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Shinn Elliott School of International Affairs George Washington University 9 April 2012
Fourteen of Africa’s fifty-four countries are experiencing water stress; another eleven are expected to join them by 2025, when about half of Africa’s population will face water stress or scarcity. About half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population lacks access to a supply of safe drinking water. This situation significantly increases the risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever. Most of the water diverted for human use in Africa is used for irrigated agriculture. One of the biggest water problems in Africa is its unequal distribution; 30 percent of Africa’s water drains in the Congo Basin where only 10 percent of Africa’s population lives. The continent’s vast deserts and savanna regions are notably dry. Uneven distribution of water is exacerbated by high population growth rates, extreme variability of rainfall, climate change and environmental degradation. The main challenges for the water sector in Africa include the following: 1. Meeting the basic needs in terms of domestic water supply and sanitation; 2. Supporting secure food supply, protecting ecosystems and managing risks; 3. Promoting water governance through sharing water resources; and 4. Ensuring a knowledge base and valuing and allocating water. Changes in precipitation are already leading to more frequent and devastating droughts and floods, changes in the replenishment of groundwater resources, variations in the surface flow of rivers, alterations in the water levels of lakes such as Lake Chad and Lake Victoria, and high evaporation rates throughout the freshwater hydrological systems. Africa is a minor contributor to the leading cause of climate change: the emission of greenhouse gases. It is responsible for only 3 to 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions but is home to about 18 percent of the world’s population. Experts on climate change believe it is the poorest countries and people in Africa who will likely suffer first and most from the adverse effects of climate change.
The UN Environment Program published in 2008 a massive study titled Freshwater under Threat: Vulnerability Assessment of Freshwater Resources to Environmental Change-Africa. The study, which is based on extensive research between 2003 and 2006, included detailed assessments for all of the basins and aquifers in southern, eastern, central, western and northern Africa and the western Indian Ocean island states. It noted that threats to freshwater resources include population growth, food security issues, urbanization, industrialization, pollution of water resources, poor governance and management structures, and deficient scientific and technical capabilities. The study concluded that Africa’s water resources are already facing serious risks, with the situation expected to worsen in the future. Africa faces a bleak future if appropriate measures are not put in place to deal with these issues in a timely manner. Urban parts of Africa face two major water-related challenges: food security and access to adequate quantities of safe water for household use. The problem is compounded because Africa is urbanizing at about 5 percent annually, the fastest rate in the world. Climate experts seem to be in agreement that within Africa northern and southern Africa will be most adversely affected by a decrease in rainfall due to global climate change. The government of South Africa has seized upon this issue as a key challenge. South Africa is already using almost all of its available water resources. South Africa believes it will start running out of water in thirteen years and that its water demand will outstrip supply between 2025 and 2030. It is possible to mitigate this situation by encouraging behavioral change in the way South Africans consume water and by addressing leaks in the water supply system, which in some areas result in the loss of about 40 percent of the water before it can be consumed. The most developed country in Africa, South Africa increased the share of households with access to clean water from 62 percent in 1996 to 92 percent in 2009. But South Africa is a dry country that needs to adopt a new attitude on water usage and reassess the role of water in agriculture, the largest user of fresh water. Numerous mining operations in South Africa have also created large quantities of acid that has spilled into rivers and aquifers. While currently operating mines are required to control the acid water they create, long-abandoned mines are filling up with water and releasing their toxic contents. Improperly treated sewage is also a growing problem in South Africa. One South African conservation organization has warned that South Africa’s fresh water could be so badly polluted in five years’ time that it would be unfit for drinking. While the water crisis in Africa is serious and will almost certainly be exacerbated by climate change, it is important to tread carefully before accepting some of the more apocalyptic claims. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence published in February 2012 an excellent study titled Global Water Security. 2
While it did not focus on Africa, it made a number of relevant assessments including the following: 1. During the next ten years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security. 2. A water-related state-on-state conflict is unlikely during the next ten years. 3. During the next ten years, the depletion of groundwater supplies in some agricultural areas—owing to poor management—will pose a risk to both national and global food markets. 4. From now through 2040, water shortages and pollution probably will harm the economic performance of important trading partners. 5. From now through 2040, improved water management (e.g., pricing, allocations and “virtual water” trade) and investments in water-related sectors (e.g., agriculture, power and water treatment) will afford the best solutions for water problems. Because agriculture uses about 70 percent of the global fresh water supply, the greatest potential for relief from water scarcity will be through technology that reduces the amount of water needed for agriculture. The intelligence study looked at the Nile River Basin in Africa and concluded that it will experience degraded food security, have reduced resiliency to floods and drought and experience increased regional tension over water and use of water as leverage between now and 2040. Of the world’s regions, the study also identified the countries of northern and southern Africa as among those that will experience the most water stress in the coming years. As the study looked beyond the ten year window, it was decidedly more pessimistic about the future.