The missing element: Water left out of climate action in the Congo Basin

As climate change takes a toll on the Congo Basin, efforts are intensifying to protect the region’s forests. But new research shows that one crucial resource is being overlooked: water.
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Researchers are calling for more attention to be paid to the importance of water in forest systems in Central Africa. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR.

Researchers are calling for more attention to be paid to the importance of water in forest systems in Central Africa. Ollivier Girard/CIFOR.

As climate change takes a toll on the Congo Basin, efforts are intensifying to protect the region’s forests. But new research shows that one crucial resource is being overlooked: water.

The region’s forests are increasingly attracting attention at a global level, the same cannot be said for its water resources, said Denis Sonwa, scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and lead author of Managing Africa’s water resources: integrating sustainable use of land, forests and fisheries recently published in Nature et Faune.

“At the moment, very little is being done to even understand the ecological linkages between forests and water. We need integrated management of the forestry and water sectors.”

The Congo River basin accounts for nearly a third of all water resources in Africa, helping feed forests, provide livelihood opportunities and generate power.

Central Africa is the wettest region on the continent — evaporation from waterways and transpiration from trees accounts for up to 70 percent of rainfall.

But it’s gradually starting to dry up.

It’s unrealistic to think we can preserve carbon stocks without considering the water on which forest formations and populations depend.

Rainfall has markedly decreased since the 1970s, while long-term depletion of the watershed has been noted since the early 1990s. Greater extremes are predicted in the wet and dry seasons in years to come, with dry spells further depleting the watershed and heavy rainfalls posing a risk of flooding.

Still regional hydrology bodies like the International Commission for the Congo-Oubangui-Sangha Basin have struggled to receive attention, Sonwa said, and even local governments have yet to act on the dwindling water resources.

“They need to start seeing this as an important issue,” he said. “It needs to be placed higher up on their agendas.”

Already, most of the 77 million people living along the Congo Basin do not have access to safe drinking water, said Sonwa, adding that without an integrated approach to water management it will be difficult to turn things around.

The list of potential benefits would be enormous.

This issue will be one of the topics of discussion at the two-day conference Sustainable forest management in Central Africa: Yesterday, today and tomorrow Yaounde, Cameroon. 22-23 May, 2013.

For CIFOR’s special feature on Central Africa’s forests, visit blog.cifor.org/yaounde

Improved irrigation methods could boost agriculture in the region while ensuring food security, he said, whereas natural waterways could provide transportation routes in a region with underdeveloped road infrastructure.

Money generated by hydroelectricity — which could replace wood as the main source of energy in the region, reducing pressures on forests — could also help fund conservation efforts.

Payment for environmental services schemes in the field of water and or energy could potentially refinance watershed management, data collection and their analysis,” Sonwa said.

Preserving carbon depends on water

Projects associated with preventing forest loss and land degradation along the Congo Basin — which cuts through Cameroon, Congo, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea — have received significant international and regional support in part because of their potential role in combating climate change.

Under a U.N.-backed framework – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (or REDD+), developing countries in the region are being offered incentives to make sure trees, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when cut or burned, are left standing.

“Again, this is only part of the equation,” said Sonwa.

“It’s unrealistic to think we can preserve carbon stocks without considering the water on which forest formations and populations depend.”

As understanding of the links between water and forests improves, Sonwa urges that water management needs to play a more prominent role, both regionally and internationally.

For more information about the issues discussed in this article, please contact Denis Sonwa at d.sonwa@cgiar.org

This work is part of the Congo Basin Forests and Climate Change Adaptation project under the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. It is supported by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

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