Water governance, livelihoods and wellbeing: adapting to change in African river basins

This project was part of the ESPA scoping phase, which ran between 2008 and 2011. The resulting proposal for further funding was unsuccessful.

This research aimed to increase the understanding of the interactions and linkages between people who live in river basins and the resources and services that they draw from the basin.

It focused on three key aspects: 1) understanding the water, land and biodiversity resources of river basins, with a particular emphasis on how these may be changing over the long-term in response to different drivers and pressures; 2) investigating how people in river basins draw on the available natural and institutional resources to fashion mechanisms for access and management through different forms of water governance, and; 3) exploring the outcomes of water governance, both for people through their livelihoods and wellbeing, and for ecosystems. 

Throughout the research, the emphasis was on identifying and understanding the processes of change and on studying new ways in which people and ecosystems could increase resilience and adapt to change. In particular it aimed to increase understanding of how decision-makers could link ecosystem services in river basins to poverty alleviation and sustainable growth.

The research was located in two important river basins in sub-Saharan Africa, the Komadugu-Yobe Basin in north-east Nigeria and the Great Ruaha Basin in south-west Tanzania. These basins have many similarities and some significant differences. Of particular relevance to this research was the fact that they both contain large and important wetlands, which thus provided the opportunity to study the linkages between the water cycle and other ecosystem services of the wetlands. Both basins had important geographic and political features of their respective contexts, and both had been subject to intensive study and development over past decades, meaning that there was a wealth of long-term data on which to build.

The first phase of the programme was to build a research partnership between universities and government agencies with responsibility for water management in the two locations. During this phase these institutions worked together to identity the main research issues and to develop appropriate research approaches and methodologies which would yield rigorous and coherent findings.

The long-term goal of the programme was to support the livelihoods and increase the well-being of the people, by deepening the knowledge base of the processes through which they drew on the river basin and its linked ecosystems. River basins provided the livelihoods and means of support for millions of people world-wide. They drew on the river water (the 'blue' water) for drinking and washing, for domestic gardens, for irrigation, fishing and transport. Water in the soil ('green' water) provided further contribution to their livelihoods, through its support to vegetation, tree cover and biodiversity. These in turn formed a source of other services such as food, medicinal plants and forest products. The physical setting of river basins had additional value to the populations living in river basins, providing for flood storage and waste disposal. River basin landscapes were an important basis for cultural identity.

In common with many other ecosystems, river basins are now subject to increasing change. Many factors drive this change. Increasing populations put increasing pressure on the services provided by river basins, and economic growth exacerbates these pressures by increasing individual demand. Technological changes mean that people begin to utilise new services from river basins, such as water for industrial processes. Climate variability and climate change have significant impacts on river basin landscapes, through changes to river flows and soil moisture levels which radically change patterns of vegetation. Alternating drought and flood are constant features in many river basins but are perceived to be increasing in severity and frequency. 

Lead Principal Investigator
Organisation: University of Bradford
Country: United Kingdom
Principal Investigator
Organisation: University of Maiduguri
Country: Nigeria
Co Investigator
Organisation: University of Maiduguri
Country: Nigeria
Co Investigator
Organisation: University of Bradford
Country: United Kingdom
Co Investigator
Organisation: Sokoine University of Agriculture
Country: Tanzania, United Republic of