Nigeria has failed to plan for how to stem the dreadful pollution in its oil-producing Delta region or to prevent desertification tearing at the fabric of its dry Muslim north.” -- “Drying up and flooding out.” The Economist, 12 May 2007

JOS, PLATEAU STATE, NIGERIA – At a meeting to plan, harmonize and validate a draft water charter, an official stood up and objected to a certain minor clause which, to him, seemed unnecessary and tedious. 

He was shouted down by 86 other stakeholders who insisted they knew what they needed, not him, thank you very much. He sat down. The clause remained.

How could the balance of power shift so quickly without an election? How did an assembly consisting mostly of local laypersons know and unite over something the expert national authority did not? For the answer one must page back several years to when confusion and conflict reigned over the river.

At the time the Bauchi State government planned to build Kafin Zaki Dam. Kano State wanted to expand its irrigation project to 22,000 hectares of land. Jigawa State began building a processing factory for vast sugar cane fields that it soon would plant. Erosion and pollution were plaguing Plateau State. Borno State was on the verge of collapse.

Despite hundreds of engineers involved, said one observer, “they all neglected to consult each other.” And not one knew where they would find the clear water its people needed. Tensions rose. Violent fights broke out within and between the states. 

Soon all projects were on hold, until someone or something could illuminate the darkness. 

Information and knowledge can lower conflict and conserve nature,” argued Dr. Muslim Idris, chairman of the KYB IWRM Committee. “A comprehensive, interstate water audit set out to clearly identify what you have and what you need, over a period of time, and this becomes the basic issue – the starting point for negotiations.” 

But Dr. Idris cautioned that in order to work, the audit must be shared widely and transparently, not hoarded at the top.  Previously, baseline data – where it existed at all – was full of holes; some states had no data, or kept it locked in files at state capitals. 

You can’t share what you don’t know,” said Idris. “If the audit had not been given to all stakeholders, everyone would still be doing their own thing at every level. We had to get to the point where other states were as comfortable as you. With basic information, all is clear. Everyone can manage his resources according to what is available.

For example. Hadeija had more than enough water gathering in the wrong places and not going where it used to before. Through an audit the officials along with those upstream and down could better understand the problem, and how to solve it themselves. 

Armed with information from the audit,” said Idris, “the groups of fishermen, farmers, cattle herders, women etc. come back as an integrated community to use knowledge. What info is passed to them will help them achieve their objectives.

Elsewhere, the audit helped kill the irrigation expansion, “since there was no water for it” said Engr. Ibrahim of the HJRBDA. Likewise the sugar cane factory, “which became a ‘white elephant’.” Conversely, the audit gave more authority to Kafin Zaki Dam, but scaled it back in size and style of operations to better mimic the river’s natural flow. And the two other dams would be operated in a more responsive manner to conserve the downstream ecosystem.

A comprehensive, basin-wide water audit was expensive. It was tedious. It consumed many months and many meetings. “But the investments pay off over a long time,” said Idris. “Even though basic information comes to the surface eventually. We see more things, understand better. See the progress as it comes to light.”

There is also more trust, so necessary for cooperation; with everything open to all, there are no secrets or cause to suspect motives. A larger network, of even (or especially) illiterate water users, can use the baseline of information to discuss and debate various options and come up with shared solutions.

I feel like this better informed need to know from Tiga Dam to Lake Chad is giving us peace because everyone understands what is involved,” concluded Idris. “Everyone is knowing what they have, and need.”
Written by Jamie Workman