Creating a roadmap in the Songwe to unlock its potential

In the face of multiple challenges, collaborative efforts are essential to navigate the complexities of sustainable basin management.

By Cebolenkosi Zuma (IUCN), Yakob Umer (IWMI), Fadhili Njilima (IUCN), Jonathan Lautze (IWMI), Davison Saruchera (IUCN) & Rehema Omindo (IUCN)

Participants of the Songwe Basin Workshop held in February 2024. Photo: Cebolenkosi Zuma / IUCN
Participants of the Songwe Basin Workshop held in February 2024. Photo: Cebolenkosi Zuma / IUCN

Nestled between the borders of Malawi and Tanzania lies the Songwe River Basin, a region teeming with ecological richness and cultural vibrancy. Spanning over 4243 km2 and covering seven districts, this basin serves as a lifeline to a population of more than 341,000 people whose livelihoods are intricately woven with the land they inhabit. However, beneath the surface of this natural beauty lies a host of challenges. The dynamic Songwe River, snaking through the basin, not only delineates the boundary between the two nations but also presents a formidable obstacle to border demarcation. Its unpredictable course brings with it flooding and land displacement, leaving communities along its banks vulnerable to its whims. Increased river flows during the rainy season, coupled with abrupt decreases in flow at other times of the year, pose significant threats to community resilience, livelihoods and sustainable development efforts. This underscores the urgent need for sustainable water resources management in the basin.

In the face of these challenges, collaborative efforts are essential to navigate the complexities of sustainable basin management. Toward this end, the Songwe River Basin Commission (SONGWECOM) was established by the governments of the Republic of Malawi and the United Republic of Tanzania in 2017. As a bilateral transboundary river basin organization, SONGWECOM, with support through the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the African Development Bank (AfDB), has attempted to address these challenges by embarking on the development of a Flood Early Warning System (FEWS) to address the threats of floods in the basin, and undertaking soil and water conservation work in the headwater to reduce soil erosion. However, significant challenges persist, impeding the full realization of these initiatives. For instance, the FEWS remains non-functional due to infrastructural constraints such as sustainable internet and power fluctuation. There is a lack of coordination to incorporate a national forecasting system into the FEWS system and hydrometeorological monitoring stations to calibrate and validate the FEWS. The growing activities in the basin called for a cohesive plan to jointly prioritize and sustain the ongoing activities in the basin.

Standing on the banks of the Tanzanian side of the Songwe River, near Kyela. Homes in the top of the image are in Malawi. Photo: Yakob Umer / IWMI
Standing on the banks of the Tanzanian side of the Songwe River near Kyela. Homes seen at the top of the image are in Malawi. Photo: Yakob Umber / IWMI

Achieving sustainability through collaboration

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in collaboration with SONGWECOM convened a workshop from the 27 to 28 February 2024. The initiative was financed by IWMI’s the Shared Water Facility Project and the IUCN’s¬†Building River Dialogue and Governance project. The workshop aimed at co-developing a comprehensive roadmap of key activities in the Songwe Basin, identifying tangential activities that can be pursued and discussing the Songwe Transboundary Multi-Stakeholder Platform. The workshop brought together approximately 30 participants representing the basin and government departments responsible for water, agriculture, energy, climate change and meteorology services, environment and sanitation. Focused engagement took place between the SONGWECOM Secretariat and country stakeholders, facilitated by IWMI and IUCN.

The main outcome is the development of a roadmap of key Songwe activities by the participants. Through both plenary and small group discussions, stakeholders prioritized activities to be pursued in the basin. The activities are mapped according to their deliverables, whether they are new or ongoing activities, the time frame for delivery, potential partners, and their proposed budget. Notably, both IUCN and IWMI emerged as key partners in several activities and will build on those activities to develop a concept note for resource mobilization.

In the Songwe River Basin, as in any transboundary basin, the path to sustainability is achieved via collaboration, dialogue and a shared commitment to sustainable growth. The outcomes of the workshop have paved the way for enhanced collaboration and play an important role in improving conditions in the basin, particularly, through resource mobilization to sustain the work begun under the Global Environment Facility project. Plans are underway to mobilize resources through past financiers such as the African Development Bank Group but also new bilateral funding through joint proposal preparation in which IUCN and IWMI will play a pivotal role. Through concerted efforts and continued collaboration, the vision of a resilient and thriving Songwe Basin can be realized, ensuring a prosperous future for generations to come.

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