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A REVIEW OF WATER RELATED CONFLICTS IN AFRICA:

CAUSES AND RESOLUTIONS


Prof. Carlos Echevarría Jesús, University of UNED, Spain

1. INTRODUCTION: WATER MANAGEMENT IN AFRICA: A


POTENTIAL FOR CONFLICTS

Water scarcity is emerging as a significant security problem in Africa. In


August 1997, a study published by the international research group ‘Green
Cross International’, led by former USSR President Mikhail Gorbatchev,
described sixteen points in Africa where disputes are linked with the
management of water resources.

In North African countries the percentage of arable land is severely limited


by the Sahara desert: 2.6% in Egypt, 1.2% in Libya, 10% in Tunisia, 3% in
Algeria and 20% in Morocco. African countries such as Egypt and Mauritania
are almost entirely dependent on surface water originating beyond their
own borders, respectively 97% and 95%, a situation which could cause
considerable security problems. In 1989 and 1990, tensions emerged
related to the management of the water resources of the Senegal River
lying between Mauritania and Senegal. Egypt, with its very low rainfall, has
focused for several decades on the waters of the Nile as a strategic priority
in the formulation of the country’s domestic and foreign policy. Any obstacle
threatening the river flow has traditionally been equated with a casus belli.
There have been various conflicts in the Nile region since the second half of
the twentieth century: one conflict between 1950 and 1959, two conflicts
between 1960 and 1969, one conflict between 1970 and 1979, and another
one before 1990. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, at the time Egypt’s Minister of
Foreign Affairs, declared in 1987 that ‘the next war in our region will be
over the waters of the Nile, not over politics’. In the nineties, Sudanese
investment programmes in canals and dams to control the river’s flows
were perceived as a threat in Cairo. In the same decade, Ethiopia
negotiated to receive technical assistance from Israeli engineers with the
aim of increasing its benefits from the Blue Nile waters. Shortly thereafter in
December 1997, Egypt invited the Somali armed clans to sign an alliance
against Ethiopia. The Islamic regime in Sudan has also been radically
opposed to the possibility of Israeli involvement in the management of
water resources in the region.

According to the Global Trends 2015 Report prepared under the direction of
the US National Intelligence Council in the year 2000 1 , water scarcity and

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allocation of water resources will pose significant challenges for
governments in the sub-Saharan region. For example, the Chad Lake – the
largest freshwater reservoir of the country – is a source of tension between
Chad and Nigeria due to the construction of a dam. Another example is the
Okavango basin where strained relations prevail among all riparian states
and in particular between Namibia and Botswana. Between 1970 and 1989,
during apartheid and before the independence of Namibia, a number of
conflicts and tensions over water resources emerged between South Africa
and Angola. Tensions emerged when Namibia sought to use the common
Okavango waters to fill a reservoir, causing a reduction in the flow for
Botswana that affected the tourist Okavango’s delta. More recently, several
of the fourteen members of the Southern African Development Community
(SADC) countries have worked to create a relatively stable socio-political
situation, Botswana and Namibia being obvious examples. However, military
tensions in the Caprivi Strip over the use of Okavango’s waters in particular
are now spreading out and affecting the sub-regional organization.

2. SOME IMPORTANT EXPERIENCES OF POLITICAL AND


DIPLOMATIC HARMONIZATION

2.1. North Africa: the Libyan experience

In the last two decades, a massive irrigation project consisting of hundreds


of kilometers of large tunnels connecting huge underground aquifers in the
southern Libyan region of Koufra has triggered a positive international
response. In September 1991, when the first phase of the Great Man-Made
River (GMR) was completed, Libya began pumping water from wells in the
southern desert and transporting it over 2,000 kilometres to cities located
at the coast, creating wealth and employment. The country aimed to
increase its food production, thereby becoming more attractive to
neighbouring countries. Colonel Gaddafi specifically wanted to attract up to
1 million Egyptians to work on the land irrigated by the GMR. Egypt
responded positively as it needed to resettle thousands of Egyptian
labourers expelled from Iraq during the Gulf War.

The further success of the GMR initiative will depend on the future
availability of water in the aquifers. However, in spite of the giant size of
the aquifers under the desert, which were discovered during the 1960s by
American and European geologists while prospecting for oil, there is
disagreement on the amount of available groundwater and its sustainability.
Carbon tests indicate that some of the water could be 35,000 to 40,000

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years old. Some foreign specialists estimate that once the aquifers are
empty, they are not likely to be replenished. On the other hand, Libyan
experts disagree by arguing that the water covers 285,000 km2 and reaches
a depth of 4 km.

In November 1996, a South Korean group of companies received official


approval to implement the third phase (of a total of five) of the GMR, which
includes the construction of 185-km-long water pipelines from Syrte to
Tripoli and the coast.

2.2. East Africa

Several international and regional organizations have been created by the


riparian states of the most important African rivers. These have played, and
continue to play a vital role in preventing and solving water-related
problems.

2.2.1. The Nile basin

Of the riparian Nile countries, Egypt and Sudan are the most dependent on
the river for their economic survival. Agreements concluded in 1929 and
1959 dealt with the distribution of water resources between these two
riparians. Egypt is, with 75%, by far the largest user among the ten Nile
Basin states. As for Sudan, some 3,080 km of the Nile rivers (White and
Blue) flow within its borders; this implies that the country covers the largest
area of the basin 2 . Sudan is also the second-largest consumer of waters
from the Nile. The third major actor is Ethiopia, controlling the Blue Nile,
which contributes over 80% of the total water flow entering Egypt. As in the
cases of Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia’s water needs are increasing as a result
of rising demands for food and hydro-electricity. The country’s efforts to
achieve an optimal usage of available water resources have, as in Sudan,
been thwarted by war, drought and a severe lack of financial resources.

Currently, other riparian states are proposing power and irrigation schemes
that would result in a decrease in the volume of water reaching Egypt. The
countries of the Nile basin are confronted with rising populations and
growing agricultural needs. These developments are a challenge to the
traditional legal framework for Nile water-usage as reflected in the 1929
Egyptian-British Agreement and the 1959 Egyptian-Sudanese Agreement
preventing the reduction of the volume of Nile water reaching Egypt. Cairo
has to employ extraordinary diplomatic efforts to keep defending its use of
the Nile waters.

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No legal framework is in place in the event that violent conflicts between
riparian Nile states occur. However, other institutions have recently been
set up which offer remarkable platforms for discussion and cooperation: the
Technical Cooperation Commission for the Promotion of the Development
and Environmental Protection of the Nile (TECCONILE), and more recently,
the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

During a meeting of the Nile Basin Council of Ministers in February 1999,


the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was established to deal with the above-
mentioned challenges. This regional partnership aims to achieve sustainable
socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and
benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources. Its Secretariat is
located in Kampala, Uganda.

The NBI emerged out of the eight-year existence of the Technical


Cooperation Commission for the Promotion of the Development and
Environmental Protection of the Nile (TECCONILE) 3 . This Commission was
established by the Council of Ministers of Water Affairs of the Nile Basin
states to bring together professionals from the riparian states. TECCONILE
published a Nile River Basin Action Plan in 1996, the implementation of
which was supported by the World Bank from 1997 onwards. The
philosophy behind the Action Plan is data management and technical
discussions on the future of the river that may open avenues for political
debate and cooperation.

In March 2004, ministers from the ten states that share the waters of the
Nile met in Nairobi under the auspices of the NBI ‘to flesh out a treaty
regulating the use of the waters’ 4 . The NBI member states are currently
working towards the realization of the organization’s main objective of
guaranteeing a rational use of the Nile waters among the riparian states. To
achieve this, two key mechanisms have been set up, namely the Shared
Vision Programmes, including the Nile Basin Regional Power Trade
Programme, and the subsidiary action programmes for the Eastern Nile and
Nile Equatorial Lakes 5 .

Improved relations between the ten members of the NBI over the use of the
Nile waters have led to closer cooperation between Egypt and East Africa in
other areas 6 . Relations between Egypt and Sudan have been gradually
improving since the mid-nineties. Sudan’s gradual rapprochement with the
international community is having a positive effect on the restoration of its
economic ties with Egypt. Currently, peace negotiations between the
government of Sudan and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement/Army

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(SPLM/A) are opening doors to the implementation of a number of
ambitious projects in Egypt 7 .

2.2.2. From the Inter-Governmental Authority on Drought and


Development (IGADD) to the Inter-Governmental Authority on
Development (IGAD)

An important inter-African example is the work done by the Inter-


governmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD), founded in
1986, to coordinate actions to combat the effects of drought and
desertification and to attain regional food security in similar terms. These
objectives are comparable to ones of the Permanent Inter-State Committee
on Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS) (see 2.3.2)

The IGADD was established by six North-East African countries and since
1989 has been collaborating with FAO on a regional early warning system.
In 1996, the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an
umbrella organization for the Horn of Africa, was set up to replace IGADD.
IGAD currently has seven members (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya,
Somalia, Sudan and Uganda). The Division of Political and Humanitarian
Affairs focuses on conflict prevention, management and resolution.

IGAD in recent years has become a driving force in the Sudanese peace
process. It has acted on several occasions as a mediator by organizing
negotiations between the government and the armed rebel groups. In fact,
the negotiations between the government of Sudan and the SPLM/A took a
radical turn when the parties signed, after years of negotiations, the
Machakos Protocol in the Kenyan town of Machakos on 20 July 2002. The
negotiations, led by the US and including Britain, Norway and Italy, were
hosted and attended by members of the IGAD. 8

In terms of water resources and conflicts, the risk of a geographical and


political division of Sudan as a country would be unacceptable to Egypt. The
latter fears that a new, independent African state could ally itself with
Kenya and Uganda and thereby render Egypt’s control of the Nile waters
more difficult. Egyptian strategic priorities have produced a pragmatic
convergence of positions between the Arab nationalist Hosni Mubarak
government and the Islamist Khartoum regime on the southern Sudan
question 9 . In January 2004, a wealth-sharing accord was signed between
the SPLM/A led by John Garang, and the Sudanese Government headed by
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir 10 The peace talks over a north–south split
of governance between Khartoum and the SPLM/A have, meanwhile,

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reached a stalemate. The recent events in Darfur form only a part of the
explanation. The parties continue to argue over the extent of autonomy of
three areas, namely the Nuba mountains, the Southern Blue Nile and Abyei.
The Nuba mountains and the Southern Blue Nile might obtain ‘a special
status’, meaning a certain degree of autonomy on the level of local services,
while Khartoum remains in nominal control of security and strategic national
issues 11 .

2.3. West Africa

2.3.1. The Senegal River Development Organization (OMVS)

The Senegal River Development Organization (OMVS), created in 1968 by


the Labé Convention, consist of three members, namely Mali, Mauritania
and Senegal, and is assisted by Guinea-Bissau, which has had observer
status since 1987. Senegal is a relatively well-served country in Western
Africa in comparison with its neighbours Mauritania and Mali. Mauritania lies
almost entirely within the Sahara desert and most of the 2.5 million
inhabitants have a subsistence lifestyle. With the exception of the south,
which is slightly more humid, Mauritania’s climate is hot and arid. Water
scarcity becomes more prevalent once one moves away from the Senegal –
the only perennial river. Mali, on the other hand, suffers from an endemic
lack of water resources, including inadequate supplies of safe drinking
water.

In early June 2000, relations between Senegal and Mauritania deteriorated


after the latter accused the new Senegalese administration of starting an
irrigation project that depended on joint water resources from the Senegal
River. The dispute escalated when the Mauritanian authorities requested its
citizens living in Senegal to return home. The estimated 100,000
Senegalese nationals living in Mauritania were given a fifteen-day deadline
to leave the country. These events evoked tragic memories of a former
conflict in 1989, when riots between workers and traders from both
countries resulted in numerous victims. In June 2000, hostility intensified
further when the Mauritanian Minister of Communication and Parliamentary
Affairs accused the Senegalese Government of ‘approaching and offering
means of propaganda’ to groups hostile to the Mauritanian government.

In mid-June 2000, following mediation by King Mohammed VI of Morocco


and the Presidents of Gambia and Mali, the Mauritanian Interior Minister
announced that the decision to expel Senegalese citizens had been
withdrawn and that Mauritanians living in Senegal could remain there if they

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felt safe 12 . President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal visited Mauritania later
that month and announced that the irrigation project had been abandoned.
Nevertheless, it is estimated that some 25,000 Senegalese left Mauritania
and that more than the half of the 11,000 officially-registered Mauritanians
living in Senegal returned to their homes 13 .

However, in early 2001, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal declared that


electricity production would finally start in September at the giant Manantali
Dam – their shared project on the Senegal River. Once again, as in 1989
when the existence of the OMVS facilitated the political and diplomatic
arrangement, this sub-regional organization has turned out to be a useful
instrument for crisis management and has proved itself as an instrument of
conflict prevention due to its focus on dialogue and diplomatic
harmonization.

2.3.2. The Permanent Inter-State Committee on Drought


Control in the Sahel (CILSS)

The Permanent Inter-State Committee on Drought Control in the Sahel


(CILSS), created in 1973, is a body that was set up to fight drought and
desertification in the Sahel belt. At the moment, the CILSS consists of nine
Sahelian countries and has diplomatic weight at the regional level 14 . Its
Early Warning System and its Network for the Prevention of Food Crises are
two useful instruments that are employing a common approach and a
multilateral effort to regional problems. For example, the dramatic threat
represented by the pilgrim acrid invasion in 2003 has provided impetus to
both bodies who asked the CILSS Member States and the international
community to pay more attention to their information and to support them
with more funds and technical assistance.

In 1976 an informal forum of OECD donor countries and the CILSS member
states was created, entitled the Club of the Sahel. The Club of the Sahel
collects information, helps to mobilize resources, and promotes regional
cooperation by reinforcing the CILSS. The most recent meeting of the CILSS
was held on 9–10 September 2004 to address the threat of the pilgrim
locust plague destroying crops in the region 15 .

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2.3.3. The Mano River Union (MRU)

The Mano river, situated between Liberia and Sierra Leone, has lent its
name to a sub-regional organization, the Mano River Union (MRU),
established in 1973, involving Guinea-Conakry, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Conflicts in the region are predominantly characterized by cross-border
dimensions. Although in this case water does not form a basis for conflict, it
inspired nevertheless the creation of an instrument for mediation at a
diplomatic level.

In January 1995, the Center for Peace and Development, initially based in
London, was established as a concrete body of the MRU. The goal of the
Center was to become a permanent mechanism for conflict prevention and
resolution through the monitoring of human rights violations and the
promotion of regional sustainable peace. Unfortunately, bloody conflicts
affecting the region seriously hindered the activities of the MRU during the
second half of the nineties until the end of the decade.

In the aftermath of a series of peace initiatives, led by the UK and


supported by the UN, Guinea-Chonakry, Sierra Leone and Liberia agreed to
revitalize the MRU in 2000. One of the new proposals included a joint
committee to monitor and ensure security along their common borders. All
three countries have traditionally accused each other of harboring and
supporting dissidents. They have, moreover, suffered from the devastating
consequences of refugee flows. However, the MRU continued to serve as a
mediation facility when King Mohammed VI of Morocco started negotiations
in 2002 between the three countries.

2.3.4. Other instruments existing in West Africa

Besides the organization mentioned above, there are various other sub-
regional organizations that focus on the resolution of freshwater conflicts,
particularly in the Sahel and neighbouring sub-regions. They have generally
expanded their activities to conflict resolution and crisis management.

The most important organizations are: the Lake Chad Basin Commission
(Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Nigeria), the Liptako-
Gourma Integrated Development Authority (Burkina-Faso, Mali and Niger)
and the Niger River Basin Authority (Benin, Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, Chad,
Guinee, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger and Nigeria) 16 . These River Basin
Authorities enable an exchange of information between the member states,

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thereby increasing confidence and creating the possibility of resolving
tensions and conflicts cooperatively.

2.4. Central and South Africa

The Okavango River is unique since it is the only perennial river in Africa
that flows eastwards without reaching the ocean. After a journey of more
than a thousand kilometers, the river forms the Okavango Swamps in the
endless sands of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.

In 2001, Angola, Botswana and Namibia created the Okavango River Basin
Water Commission (OKACOM) for the environmental protection and
sustainable management of the Okavango River basin. The Global
Environment Facility (GEF) of the UN is funding the project 17 .

In terms of conflict prevention, relations between Botswana and Namibia


have deteriorated in the past due to a Namibian project to construct
channels to transfer water from the Okavango basin, located on the border
between the two countries, to the eastern region of Namibia. The
progressive process of diplomatic harmonization involving the 14 member
countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) 18 ,
should lead to improved and tighter sectorial cooperation among the three
OKACOM countries. One task of the SADC is the adoption of more solid
instruments to guarantee stability among its member countries.

The proliferation of regional and sub-regional organizations dealing with


water resources in the African continent does not constitute in itself an
element of optimism concerning conflict prevention and crisis management;
however, they often provide the very first step to constructing a multilateral
framework for peaceful solutions to regional crises and conflicts.

These organizations and the interrelations between are instruments that


need to be supported by the states and the International Community.

3. CONFLICT PREVENTION AND CONFLICT RESOLUTION


MANAGEMENT IN THE AFRICAN UNION (AU) AND
NEPAD

The creation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) in


2001 and the birth of the African Union (AU) out of the former Organization
for African Unity (OAU) in 2002 can be read as signs of a more promising

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African future 19 . However, one may ask if those organizations introduced a
new approach to conflict prevention in general and to water-related
problems in particular.
Multilateral institutions such as NEPAD, the AU, the African Ministers’
Conference on Water and the African Development Bank (ADB) are indeed
providing frameworks where water management figures on the agenda 20 .
The AU held a Summit on Water Resources Management on 8–13 December
2003 in Addis Ababa. NEPAD unites African countries committed to
promoting intra-African development and supporting the resolution of
conflicts. These goals are present in most of the agendas and conclusions of
the two institutions 21 . In addition, NEPAD assists sub-regional organizations
such as the NBI, the OMVS, the CILSS, the OKACOM and others.

The African Development Bank is a regional multilateral development


finance institution established in September 1964. This organization has
recently included water issues in its Strategic Plan 2003–2007. The Bank
has now developed an Integrated Water Resources Management Strategy,
which considers the provision of accelerated access to safe drinking water
and sanitation in rural Africa as one of its contributions for the Millennium
Development Goals and the African Water Vision 22 . Recently, an ADB
sponsored meeting focusing on the study of access to freshwater in Africa
was held in Tunis 23 .

NEPAD, the AU and even the Action Plan for Africa of the European Union
share an insistence on the primacy of conflict prevention in general and the
usefulness of a common effort in sensitive areas such as water
management.

4. CONCLUSIONS

A number of international conventions and organizations dealing with


integrated water resources management have developed instruments for
conflict prevention and confidence-building in Africa, with various results.

At the diplomatic level, the NBI, the MRU and other sub-regional
organizations remain the principal political instruments through which some
countries in the continent exert their leadership. These organizations are
providing to a certain extent serious efforts to resolve conflictive issues
affecting their regions. They apply mechanisms such as dialogue and
partnership and have given rise to cautious optimism. Countries directly
involved such as Egypt or Sudan, or indirectly, such as Morocco whose king

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mediated in the context of the MRU two years ago, employ these policy
instruments, which are generally more persuasive than coercive. The
positive impact of these regional and sub-regional organizations, suggests
certain conflict prevention strategies such as policies of reassurance,
confidence building and inclusiveness.

It is imperative that African sectoral and sub-regional institutions encourage


their members to remove the roots of conflict in order to minimize the
devastating effects of crises and conflicts on the continent. African
organizations dealing with water management will remain crucial in conflict
management and will undoubtedly play a growing pioneer role in the
maintenance of peace and security.

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FOOTNOTES

1
See Global Trends 2015: A Dialogue About the Future With Nongovernmental Experts NIC 2000-
02. December 2000 in <www.cia.gov> pp. 7 and 17.
2
Egypt is proceeding with a major diversion of water from the Nile, which flows from Ethiopia and
Sudan, both of which wish to draw more water from the Nile for their own development. See
Global Trends op cit p. 18.
3
There are ten countries which make up the TECCONILE: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo,
Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. See
www.nilebasin.org/IntroNR.htm
4
The NBI’s current Executive Director is Maraji Msuya. See Africana-Noticias-CIDAF Mayo 2004, p.
6.
5
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS): Strategic Survey 2003/04 London, Oxford
University Press, 2004, p. XXXII.
6
FORD, Neil: ‘Crossing the Sahara divide’ African Business nº 294, January 2004, p. 57.
7
President Mubarak promised during the nineties the construction of two artificial channels by
2002, bringing Nile waters to two new development centres, one in the Sinai (the Peace Channel
from the Delta, in Damietta) and another in the deep south, near the border with Sudan (the
Toshka Channel). To achieve this, Egypt needs additional water that could come from the South
Sudan’s Jongley Channel, a blocked project due to the civil war in Sudan. See CANTAL RIVAS, José
Mª: El Nilo y sus aguas: fuente de tensiones Madrid, Miscelánea Africana-CIDAF, October 1998, p.
1; KWAA PRAH, Kwesi: ‘Sudan. How to achieve lasting peace’ New African nº 425, January 2004,
p. 18; and AKOL, Jacob J.: ‘Sudan peace in our time?’ New African nº 425, January 2004, p. 10.
8
AKOL, J.J.: op cit p. 11.
9
Sudan was implicated in the 1995 assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
See ‘Sudan’s Deceptive Transformation’ in Strategic Survey 2003/4 op cit p. 321.
10
BADCOCK, James: ‘Sudan. Splinter movements slows peace hopes’ African Business nº 297,
April 2004, p. 56.
11
Ibidem p. 57.
12
A Peace Agreement had been signed on 27 February 2002 in Rabat. See ECHEVERRÍA JESÚS,
C.: ‘Conflictos en la región del Río Mano’ Ejército nº 737, July-August 2002, p. 108.
13
ECHEVERRÍA, C.: ‘The Sahel-A Volatile Region’ in MARQUINA, A.& GÜNTER BRAUCH, H. (Eds):
The Mediterranean Space and Its Borders. Geography, Politics, Economics and Environment
Madrid-Mosbach, UNISCI-AFES-PRESS, 2001, pp. 230-231.
14
The nine CILSS members are: Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali,
Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.
15
See ‘La plaga de langosta amenaza con destruir la cuarta parte de la cosecha de África
occidental’ ABC 12 September 2004, p. 67.
16
ECHEVERRÍA, C.: op cit pp. 242-243.
17
‘Ways to manage the Okavango River basin envisaged’ in
www.economist.com.na/2001/270701/story34.htm. An OKACOM meeting held in Luanda, Angola,

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in July 2001, decided to locate the Project Management Unit (PMU) in Luanda. Dr. Isidro Pinheiro
of Angola was appointed as chair of the Project Steering Committee (PSC).
18
Created during the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) in Lusaka
(Zambia) in 1980 and enlarged to South Africa and Namibia in the 1990s.
19
See HERBST, Jeffrey&MILLS, Greg: The Future of Africa: A New Order in Sight? London, IISS-
Adelphi Paper nº 361, 2003, p. 8.
www.africa-union.org and www.nepad.org
20

At a technical level, the NEPAD proposed in 2002 specific actions and programmes in 10 areas;
21

water as such was included in three of them: agriculture, regional infrastructure and environment.
African Development Bank Group: Fighting Poverty in Africa, a Newsletter included in African
22

Business nº 298, May 2004, p. II.

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