Levelling the playing field for IWRM

Written by Alan Hodgson & Pieter van der Zaag, on 3 January 2017

WaterNet is a Southern African network of university departments, research and training institutes designed to build capacity in Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). Born of a consortium which included IHE Delft, WaterNet is currently formally recognized by the 15 Heads of State of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) as its subsidiary institution for capacity development for water resources management. To date, almost 500 students (42% women) and around 50 PhDs have graduated from the WaterNet programme, with 95% of alumni currently working in Southern and East Africa.

WaterNet: Born of necessity and growing to meet demand

Recognizing an opportunity, IHE Delft along with the University of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwean Institute of Water and Sanitation Development, jointly developed a proposal to pool expertise from universities in the region. Out of this collaboration was to come a multidisciplinary and broad based programme, which would also tailor specialisations to a wide range of post graduate students. The opportunity to enhance integrated water resource management education, training and research was soon evident to additional knowledge institutes which joined the initiative, subsequently endorsed by the then SADC Water Sector Coordination Unit and the Global Water Partnership (GWP). After extensive regional consultations, in March 2000 in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, eighteen institutions founded what became known as WaterNet. 

Since that time WaterNet has developed into an independent network with 79 members building capacity within 15 Southern and East African countries. From its inception WaterNet’s mission has been to provide the SADC region with the resources and capacity to educate its own water professionals, both those of the future as new graduates, as well as current professionals, with the offer of lifelong learning options. Having this home-grown talent and expertise, nurtured by a network and bringing complementary strengths, increases the effectiveness of sustainable and equitable water management to help alleviate poverty, support economic development, enhance livelihoods while also provide increased environmental security.

However, it became clear around 2004/5 that real impact would only come with the network being managed locally and so while IHE Delft retains a representation on the governance board offering strategic guidance and providing scientific back-stopping it has stepped back from day to day operations. 

“Before we invest in infrastructure, we first have to invest in the people who will make the infrastructure decisions”

One of the founders of WaterNet IHE Delft Professor Pieter van der Zaag, outlines how the success of WaterNet also reflects the success of IHE Delft’s own evolution. The professor explained that, “Previously, Southern African universities offered little beyond Bachelor degrees, meaning that universities retained thin research portfolios, effectively capping their knowledge; with the result that students wishing to pursue their studies had to leave the region, and secure the funding to do so.” With the support of IHE Delft amongst others, and enabled by support from The Netherlands and later Sweden Governments, WaterNet was able to establish Masters Programmes. This push has resulted in a marked rise in the number and range of publications emanating from WaterNet, alongside the development of research projects.

When asked about impact on the ground, a project Professor van der Zaag cites is the Smallholder System Innovation (SSI) which ran until 2010 and worked to improve irrigation for smallholder farmland, for example by altering the layout of fields so that rainwater would not run off so easily. The model was later adopted and scaled up to whole districts. As well as the impact on crop yield for farmers, Prof. van der Zaag points to other impacts. Firstly, WaterNet Masters and PhD students did the fieldwork, so increasing their knowledge and expertise, while also building trust with the local communities. Secondly, as the Professor puts it, “The thing that is often missing is institutionalizing the knowledge through ministries and local based institutions and that’s what we have learned in these WaterNet projects.” Thirdly, it also inspired follow-on research work. For example, WaterNet went on to win a tender from the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR) to conduct similar work around the Limpopo Basin in Southern Africa.

Improving rural livelihoods in the Limpopo region

In the poverty stricken, semi-arid Limpopo region smallholder farmers are far removed from the impact of water policy reforms. These policies and the institutions which implement them are more directly concerned with water for irrigation, cities, mines and industry. One of the consequences is that subsistence farmers are dependent on rain water (so called green water) for their crops, which is precarious, with frequent regional droughts.

Despite these challenges it was recognized that with the appropriate integrated soil and water management, alongside participatory and adaptive farming, livelihoods could be improved through increased water productivity, so also improving crop yields. WaterNet, under the auspices of the CGIAR Challenge Program, led a project to develop a new Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) system with a focus from village to basin, and integrated green and blue (water in freshwater lakes, rivers and aquifers) water management. From 2004 to 2013 the project experimented in pilot catchments, within Zimbabwe (Mzingwane), Mosambique (Chokwe, Mabalane) and South Africa (Olifants).

The research looked specifically at the use of shallow water tables, alluvial aquifers, and surface runoff, using water harvesting systems. It also analysed trade-offs between upstream-downstream water uses and options for improved irrigation efficiencies downstream. Overlaying poverty and aridity maps also yielded insights about strategic locations for intervention to help with water access. In some cases farmers were advised to change their land use to increase their food security. The project generated a new knowledge base on appropriate agricultural water management, and catchment management guidelines were produced to support a needs-based IWRM framework for sustainable water for food development at basin scale.

“It’s not only about generating a lot of knowledge, but also the multiplier effect of people working together”

As well as building knowledge, the shared experience across borders also fosters lifelong cooperation. As Dr. Jean-Marie Kileshye Onema, Network Manager for WaterNet says, “Coming from a capacity development background as well as a WaterNet Alumni I would have to say the real impact is in the people who have been trained, not only as individuals but also as a group.” Dr Kileshye Onema goes on to explain that, “Across the countries where WaterNet works, there is literally not a single country with a Water Ministry that doesn’t have someone who is an alumni from the WaterNet programme.”

Aside from the impact of having a shared conceptual understanding and terminology, of the challenges as well as the technicalities of possible solutions, when it comes to resolving transboundary issues the inter-cultural experience of shared learning is a potent asset for all concerned. As Dr. Kileshye Onema, succinctly puts it, Indeed stories abound of WaterNet alumni who were once thought lost to the region as they pursued illustrious careers around the world, only to return and bring their new found knowledge, experiences and worldwide contacts.

Embedding impact

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing WaterNet is for longer-term financial stability. The Dutch Government has been a supporter from the start, recently recommitting financial support until 2021. As Professor van der Zaag points out, “A development project of four years is nothing, you need to look at generations. So it is crucial that The Netherlands will have supported WaterNet for over 20 years. Now we can really talk about impact.” He elaborates that a further safeguard for the sustainability of WaterNet is actually its own alumni. As he puts it, “The decision makers in SADC who were trained by WaterNet or IHE Delft, will not easily let the network go.”

Indeed impact also comes full circle and benefits IHE Delft as WaterNet’s expertise feeds back into the organization. For example, Dr. Kileshye Onema now represents Africa on IHE Delft’s Board for its Programmatic Cooperation with the Dutch Government (DUPC2). Additionally, as Prof van der Zaag says when it comes to some tenders, “Often if WaterNet is a partner when we bid for a project, we have a higher chance of succeeding, because of its expertise and the SADC affiliated status.”

Tracing the evolution of WaterNet it seems clear that impact can be identified in layers, each building on previous success. The Limpopo work has now led to the DUPC2 supported A4Labs project to co-develop with farmers and partners methodologies to create a reliable and sustainable source of water for agriculture in three semi-arid to arid regions of Sub-Sahara Africa, using water from dry river beds. The project was stimulated partly by previous PhD research which found more harvestable water in dry river beds than previously thought. As Professor van der Zaag summarizes, “With DUPC we are perfecting institutional learning. With guidance from IHE Delft, combined with local expertise and trust, there is a convergence of minds. This is how we have to do it, jointly produce research not for the blue sky but research that makes a difference locally. That is really satisfying.”