, which combine to create a context of mistrust and make cooperation the more difficult. The vestiges of colonial treaties have led to a situation in which fair and effective legal and institutional frameworks concerning the governance of shared watercourses are virtually non-existent.
Nonetheless, significant development has been made in recent years to establish basin-wide cooperation schemes in East Africa, although institutional and legal coordination remains a gradual process. This is particularly the case in the Nile, whose basin countries are negotiating to replace colonial-era treaties with the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), a basin-wide multidisciplinary legal and institutional treaty which promotes the use and development of the Nile that follows the principles set out in the UN Watercourses Convention (UNWC).
The CFA, which is an element of the broader Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), draws much from the UNWC’ provisions and principles, and the two legal instruments are similar in many ways: the CFA’s provisions regarding scope, substantive content, obligations with regards to planned measures, and dispute settlement are closely aligned with that of the UNWC. By acting as a model treaty, the global treaty has played a significant role in bringing about the drafting of the CFA.
East African countries are very divided over entry into force of the UNWC, and there are many divergent positions between states on the value of the Convention. Yet adoption of the UNWC by East African countries could have many benefits for the region’s international rivers. The Convention has the potential to forge closer collaboration between states; lead to the harmonization of domestic legislation; create an atmosphere of trust and lead to improved relations; and contribute to the development and codification of international water law.
The UNWC Global Initiative in East Africa is campaigning for for the Convention’s entry into force and effective implementation. Workshops and conferences are being organized across the region to raise awareness and deepen understanding of the UNWC, in the hopes of garnering support for the Convention’s entry into force.