Why Africans must join forces to protect scarce water resources

27 May 2015 | Story by Newsroom
Communal tap for drinking water in Soweto, Johannesburg. <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Communal_tap_(standpost)_for_drinking_water_in_Soweto,_Johannesburg,_South_Africa_(2941729790).jpg" target="_blank">Photo courtesy of Sustainable Sanitation Alliance.</a>, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
Communal tap for drinking water in Soweto, Johannesburg. Photo courtesy of Sustainable Sanitation Alliance., accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

African water resources are under increasing stress and the continent is likely to face significant water shortages by 2030. Population growth combined with climate change and continued economic development will put further stresses on water resources and infrastructure.

Effectively and equitably governing Africa's water resources is vitally important. One of the most effective solutions will be for industry, civil society and all levels of government to join forces.

It is impossible to downplay the importance of water for human individuals, societies, and the natural environment. We depend on it for food, energy and for the natural functioning of ecosystems.

Ignoring the problem or praying for rain will not solve Africa's water insecurity. There is a much harder task ahead – building resilient communities that acknowledge water's political nature while working together to govern it.

A bleak outlook

The overall security of global freshwater resources is bleak. Places as diverse as Sao Paulo, California, Zimbabwe, and Taiwan have all recently experienced drought conditions, severely disrupting living conditions.

Globally, there is a growing chasm between availability and supply, our awareness of water's preciousness and our ability to govern it. Add in the upheaval from changing weather patterns due to climate change and the complexity deepens.

Unless things change, by 2030 the world will face a 40% shortfall between availibility and demand. This is because trends around climate change and economic development in the least developed and emerging economies are converging. The authors of a recent UN report on water write:

This convergence is certain to intensify the water insecurity of poor and marginalised people in low-income countries and add to the urgency for new approaches to the allocation of water resources for development.

For Africa, already struggling with water insecurity, these deeply vexing challenges will only intensify over time.

Sub-Saharan Africa's population is expected to increase to 2.4 billion by 2050. Africa's urban population is expected to double by 2030 and the movement towards cities will also exacerbate water stress.

Already the number of people who can rely on piped water to their premises has decreased from 42% to 34%. Safe drinking water in urban areas will continue to be a major problem in cities across the continent.

Unpacking the politics of water

Water problems are political problems and require political solutions. Increasingly, scholars from a range of disciplines are focusing on governance as a key variable in the quest for increased water security. Governance requires a toolbox of rules, procedures, norms, and a recognition of particular power dynamics. There is also a focus on how alliances will overcome complex problems that need integration and coordination.

Water clearly intersects with a range of social and environmental issues that, at first glance, bear no connection. Working together can plug the gaping holes in governance that emerge from top-down management. It also reflects our growing networked society, where a decision in one sector can have a knock-on effect in intended and unintended ways.

Most crucially collaborative water governance can overcome the gaps that come from weakened or illegitimate centralised political authorities.

Bargaining, negotiation and compromise

Because water is infused with politics it can lead to deep divisions between competing communities. Equally, it can generate the necessary will to cooperate. Several approaches grounded in local contexts but built on a common spirit of hydrosolidarity need to be pursued.

It is crucial that NGOs, traditional communities and business interests are all included in partnerships with various levels of government to ensure water is managed effectively.

Including a diversity of stakeholders in the political process has a number of positive effects. Technical knowledge of local water resources is spread, effective resolution of conflicts are found, legitimacy is increased, and costs are cut.

Regional cooperation is also absolutely essential given that there are more than 80 international rivers and aquifers across the continent.

It is also necessary to learn from and improve existing examples of collaborative water governance, including South Africa's uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership, and the Swiss-funded Bridge Program which is active across the continent.

We must understand that the seeds for sustainable water security are often sown through the dirty work of bargaining, negotiation, and compromise.

No silver bullet

Given Africa's water insecurity, it may be surprising to learn that only 5% of the continent's potential water resources are developed. There is clearly plenty of opportunity for growth. The challenge will be to sustainably manage that growth.

There is no miraculous technological innovation that will guarantee water security and no package of funding from multilateral donors or national coffers that will fully alleviate water shortages.

Water security involves a number of interrelated pieces: the population, food, energy, land, sanitation, infrastructure, social development, international relations and environmental integrity. A focus on building collaborative governance is a necessary step to increasing water security.

Written by Cameron Harrington, Postdoctoral Fellow at UCT.

This article first appeared in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from carolyn.newton@uct.ac.za.

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