Trans-boundary water activism: People’s engagement in managing a critical resource

my piece about water activism in Africa with focusing on the Nile basin, released today on Pambazuka special issue ( Activism in Africa).. welcome your comments.

In Africa, water activism is characterized by building collective visions and sharing knowledge and experiences about the resource. But targeting state water policies and agitating for reform does not feature much in the objectives of trans-boundary water organizations. So, to what extent do civil organizations have the power to penetrate decision-making processes and ensure formulation of policies that prioritize the people?


“By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could live under water stress conditions.” (UN-Water, 2013)[1]

“Africa’s rising population is driving demand for water and accelerating the degradation of water resources in many countries on the continent.”(Water for Life Decade, 2014)[2]

The dominant discourse in the international reports and academic literature is that water scarcity feeds water conflict in the continent and the root cause of this conflict is located in the trinity of water-food-energy. The rapid population growth is reflected in the increasing demands for water to irrigate lands and supply necessary food for peoples and to generate required energy to run development projects that carry prosperity for peoples in addition to household usage of water.

So what reports and academia do is to traumatize the increasing of people and treating them as objects that put pressure on natural resources and the disturbance of development ambitions. Definitely, the reality shows miserable living conditions of people in rural and urban areas who cannot access clean water and do not have sanitation facilities; on the other side, farmers and pastoralists suffer from droughts and floods. But the international reports and studies neglect that people are rational and able to manage natural scarcity collectively to survive and to mitigate the problems. So people are not a burden; they are power.

The collective actions of people to counter water scarcity are not limited to the local community; it extends to other communities who they share the resource with. Particularly significant in this contex is the the fact mentioned in the ‘Africa Water Vision for 2025’ (2009, 2-3) that Africa ‘has about one third of the world’s major international water basins and 80 international rivers and lakes basins run in its land’.

This article focuses on the role of people in managing trans-boundary watercourses because such regional activism consolidates the African collectivism. The article starts with conceptual debates in academic studies about civic engagement in water management and its relation to the nature of African civil society that discerns from Western experience. The article then demonstrates that trans-boundary activism contributes in shaping and sustaining collective identities. The final part presents some cases of regional civil organizations in the Nile basin.

Civil society in water politics

The involvement of peoples in trans-boundary water politics has been theorized in two trends: water governance and community-based natural resources management.

The role of civil society in trans-boundary water has been profoundly discussed in the literature of water governance. The engagement of civil society organizations is part of the multilateral scope of governance that considers relevant aspects and actors in water management. However, the ineffectiveness of legal based cooperation among countries drove the international society to formulate ‘action oriented agreements’ that employ activities rather the general principles (Chen, Pernetta, & Duda, 2013: 245). The categories of civil society organizations that may engage in transnational water governance are diverse and can be active on the national, regional and international levels. For instance, the local banking sector and insurance companies are the profit category that provide grants and loans to local communities and organizations to purchase water equipment and facilities. Advocacy organizations and universities networks are another category that plays the role of consultancy for decision makers. Media is a tool of communicating and disseminating information among actors sharing the watercourse. All of these categories can build networks regionally to defend their interests (Dore, Lebel & Molle, 2012: 27-28).

Hydrosolidarity is an approach inside the water governance trend that developed to employ the values of equity and justice in water utilization and to enhance values of shared knowledge. The engagement of people is a critical component to attain water justice and equity. People’s participation in decision making of water policies controls the possible corruption in management and confines the manipulation of water rights by elites. Additionally, it facilitates negotiation and collective management in regional institutions (Varady, Gerlak & Haverland, 2009: 313; 317-318).

Another trend of theorizing civil society engagement in water politics is community-based natural resources management. According to this orientation, water is considered a root source of other natural resources (such as crops, wildlife parks and forestation) that African economies depended on.

