COMMENT: Cities and country, or cities versus country? Urban-rural water allocations in semi-arid lands – the case of Burkina Faso

Access to water is crucial in arid and semi-arid regions.  A key question is how far cities can require distant rural areas to provide water for their – growing – inhabitants.

This issue is arising in a number of countries in Africa. In Burkina Faso, the answer – at least to-date – is that the big city is king! The capital, Ouagadougou, draws most of its water from the Ziga dam, 50 kms away, while villages situated near Ziga are prohibited from using the reservoir for drinking and irrigation (upstream of the dam).

Ouagadougou has currently about 2.3 million1residents and is growing. The official city plan is designed to accommodate 3-4 million residents in 2025. International studies meanwhile forecast further population growth, up to 6 million or even, potentially, 8 million in 20502. That kind of increase would put ‘great pressure’ on Ouagadougou ‘with environmental tensions’ due to increased water and energy needs’3. Cities/towns in Burkina can be ‘engines’ of economic growth, but currently most Burkinabé4live and work in the fields. Thriving rural communities need water for productive use; where their access is limited, they will tend to migrate to the cities/towns, thereby increasing urban water demand.

A new study carried out by the University of Ouagadougou II5 and the Overseas Development Institute-ODI in 2014/15 – as part of the PRISE project6 calls for a balancing of water for cities and water for the country, based on assessment of infrastructure investment options benefiting both. The University and ODI are inviting government representatives and other key actors to meet to discuss the urban-rural balance, which is the subject of this preliminary study.

The city-rural water balance is an issue elsewhere in Africa, for example in Kenya where it is proposed to take water via a tunnel from the river Tana, in the rural county of Murang’a, to Nairobi, and in Tanzania where demand for water for the cities of Arusha and Moshi has resulted in many tributaries of the Pangani river now only flowing for part of the year7. The former ‘Northern Water Collector Tunnel Project’ in Kenya is being studied by the ‘WISE-UP to Climate’ project8, which is promoting the formulation by decision-makers of climate change robust investment plans that combine built and ‘natural’ infrastructure – both civil engineering and natural management – allocating social and economic benefits in a cost-effective and equitable manner.


By Peter Newborne, PRISE Research Associate, Twitter: @PeterNewborne

Image: Rajeshree Sisodia/PRISE





  1. According to the document of the French Development Agency (AFD) : ‘Note de Communication Publique d’Opération’: file:///C:/Users/Peter/Downloads/20140120_CBF1186_annexe_2_NCO_Ziga_II_VF.pdf
  2. The population of Ouagadougou is still increasing at a fast rate, higher than the rate of national population growth of 3% (noted in Section 1.2). The UN cites population growth rates for Ouagadougou at 5.97% for the period 2015-2020, 4.95% for 2020-2025 and 4.25% for 2025-2030 (UN Population Division, 2014). At these rates, the population of Ouagadougou is forecast to be 2.83 million by 2020, 3.78 million by 2025 and 4.66 million by 2030. Assuming population growth continued thereafter – at rather lower rates to reflect a continuing downward curve in the degree of increase, at, say, 3.5% from 2030 to 2040 and 3.0% from 2040 to 2050 – the population of Ouagadougou would be 6.57 million in 2040 and 8.83 million by 2050. A 2011 study suggests the population levels of Ouagadougou (and Burkina) could be even higher (Guengant, J.P. (2011) ‘Comment bénéficier du dividende démographique ? La démographie au centre des trajectoires de développement dans les pays de l’UEMOA : Analyse pays Burkina Faso’. Study published by AFD for the Conference « Population, développement et planification familiale en Afrique de l’Ouest francophone : l’urgence d’agir », Ouagadougou, 8-11 February, 2011). In other words, from a 2010 baseline, the population of Ouagadougou is forecast to double by 2030 and then, potentially, to double again by 2050.
  3. ‘If this [urbanisation] process is not managed so as to achieve more of a regional balance, there could be very negative consequences in terms of the physical organisation of space and social equity’: National Policy for Housing and Urban Development’, Ministry of Housing and Urbanisation, 2008, page 19.
  4. The National Statistics and Demography institute (INSD) observes that the majority of Burkinabé – 80.9% – reported to be working in ‘agriculture, hunting and forestry’ (INSD, 2011). The National Development Strategy (‘SCADD’ – GoB, 2011) identifies the primary sector of ‘agriculture, livestock, fishing and forestry’ as a priority for development, stating that ‘economic growth in Burkina is dependent on its agriculture’. It also notes, however, that the primary sector contributed only 30% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012. The share of the ‘tertiary’ services sector is much larger, 46%. The small contribution of the secondary sector (21%) reflects the low level of industrialisation in Burkina Faso.
  5. The ‘CEDRES’ – Centre for Studies, Documentation and Economic and Social Research of the University of Ouagadougou – is coordinated by Dr Claude Wetta, Professor of Economic. Serge Sédogo, sociologist based in Ouagadougou, also participated in the study.
  6. PRISE – ‘Pathways to Resilience in Semi-Arid Economies’ – is an applied research project that aims to catalyse inclusive climate-resilient development in semi-arid lands. The vision of climate resilient development of PRISE is of inclusive development that both eliminates poverty and maximises people’s capacity to adapt to climate change. This requires ‘change in mechanisms of economic growth and social development, including institutional and regulatory frameworks, markets, and bases of human and natural capital’.
  7. Komakech, H.C. , van der Zaag, P. and van Koppen, B. (2012), ‘The Last Will Be First : Water Transfers from Agriculture to Cities in the Pangani Basin, Tanzania’, Water Alternatives Volume 5, Issue3: 700-720.
  8. WISE-UP to climate – ‘Water Infrastructure Solutions from Ecosystem Services Underpinning Climate Resilient Policies and Programmes’ – is supporting the development of knowledge and tools on how to use mixed portfolios of built and natural infrastructure for poverty reduction, water-energy-food security, biodiversity conservation and climate resilience in the Volta basin (with a focus on Ghana and Burkina Faso) and the Tana basin in Kenya. WISE-UP is funded by the International Climate Initiative (ICI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) and led by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).