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Water management in Rwanda: integrate, before it’s too late

For developing countries and megacities, the accessibility and quality of their water supply will govern their ability to raise the living standards of citizens. Global phenomena such as population explosion, climate change and urbanisation are making the provision of clean water and effective sanitation all the more challenging.

There’s still time to turn the tide, but water managers and water users must work together. It’s encouraging to see communities taking responsibility for catchment restoration and sustainable land husbandry, such as by planting trees on terraces and protecting river banks. This is a totally new approach in Rwanda.

Rob Nieuwenhuis

Water Management Specialist

With competition for water intensifying, the need to plan for equitable resources is growing in step. For a young nation like Rwanda, which is targeting middle-income status by 2035, and then high-income status by 2050, an integrated approach to water management will prove critical for achieving their aspirations.

Fast facts

  • Soil erosion costs Rwanda 20-200% of GDP annually
  • Agriculture (largely rain-fed) employs 90% of the work force


With its green hills and valleys, and relatively high average rainfall, Rwanda could be mistaken for a water-rich country. However, precipitation is not evenly distributed over the country. Water infrastructure isn’t sited strategically to address this imbalance, with just 2% of river flow abstracted, and minimal use of ground and spring water.

In addition, climate change contributes to increasingly short and more intense rainy seasons, which brings flooding and then drought. These heavy rains and intensive farming contribute to worrying levels of soil erosion, as well as regular landslides. Rwanda is at risk of becoming a ‘wet desert’ without the topsoil to support the vast majority of its people who rely on the land to survive.

Overall, water availability per capita (on average 670 m3/person/annum) remains low and Rwanda ranks amongst the world’s water-scarce countries. Rwanda is already Africa’s most densely populated country – and numbers are expected to double in the next 20 years. Coupled with increasing urbanisation and economic development, the demand on natural resources is expected to triple by 2040, with a drop in water quality due to increasing pollution.


Water for Growth Rwanda (W4GR) was a four-year, joint Rwanda-Netherlands initiative that supported the Ministry of Environment (MoE) in implementing an integrated approach to water management. The goal was to achieve the three Es: equitable, efficient and environmentally sustainable water resources.

As project managers, Mott MacDonald led the day-to-day work around policy improvement, institutional strengthening, staff capacity building and implementation of selected key investments in sustainable water resources development.

For example, there was previously no governance at the catchment level in Rwanda. We therefore helped to set up four demonstration catchments to pilot governance frameworks, and develop land and water management solutions, which were tailored to their specific contexts.


W4GR has helped the MoE to develop catchment plans for 30% of the country’s surface area, including detailed water allocation plans that are mapped out across different time horizons up to 2050. The ministry now knows exactly how much water can be allocated to irrigation, industry, livestock, domestic water supplies and to the environment. This quantitative information illustrates the looming water scarcity, and the need to revise the irrigation masterplan and policy on food production.

The drive to balance the competing needs of different water users is now at the heart of government policy. We helped to establish the new Water Resources Board, which will manage water allocation to prevent disputes, improve water quality, restore catchment areas, control erosion and plan for floods and droughts.

The board will continue the progress of W4GR in improving cross-sectoral and international relations as a way of minimising conflict. For example, we organised a popular conference during the annual Rwanda Water Week that demonstrated excellent collaboration between donors, NGOs, private sector stakeholders, government ministries and international organisations such as UNESCO.

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