There are different causes that lead to adopt the community-based natural resources management. Maximizing economic gains and profits from natural resources is the engine of approaching the community and involving it in management. The assumption of this cause is that community engagement would sustain revenues from natural resources because they would conserve resources. This assumption was first adopted by colonizing settlers and the business sector. Then in the development era, environmentalists and development institutions have reinforced the involvement of the community with the purposes of environment conservation, transferring local knowledge and economic returns (Fabriciusr, 2004: 7-13; 24-25; Leach, Mearns, Scoones: 1999, 225). Aid conditionality that required community involvement in designing and implementing development projects related to natural resources was a pressure on governments to open management circles for the community. Additionally, decentralization enhanced community participation through deputizing local institutions in managing natural resources (Nelson & Agrawal, 2008, 575).

Yet, the pressure to involve civil society in water governance has been oriented by the Western view of the civil society as the third part between the political sphere and private sector. Shivji (2007) claims that African civil society has been defined according to the forces of colonialism and consequently globalization. The separation of politics and society as conceptualized in the West cannot fit within the African context; therefore, civil society is a ‘social space’ not limited to organizations, but one which has become distorted due to state hegemony after independence. Conversely, Wamucii (2014) defined civil society as an integral part of the state structure. During independence, resistance movements such as the Kikuyu Association in Kenya and the Maji Maji movement in Tanzania evolved to combat unfair colonial economic and social policies. Then, after founding the nation state, the peoples’ movements and organizations were incubated by the dominant party structure. With the democratization wave in the late 1980s, the separation of civil society from state structures began to appear with the support of donor agencies. Such activism for pluralism has been accompanied by movements against neoliberal economic policies.

While Ekeh (1975:106-108) considers civil society organizations as part of the public space, he differentiated between two trajectories in African experience. The first genuinely emerged from African civil society, whereby there is no difference between private and public space. This is a primordial public, such as self-help associations based on volunteering and a sense of belonging. The second trajectory is civic public, which was artificially created after colonization, such as trade unions and professional associations, where the private space is separated from the public and the mutual benefits are based on tangible and material interests. Ekah claims from a citizenship perspective that both publics are interconnected due to the belonging of educated individuals to both.

This African debate to contextualize civil society is shadowed when discussing the role of civil society in trans-boundary water governance. The global impacts of environmental problems required global actions; therefore, many of civil society organizations in the water sector heavily depend on foreign aid from donor countries or international governmental organizations. Furthermore, the relation between civil society that work in water issues and the state is significant in the African context because water management used to be a state-centric management because water is a crucial resource for other economic activities. Also, in response to international pressure to involve communities, many African governments have sponsored civil society organizations in order to meet donor conditionality. Accordingly, civil society organizations became part of state structure.

Despite the globalization and nation state dynamics and their power over civil society, activism in public space is a genuine decision taken by individuals who are aware of their problems and want to take actions to encounter them.

Trans-boundary activism and collective identity

The power of civil society lies in its ability to take collective action, which is based on a collective identity. This collective identity is formulated by ‘cultural bonds’ when civil society members share religion, language and customs or by ‘associational bonds’ whereas common interests and objectives propel members to assemble together. Whether the bond is cultural or associational, it provokes civil society members to mobilize their resources and to take actions collectively (Florini, 2004: 17-19).

The collective identity assumption helps in analyzing the role of civil society organizations at regional level. Theoretically, the approach of new regionalism proposes that non-state actors are significant players in establishing collective regional organizations because cultural and societal objectives beside security concerns are the engine of regional cooperation. The complexity of issues and multilateralism induces non-state actors to interact widely and to create different networks to position their interests and to influence regional policies. For example, there are civil society networks founded in Southern Africa to handle the impacts of the debt crisis and structural adjustment policies. Additionally, sometimes the “feeling of community” encourages organizations to construct regional networks (Godsäter and Söderbaum, 2011:149; Söderbaum, 2007: 321;324; 327).

African civil society engagement in trans-boundary water governance

Compared to people’s engagement in water management at local community level, trans-boundary engagement is still limited because it requires advanced facilities and funding. Therefore, donor interventions are observable in funding the transnational activities. Despite donor support, there is interest from African communities to take actions across the borders intended for better water management.

