The Zambezi River Basin is home to about 40 million people who rely on the river for drinking water, fisheries, irrigation, hydropower production, mining and industry, ecosystem maintenance, and other uses. The river also attracts tourists from around the world, who come to see Victoria Falls and wildlife living along the river banks. Tourism supports local economies and brings much-needed foreign currency into the basin countries. Protecting and managing the sustainable use and development of the Zambezi is extremely important to the people living in the region. Transboundary management of shared water resources has been a continuing challenge for all of Southern Africa, particularly in the Zambezi River Basin. The Zambezi (see fig. 1) is the largest river basin in Southern Africa, covering some 1.37 million square kilometers across eight countries: Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Water management in the basin is especially difficult because countries have multiple and competing interests; inadequate basin-level institutional structures; institutional, legal, economic, and human resource constraints; and poor data collection, poor communication, and inadequate training.

    Fig. 1. Zambezi River Basin, Southern Africa. PHIRI 2007

    Fig. 1. Zambezi River Basin, Southern Africa. PHIRI 2007

    Eight countries share the Zambezi Basin watershed, but their interests in the river differ. For example, Zambia and Zimbabwe have the lion’s share of the watershed within their borders, and are the only two countries that currently participate in bilateral management of the river. In addition, both countries share the Kariba Dam and Victoria Falls. Countries’ needs differ depending upon whether they are upstream or downstream and the adequacy of rainfall and water resources. Water-rich countries like Angola, Mozambique, and Zambia are less reliant on surface water for irrigation, while Namibia receives scant rainfall and relies on groundwater for irrigation.

    Varied Needs and Challenges

    Table 1 summarizes the water resources available for each of the eight basin countries. The Zambezi has an average yearly flow of 3,600 cubic meters per second, but in the wet season the river overflows, resulting in damaging floods. These floods were once cyclical, but damming of the river has made the floods unpredictable and difficult to manage, and the issue remains contentious. In water-scarce countries, drought is always a concern, made more ominous by the risks associated with climate change. As Table 1 indicates, two countries, Malawi and Zimbabwe, are already under water stress. Climate change is expected to cause increased water stress in these areas as rainfall continues to decrease and evaporation rates increase with rising temperatures.

    Table 1. Water resources in the Zambezi Basin. SCHOLES AND BIGGS 2004

    Table 1. Water resources in the Zambezi Basin. SCHOLES AND BIGGS 2004

    Even in areas with plentiful water resources, access to clean drinking water and sanitation remains a persistent and significant challenge across Southern Africa, particularly in rural and impoverished urban areas. Lack of access to clean water contributes to illness and death, particularly among children and those with compromised immune systems. Table 2 illustrates access to clean drinking water and sanitation for rural and urban populations in the eight basin countries. Increasing the number of people with access to clean water and sanitation is of critical importance in the region and is one of many issues competing for time, attention, and money.

    Table 2. Clean water and sanitation in the Zambezi Basin. SCHOLES AND BIGGS 2004

    Table 2. Clean water and sanitation in the Zambezi Basin. SCHOLES AND BIGGS 2004

    The lack of adequate institutional structures both within each country and at the basin level has long impeded progress on transboundary water management of the Zambezi River, though the tide may be turning. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), which encompasses all of Southern Africa from the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Africa and Madagascar, is a supra-regional body established for the purpose of integration, harmonization, and sustainable development for the region. SADC’s charge is not simply economic; it is also concerned with sustainable use and management of natural resources including water. SADC’s Water Division has been instrumental in facilitating the development of institutions for Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) of the 15 shared rivers in Southern Africa, including the Zambezi River. Unfortunately, competing water demands, human and financial resources, and power differentials have made instituting IWRM difficult. Even with SADC in play, governance remains a key constraint to sustainable water resource management in the Zambezi Basin.

    Sustainable water resource management is also impeded by poor data collection, management, and dissemination systems, inadequate training, and weak stakeholder participation. While management of the Zambezi may be a long time coming, and outsiders’ ability to help alleviate the challenges of achieving sustainable water resource management in the basin are limited, U-M may be able to assist in some small but meaningful ways through shared research and capacity building in the region. These efforts could strengthen data resources and support the next cadre of water resource management experts in Southern Africa as they wrestle with the difficult task of addressing management of a shared resource.

    Partnership for Water Protection

    The authors traveled to Zambia and Zimbabwe to meet some of the key stakeholders working to establish a framework for transboundary IWRM in the basin, explore the possibility of partnering in the basin, and identify capacity and research needs with basin stakeholders and potential partners. A key outcome of our first visit was confirmation of the need for training and capacity building, as these continue to be key constraints to local and regional governance of water resources. The trip also highlighted the importance of building long-term relationships with stakeholders in the basin as past, short-term efforts have had limited effect. Working with local university collaborators at the University of Zambia, U-M scientists are exploring potential research questions that would incorporate needs within the Zambezi River Basin and capitalize on the expertise and talents at both institutions.

    In order to effectively address the global challenges to meet human and ecosystem water resource needs in the 21st century, higher education institutions need to provide opportunities for both students and faculty from different regions of the world to work together and learn from one another. The combined impact of climate change and population growth poses a host of critical water issues, including water supply and sanitation as well as water for direct or indirect energy production. It is not only the quantity of water that is critical but quality as well. Land use and discharges into the river have adverse impacts on downstream waters. Potential diversion of waters from basins of origin to other regions needs to be addressed both in this country and in the Zambezi River Basin. Consumptive use of water—where water is taken from its source but not returned—is a further issue of common concern. Students and faculty at the University of Michigan and the IWRM Centre at the University of Zambia are exploring joint research and mutual capacity building that would be beneficial to both institutions and the people of the Zambezi River Basin.

    Christine J. Kirchhoff is a PhD Candidate in Natural Resources and Environment. She is investigating the impact of climate change assessments used in water resource management.

    Jonathan W. Bulkley is Co-Director of the U-M Center for Sustainable Systems, and a Professor of Natural Resources and Environment and Civil and Environmental Engineering. His research focuses on water policy and planning for sustainable use of water resources.


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