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Locals and volunteers working to dig as part of the Upper Nyabarongo catchment rehabilitation project

Integration is the answer to Rwanda’s vulnerable water resources

Water management specialist Rob Nieuwenhuis sheds light on the escalating water problems that threaten to disrupt Rwanda’s economic growth. But it’s not too late. An integrated approach to water resource management can reverse the tide.

With its green mountains and strong-flowing rivers, Rwanda certainly feels like a water-rich nation. Rainfall is high compared with many other African countries, feeding the hillside and valley agriculture that employs 90% of its inhabitants.

Yet, Rwanda ranks amongst the world’s water-scarce countries. This is already Africa’s most densely populated country, and the population is set to double in the next 20 years. Coupled with rapid economic development, the pressure on natural resources will more than triple in that same time period, putting the country at risk of severe water stress and decreased water quality due to increasing pollution.

Climate change is another real and growing concern. In the dry season, drought is causing harvests to fail and cattle to die. Increasing numbers of rural communities are in need of thirst relief. The wet season is becoming concentrated into heavy downpours, rather than constant daily rain. These deluges contribute to worrying levels of soil erosion, which is believed to cost the country 20-200% of GDP annually. Hillside arable land is tilled two or even three times a year. Many areas lack soil conservation measures such as terraces, so the precious topsoil is washed away. Landslides are commonplace. Without the soil to grow crops and trees, Rwanda risks becoming a ‘wet desert’. For a land-locked nation, which already relies heavily on imports, such a failure would prove catastrophic.

Not a lost cause

In truth, there should be enough water in Rwanda. Water resources are both under-used and poorly managed. Currently, just 2% of the country’s river flow is abstracted, while ground and spring water are limited. I prefer to see this as a positive: a source of opportunity. There is vast potential in Rwanda, if the country can restore damaged catchment areas and develop the wider ecosystem. Water infrastructure needs to better complement the geographic levels of precipitation. There’s still time before the tipping point is reached, but water users must work together.

Integration of water resources management is starting to happen on a national scale. Over the last four years, Mott MacDonald has managed a joint Rwanda-Netherlands initiative called the Water for Growth Rwanda (W4GR) programme, which aims to ensure all people have sustainable access to safe, sufficient and secure water resources. The drive to balance the competing needs of different water users is now at the heart of government policy. I’m excited to see how the newly-formed Water Resources Board (WRB) will manage the situation, moving forwards.

United in change

The shifting mindset was on show at a conference in Kigali that took place in March to mark Rwanda Water Week. The energy was fantastic, as was the breadth of attendees. We had sponsorship and support from other donors and NGOs, private sector stakeholders, UNESCO and other international bodies. The different government ministries came together to discuss the relevant next steps and cooperation needed to make the WRB a success.

The conference showed a real appetite to combine individual strengths as a way of adding value. As a systems scientist, I found that immensely rewarding. Am I optimistic for the future? Absolutely. It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m confident that Rwanda will find a way through.

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