African Water Association is a continental organization that has long history going back to the early 1980s. The organization emphasizes water policies including supplying water and providing sanitation. Its orientation rises from the shortage of rainfall and the rapid population growth and the poor water facilities. It defines its objectives as follows:

AfWA is now the unique lead-representation of the professional organizations in the water and sanitation sector in Africa. The Association is onwards strongly positioned to positively contribute to the sector agenda-setting, policy development, needs identification, promote innovation and new approaches”.

Membership of the association includes organizations that work on providing safe water and sanitation in Africa. And its trans-boundary activities take the form of sharing information and knowledge in addition to experiences in the water sector. Furthermore, as a continental organization, it works on consolidating the relations and partnerships with international governmental organizations such as UN agencies, World Bank and the World Water Council. [3]

On sub-regional level, Southern Africa has witnessed good practice of civil society involvement in water politics. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) between Lesotho and South Africa during 1983-1986 was about constructing dams and tunnels to provide water to one of the water-poor areas in the region and to generate electricity for Lesotho. The Highlands Church and Solidarity Action Group (HCSAG) from Lesotho and the International Rivers Network started advocacy campaigns highlighting the negative social and environmental impacts (Wirkus and Böge 2006:28).

Still, South Africa has active organizations in water governance inside communities and regionally. For example, the African Water Issues Research Unit (AWIRU) is a research-based organization located in the division of Water Institute in the University of Pretoria. The approach of this research unit is that water is an essential component of human security, so its activities tackle water management in inclusive ways that consider economic, environmental, and political aspects. The unit claims that its vision aligns with the objectives of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Regarding the spheres of activities, advocacy and capacity building in water management are the focus of activities that have been conducted with international and regional water organizations such as Global Water Partnership and river basin organizations Volta, Congo, Limpopo and Okavango. [4]

The Nile Basin is considered by academics and policy makers as one of Africa’s potential water conflict areas (Mason, 2004: 1-2; Mahamoda, 2003:9). The current disputes between downstream and upstream countries are usually characterised as legal disputes over the legitimacy of treaties signed during the colonial period, which did not represent the nation states in question. The Nile Basin countries have tackled such disputes by legal and technical means through multilateral arrangements such as: Hydromet project, Undugu, and Tecconile (Adar & Check, 2011: xviii-xix). In these regional arrangements, the nation state, represented by officials and technocrats, was the only actor to set out the rules of the Nile relations. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) is the last cooperative institutional framework which includes all of the basin countries. What makes NBI unique compared to any previous arrangement is that the scope of cooperation has been widened to cover non-water issues. Moreover, it has acknowledged the role of civil society as a stakeholder in governing the affairs of the basin.[5]

The Nile Basin Discourse (NBD) is a network of civil society organizations in the Nile basin. It is supported by NBI with the aim of fostering dialogue and partnership among active civil society organizations in water management and development. Attaining the objectives is through five pillars: 1) advocacy for cooperation in water management and in the related economic and environmental issues; 2) sharing knowledge and information and enhancing communication among different actors involved in the Nile management; 3) affecting national policies by facilitating dialogues; 4) providing technical assistance and studies that help in designing effective water projects; and 5) enhancing partnership with private sector and state bodies.[6] It is worth noting that the slogan of NBD is “One Nile- One Family” that feeds the vision of collective identity among the Nile Basin peoples.

The continuing disputes between the downstream countries, mainly Egypt, and the major upstream country Ethiopia whose highlands produce 80% of the Nile water have stimulated Egyptian civil society to take actions that aim to build mutual trust and encourage common activities.

The Nile Project is one of trans-boundary organizations, launched in 2013. Its vision is: “We inspire, inform, and connect Nile citizens to help them collaborate on cultivating the sustainability of their river”. What is remarkable in the Nile Project activities is the target group which is ordinary people, unlike NBD that works with organizations or individuals who are affiliated to structured organizations. The main activity of the Nile Project is music collaboration among artists from the Nile Basin countries who create together songs representing the culture of the Nile. Then the outcomes of music workshops are disseminated in tours inside and outside the continent besides releasing albums to raise awareness of the Nile culture. Networking with students in the Nile Basin universities is another activity that aims to involve young people in the Nile issues in order to initiate community-based solutions. [7]

The Nile Forum is another initiative started in 2016. It attempts to deconstruct non-political obstacles of cooperation in the Nile Basin. It aims to “create spaces that will enhance points of interaction and therefore the opportunities for collaboration among civil society.” To attain this vision, the Nile Forum holds seed camp in Egypt where activitsts in different fields from the Nile Basin countries, besides experts in water governance, discuss the root causes of latent conflict in the Nile and initiate together possible ways to tackle these at community level.[8] What’s different in the Nile Forum is transcending the dominant discourse of water scarcity and focusing on the social and cultural practices that foster or transform the disputes in the Nile.

