The Human Right to water in international river basin agreements - Good practices from the Senegal and Niger river basins
Aline Baillat, Mara Tignino, Helene Boussard, Makane Mbengue, Komlan Sangbana
WaterLex and International Water Law Platform, University of Geneva
The Senegal River crosses Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. The river basin extends over 337, 500 km² and has a population of around 3,500,000 inhabitants (16% of the total populations of these states). The Niger River is the longest river in Western Africa (4,200 km). Its drainage area extends over 2,000,000 km² and runs through Mali and Niger, on the border with Benin, and then through Nigeria. Its river basin include: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Nigeria. Yet Algeria is not currently a member of the Niger Basin Authority (NBA).
The Senegal River has a long history of water cooperation among the basin states (dating back to the colonial times) and some 13 international agreements have been signed. A milestone in this history was the creation in 1972 of the Organisation de la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal (OMVS) whereas the basin countries were experiencing the worst drought in decades. A unique element of this cooperation is the shared property of the dams that were constructed along the river. Despite a good level of cooperation and the existence of institutional arrangements, riparian states still face many challenges due to climate change, poverty and mitigation of environmental and human impacts of the dams (public health). A first rudimentary international body charged with promoting the cooperation in the Niger basin was developed during the 1950s. Over the years, several entities succeeded and in 1980 the Authority for the Basin of Niger (ABN) was established. Though for a long time the activities of the ABN stalled, from the end of the 1990s the ABN has pursued the concept of integrated water resources management (IWRM). In this context, the ABN has developed specific features putting in place a new normative and institutional framework in order to adapt itself to the challenges of the economic development of basin states. The experience of the ABN is an example of how to re-build a river basin organization in order to ensure a better transboundary cooperation benefiting the populations of the basin.
  • effective and successful
  • sustainable
  • inherently participatory
  • replicable and adaptable
The integration of the human right to water in transboundary agreements is a key element that has the potential to contribute to better cooperation over shared water resources. In the Senegal River Basin, this has been illustrated by the adoption of various accompanying measures re-focussing OMVS activities on basin populations needs (access to safe drinking water, poverty reduction, electrification, public health). The Niger Basin States adopted in 2008 the Charter of the Waters of the Niger River, which also integrate the human right to water. As a consequence, the Charter provides concrete rules for ‘public participation’ of local population in river basin decision-making. The introduction of the human right to water in international waters agreements is a noteworthy development that deserves to be highlighted even though concrete outcomes are difficult to measure for the time being. The human right to water has a potential to improve the state of cooperation over transboundary waters by re-focusing river basin development in the interest of the populations, with greater attention to the most vulnerable. The human right to water provides a framework for states to cooperate to protect shared water resources as sources of drinking water. The integration of the human right to water into international agreements creates also the conditions for adequate participatory decision-making in river basin management.
  • legal and institutional aspects
  • involvement of non-state stakeholders
  • other
It is noteworthy to underline that drought and water scarcity were among the factors that led to significant advances in the level of cooperation among the Senegal basin states (1972 creation of OMVS). External funding and shared interests are also among the factors to be taken into account (hydroelectricity, irrigation). However, the cooperation resulted in poor outcomes for the environment and the basin populations. It is in order to reform the water management of the Senegal River basin that the Waters Charter was negotiated in 2002. The integration of the human right to water of local population in the Charter is a central element of this reform, which has not yet been highlighted in the literature. Environmental degradation of water resources, increasing needs in food and energy as well as economic development of basin states are among the factors that encouraged transboundary cooperation in the Niger basin. The Charter of the Niger River Basin adopted in 2008 attempts to deal with these challenges, placing emphasis on human needs and the promotion of the role of non-state actors. However, the practical modalities of this implication should be still put into place at the level of the basin.
M. M. Mbengue. 2005. ‘Le Statut du fleuve Sénégal : Visages actuels’, in L. Boisson de Chazournes, Salman M. A. Salman (eds.), Water Resources and International Law - Les ressources en eau et le droit international, Hague Academy of International Law , Nijhoff, Leiden/Boston, 2005, pp. 473-532. K. Sangbana. 2011. ‘La gestion intégrée des ressources en eaux partagées et les organismes de bassin en Afrique: le Cas de l’Autorité du Bassin du Niger et de l’Autorité du Bassin de la Volta’, Actes du colloque de la Société française pour le droit international, Paris, Pedone, 2011, pp.235-244. UNESCO-WWAP 2003.The Senegal River Basin, in Water for People, Water for Life, World Water Development Report 1. WaterLex. 2012. Declaration on International Water Law Commitments derived from Human Rights Obligations, available at: 212-waterlawdeclaration Websites: