Tue. Jul 7th, 2020


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Expert Interviewed on Rwanda and regional Water Resources Management status

Ebel Smidt is an International Water Management Consultant and Groundwater Expert. He served as IWRM programme in Rwanda since 2016 to April 2018

Overall, Africa has about 9% of the world’s fresh water resources and 11% of the world’s population. However, there is very significant inter-and intra-annual variability of all climate and water resources characteristics, so while some regions have sufficient water, Sub-Saharan Africa faces numerous water-related challenges that constrain economic growth and threaten the livelihoods of its people.

African agriculture is mostly based on rain-fed farming, and less than 10% of cultivated land in the continent is irrigated. The impact of climate change and variability is thus very pronounced. The main source of electricity is hydropower, which contributes significantly to the current installed capacity for energy.

As many African countries continue to facing water scarcity challenge, several measures are being taken. This is the case of Rwanda where the Country is focusing on the Integrated Water Resources Management to promote improved management of Rwanda’s water resources while at the same time ensure that these resources are contributing to the National Economic growth and well being of citizen.

From this background, the country is working with the Kingdom of Netherlands though a joint initiative “Water for Growth Rwanda” to demonstrate the value of the IWRM across four demonstration catchments to pilot governance frameworks and develop land and water management solutions tailored to their specific contexts.

We talked to Mr. Ebel Smidt (International Water Management Consultant) who have served as the Team Leader of the IWRM programme in Rwanda and has historical background in Water management across Africa and here are excerpts of the Interview we had on Rwanda’s Water Management as well as the management of trans-boundary and regional water resources.

Tell us who is Mr. Ebel Smidt?

I am passionate with improving water management to the benefits of people, ecosystems and the economy. From educational background I am physicist and groundwater expert. During my career I became certified mediator, process and project manager. My wife and I are happy with our children who are finishing studies in water management and geography.

You were in Rwanda since 2016, what was your assignment in Rwanda?

Yes, I came here in Rwanda in 2016 to be a Team Leader for Water for Growth Rwanda Programme. The Programme started in May 2015 and I replaced the first team leader in May 2016. Water for Growth is the instrument of the Government of Rwanda to realize integrated water resources management (IWRM) at catchment level. The programme also has an IWRM Investment Fund (IIF) to show what we preach. The GoR is supported financially by the Government of the Netherlands in the execution of Water for Growth with 14 billion Rwf for Technical Assistance and 19 billion Rwf for the IIF.

 Tell us, how do you see the management of Rwanda’s water resources?

The GoR made a very good start by launching the National Water Resources Master Plan in 2014. In this plan water scarcity in terms of water available per inhabitant has been clearly acknowledged. Secondly the combination between the water quality and erosion problems were addressed. And thirdly the issue of who or which institution can improve water availability and water quality also was mentioned. To put in practice the ambitions of the NWRP, Water for Growth was set up amongst other measures.

When you compare how water resources should be managed following international standards, how do you assess that comparing on how it is managed at National level?

Let us first acknowledge that the natural conditions in Rwanda are not easy for water managers. Rain often falls in high intensities as everybody knows. I measure the rainfall myself and an amount of 20-30 mm per hour which is internationally seen as high intensity contributes for about 25% to the annual rainfall. Such rainstorms cause high runoff, floods and erosion. The extreme wet period of the last months caused over hundred casualties and loss of thousands houses and billions of Rwf’s in damage to properties and public utilities as roads and bridges. On the other hand, the dry periods especially in the Eastern Province causes lack of water and food. Finally, Rwanda is the second densely populated country in Africa, putting special challenges to water management. Given that background of rather extreme conditions and the limited possibility to create big water reservoirs, water management is developing into the right direction of being more focused on improving water productivity and using modern insights in participatory methods of managing water resources.

We have heard a lot about Catchment planning, what is it exactly and why does Rwanda need that planning?

A catchment is an area from which the rain that falls leaves that are at one point. A river basin is a natural catchment. If you install a water tank and collect water from your roof you have a man-made catchment. These examples already show that catchments can be small and big. The western part of Rwanda belongs to the Congo catchment and the middle and eastern part to the Nile Catchment. These two big catchments are subdivided in 20 other major catchments. Each of these are further subdivided in different classes. Four of the major catchments have been chosen as Demonstration Catchments in Water for Growth: Sebeya in the northwest, Upper Nyabarongo in the central-southern part, Muvumba in the northeast and Nyabogogo in the central eastern part of the country. Rwanda needs that planning to avoid water related problems that may arise in future.

Do you have water management data for Rwanda? Can you help us understand in terms of human and economic development?

In simple statistics at average there is about 700 m3 water available per year for every citizen of Rwanda. In international classification systems Rwanda is seen as a water stressed country. Due to the intense rains and the green image of Rwanda people sometimes react surprised but due to earlier mentioned challenges I prefer to use this classification to ring the alarm bell. With growing population and no further measures Rwanda will become a water scarcity country, less than 500 m3 per citizen available within 25 years. The bells need to be understood even more seriously knowing that most of the water is still used in traditional agriculture where one cubic meter of water delivers at average less than 1000 Rwf. The combination of water stress and low water productivity of the main user of the water is a potential driving force for change.

 Are you satisfied with the way Water resources are being managed in Rwanda or across the regions?

Yes, I am satisfied with the changes taking place in general towards more focus on water productivity including water for people and ecosystems. I am less satisfied concerning the speed of introducing the required changes. The sense of urgency is not always felt enough, not always in the Rwandan institutions but also not within the world of the consultancy firms. The Director General of Rwanda Water and Forestry Authority has rightly said that sometimes it seems more comfortable for advisors to circle at a roundabout than choosing a direction.

As Rwanda made the choice for catchment management Water for Growth just in time delivered 12 Investment Packages for the four Demonstration Catchments based on Catchment Plans V.2.0. In June Catchments Plans V3.0 will be delivered.

We have a saying in Dutch: we just reached the other side of the ditch with our back of our feet. It is based on a traditional sport of ditch springing for youngsters. We are just in time or just late. I am an optimist by nature, so for me the glass is half full. That holds also for the Nile Basin despite the big challenges and the high need for cooperation and water diplomacy.

What solutions do you propose to fully and sustainably manage Rwanda’s watersheds?

In short: upscale the work done on catchment management and Integrated Water Resources Management to all major catchments of the country. In parallel to this: downscale the work within the Demonstration Catchments to even micro-catchment where only groups of 10, 100 to 1000 farmers are the main users. In the follow-up of Water for Growth Rwanda, the Landscape Restoration Programme, concentrating on Sebeya Catchment this can be practiced, but many other programmes in the country are doing similar work. To speed up the learning curve of IWRM is in fact most urgently needed. For that we also need urgent extra money in the IIF.

Why do you think the Integrated Water Resources Management is a good approach for Rwanda?

For two reasons: In the first place Rwanda is called the country of 1000 hills, which implies that Rwanda is also at least the country of 1000 watersheds or catchments. Such natural units need an integrated approach to satisfy the ecological, economic and welfare requirements in the area and the downstream parts of the larger water basin. Secondly IWRM has been a proven method worldwide especially as it is not a standard recipe but only works when you find your own homegrown IWRM pathway. That’s what we do in Water for Growth

Do we have other approaches rather than IWRM?

Yes, we have seen the upcoming of Landscape Restoration as a further development of understanding the interaction between land and water systems. It has created a new dynamic in international funding, which is positive. However, a landscape is in general less well defined as a watershed. We just got used to watersheds that need to be management by several districts, in some cases even eight. This has been acknowledged up till the new Water Law which give room for the Catchment Committees. To my opinion we can use the new system of coordination between districts to enhance the needed governance improvement of the landscapes. The new Landscape Restoration project will address also these issues.

A more academic approach is the energy-food-water nexus approach. I hope academia in Rwanda in cooperation with the international institutions will make this approach practical. Internationally I have seen the development of some indicators for irrigation practices for example.

Water management is a cross cutting issue, How?

Water is life. Life concerns our health, the health of the environment and of the economy of the country. If Rwanda wants to be a frontrunner in the introduction of circular and green economy and also become a high-income country much more cross cutting approaches and thinking within all institutions of Rwanda needs to be stimulated. Water is everywhere. If you design your house you can save water, in your personal behavior of letting a tap running or not, in being conscious on how much water is used in the production of the goods you use or the food you eat. That it is called the water footprint. Planners in the governmental agencies in Rwanda in close cooperation with the stakeholders in the water sector can still learn a lot from each other to improve water use in the country.

How do you think regional countries can join efforts towards the sustainable management of these vital resources?

The Nile Basin Initiative needs full support from the member countries and the international institutions. Regional Institutions like the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resource (RCMRD) also play a very important role. African Governmental frameworks as the Gaborone Declaration for Sustainability in Africa (GDSA) are backed by the African Union. The active, stimulating and leading role of Rwanda in these organizations is internationally well appreciated.

Do you think Rwandan citizens understand the IWRM and how can they gain from that approach?

Yes I think almost naturally every Rwandan has basis knowledge about IWRM. Without much explanation we created micro-catchment at my house with the guards. I hear the same stories from colleagues working with farmers field schools and we have the experience in our Early Implementation Projects. Initiatives are taking place to further stimulate a massive training campaign on the IWRM and catchment management. I hope W4GR and the SEAD project will succeed to cooperate in that respect the remaining year of W4GR.

How do you think Citizens may be involved in IWRM?

Via school campaigns, media messages, setting up local catchment committees etc. much can be done to get more people involved in IWRM. W4GR is not the only one working on these issues. The colleagues of LAFREC and ARCOS, IUCN, TROCAIRE and many others are all doing very good work. The integration of all good initiatives can still be improved. We developed in W4GR an IWRM toolbox meant also to pay attention to this governance or knowledge management aspect of IWRM.

You are the one who has developed a water management slogan? Tell us about this slogan and why you made it?

  • Invest in water with your Money, Heart and Belief.
  • Shora imari, umutimanama mu bikorwa by’amazi: It is used to express that water is touching us at various levels. We need water to produce goods, to be healthy. That is the practical level to be expressed in short term economic cost-benefit terms. If we talk about the health of our children, their future in a green economy our responsibility and heart will speak louder. We help our children not because of economic drivers. We love them from deep in our hearts. And water also symbolizes the deepest levels of our being. In all religions water has a purifying symbolic function or it refers to the flow of life to death. Our creation stories as mankind speak about the separation between land and water by God. In the bible the special play of light and water forming the rainbow is a symbol of hope. The traditions in Rwanda have many rituals concerning spiritual dimensions of water. That’s the background of this home-grown ‘slogan’ made by many of the W4GR team.

How do you rate your work for Rwanda and its citizens?

That’s a very difficult question. In terms of importance the work is extremely important I think. In terms of progress personally I think we accomplished great results. But we took a long time. For that fact I take full responsibility as team leader. I hope my successor will speed up the processes further in the team.

Heading to conclusion what have you seen in Rwanda that will always be memorable to you?

The combination of individual and societal resilience capacity is the red line combining so many heart-breaking events or stories. They brought me back to my first professional years in Mozambique in the last years of the civil war in this country, from 1984-1990. From my Mozambique time one of most intensive memories concern the late evening crowds heading from evening classes home. There was a massive individual and organizational willingness to compensate the poor colonial educational system. Most of those travelers walked as they had no money to pay the transport. The investments of Rwanda in education and health systems pay off. Investing in Human Capital always pays off. The history of this beautiful country and its people shows also the tragedy if de-investments in human capital takes place. This threat always exists if self-interest prevails over higher interests. Good integrated land and water management and rights are principles to be proud of as Rwanda. I will always remember the dedication of my Rwandan colleagues to work for that goal also felt in the Umuganda and in the atmosphere at the 2018 Kigali Peace Marathon that helped me to complete half of it in a reasonable time for my age. Running for a clear goal. Great. Murakoze cyane.


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