Beyond the confrontation between the downstream and upstream countries, there is an example of trans-boundary cooperation at Lake Victoria among Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The East African Communities Organisation for the Management of Lake Victoria Resources (ECOVIC) was established in 1998 and includes 153 member organizations. It aims to conserve and develop the lake with the purpose of sustaining it as a source of fishing, tourism and hydropower. The functions of ECOVIC include raising awareness of local communities about the challenges in managing the lake basin; involving community organizations in decision making and improving fishing industry in the lake in a sustainable manner (Obiero Ong’ang’a & Stephen Kabuye, 2002).


The aforementioned cases show that building collective vision and sharing knowledge and experiences are the core of activities of water activism. However, targeting states’ water policies in terms of monitoring or reforming or changing the applied policies is not manifested in the mission or objectives of trans-boundary organizations. This raises the question of pluralism inside the African political systems; in other words, to what extent civil organizations have power to penetrate decision-making process and to formulate policies considering the needs and preferences of local communities?

Another challenge that may hinder the activism of trans-boundary organizations is are the communities themselves. In spite of inspiration of collective identity and actions, the community is not a homogeneous unit that has no conflicts of interests and preferences so that its engagement leads inevitably to better outcomes. The community consists of various groups according to disparities of age, gender, religion, ethnicity or tribe and economic status (Leach, Mearns, & Scoones, 1999: 230; Kumar 2005: 281; Fabriciusr, 2004: 22). Consequently, creating consensus inside the community and with other communities that share the watercourse is a long process.

*Abeer Abazeed is assistant lecturer of political science in the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University. She is conducting her PhD research at Leiden University in Netherlands on civic engagement in the Nile politics.


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Chen, Sulan, Pernetta, John C., & Duda, Alfred M. (2013). ‘Towards a New Paradigm for Transboundary Water Governance: Implementing Regional Frameworks Through Local Actions. Ocean & Coastal Management, 85PB, 244-256.

Dore, Lebel, & Molle. (2012). A Framework for Analysing Transboundary Water Governance Complexes: Illustrated in the Mekong Region. Journal of Hydrology, 466-467, 23-36.

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Fabriciusr, C., et al.(2004). Rights, Resources and Rural Development: Community-based Natural Resource Management in Southern Africa. UK: Earthscan

Florini, Ann M. (2004). ‘Who Does What? Collective Action and the Changing Nature of Authority’ in Bieler, A., Higgott, R., & Underhill, G. (eds.). Non-State Actors and Authority in the Global System. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. pp.15-31

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Kumar, Chetan. (2005). ‘Revisiting ‘community’ in Community-based Natural Resource Management. Community Development. 40 (3): 275-285.

Leach, Mearns, & Scoones. (1999). ‘Environmental Entitlements: Dynamics and Institutions in Community-Based Natural Resource Management’. World Development, 27(2), 225-247.

Mahamoda, Dahlin Yassin. (2003). “Nile Basin Cooperation: A review of literature”. Current African Issues, No. 26. Sweden: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.

Mason, S.A., (2004). From Conflict to Cooperation in the Nile Basin: Interaction Between Water Availability, Water Management in Egypt and Sudan and International Relations in the Eastern Nile Basin. Thesis (PhD), Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Berne, Switzerland.

Nelson, F., & Agrawal, A. (2008). ‘Patronage or Participation? Community‐based Natural Resource Management Reform in Sub‐Saharan Africa’. Development and Change, 39(4), 557-585.

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Shivji, Issa. G. (2007).  Silences in NGO discourse: The Role and Future of NGOS in Africa. Fahamu.

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