The Kafue River in Zambia was chosen as location for the centre because it represents a microcosm of what is happening throughout the world in the realm of fresh water usage. The Kafue River is a tributary of the Zambezi River and flows through a 6,500 sq km floodplain – the Kafue Flats. These Flats were once one of the richest wildlife habitats in Africa. Hydroelectric dams changed the flow of the river and interrupted the beneficial wet season flooding of the Flats which is crucial to sustain the unique wetland habitat and its species.

The hydroelectric dams are, however, a major supplier of electricity to the region and without them the large revenue of the copper mines would not be possible. There are also commercial farmers, traditional land users and tourism groups who all rely on the Kafue Flats and its water supply. They all have an impact on the ecosystem. Better and wise water management is urgently needed to curb the downward trend of ecosystem health and all its associated benefits.

The WWF and World Rowing plans to develop a multi-purpose centre that will bring together conservation, research and education and sport. The centre will be the first in sub-Sahara Africa to make information, research and education available to all water users for free. While education is critical to enhance conservation in Zambia, it also helps to have a direct appreciation of water. There is no better way than through rowing.

UNESCO-IHE, the largest international graduate water education institute in the world, will ensure a world-class training and applied research programme at the Kafue River & Rowing Centre.

"The whole freshwater programme (in Kafue) goes back over 15 years," says Bart Geenen, WWF Senior Freshwater expert. "But it's the last 7-8 years that we've become more engaged with the river stakeholders."

WWF Zambia © FISA

At the start, WWF worked with the dam operators to improve the river flows and mimic, to a certain extent, the natural flows. Geenen says that they were not getting far in terms of management of the Kafue wetlands and pushing for the protection of wetlands species. Then about four years ago WWF had a major shift in thinking. They changed their approach to look at 'what would happen to the major water users if the water was not managed well?' WWF did a joint study with the most important stakeholders to find the answer to this question and quickly discovered that all stakeholders had much more in common than they thought.

"We now work with all key stakeholders - the dam operators, agriculture especially sugar, livestock, fishermen and Lusaka water supply authorities." Geenen says there are a lot of meetings organised with stakeholders and they follow a more focused approach. "In meetings we discuss water risks together and come round to a common objectives and actions." There is now a Kafue Flats Joint Action Group.

"There is a huge interest to join forces to improve water management in the Kafue," says Geenen. "It's not a real formal group, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that they want to make things happen, rather than wait for government to do something."

Geenen says WWF is now perceived as a broker that can bring these stakeholders together with a vision that sees the overall picture. "We've been appreciating the challenges of the other stakeholders in the area," says Geenen. "Now they are doing the same to understand our problems."

Geenen says it is hard to measures successes so far as changes in water management will take a long time due to the solution being in the hands of such a large number of parties. But he sees success in bringing stakeholders together, the private sector engaged in water management, getting water onto the agenda of governmental bodies and the dam operators discussing how water flows could be better aligned with downstream water user needs.

To learn more about the Kafue Project: