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Much of Africa is dying of thirst

By Tony Carnie

Most African governments are still using a cheap "firefighting" approach to tackle the major water crises which threaten to overwhelm their people, a regional meeting of the continent's water bosses has heard.

Instead of planning strategically and spending the money that was really needed to give water security to the continent's 885 million people, many nations still focused on small-scale projects to plug the gaps, according to a draft report by African water ministers. The ministers met in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, for three days last week to prepare a continental strategy document which will be presented to the World Water Forum in Mexico early next year.

"So far, member countries have been using firefighting strategies trying to meet the daily requirement of the population by engaging themselves in small projects to fill the gaps in the short term.
"Consequently, most countries have not invested sufficiently in water infrastructure and institutions and thus have not achieved water security," says the draft report prepared under the auspices of the African Ministers' Council on Water (Amcow).

The venue of the meeting in the arid nation of Namibia was perhaps appropriate, given that water resources are so scarce in Windhoek that its 250 000 residents have to drink recycled sewage water. Very few of the city's verges are grassed, while many suburban gardeners adorn their gardens with rocks, gravel and water-wise succulent plants in preference to verdant, water-guzzling lawns. As a whole, the draft report notes that the 54 countries which make up Africa are facing a serious water crisis.

Though it makes up more than 20% of the world's land area and supports 13% of the global population, it only has 9% of the world's fresh water. A recent global expert's report on climate change suggested that the African continent was most vulnerable to the effects of man-made climate warming. Nearly 25 African countries were also expected to experience water scarcity or water stress over the next 20-30 years. Fourteen countries had already reached this point. Africa was also a continent where water resources were distributed very unevenly.

The wettest country in Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, was blessed with 25% of overall water resources, while the driest nation, Mauritania, had to make do with 0.001% of the total. There was very little data available on the continent's groundwater resources, though it was estimated that underground water made up about 15% of the total resource. Some nations were heavily dependent on water from the ground, including Libya and Botswana, which drew 95% and 80% respectively of their water needs from underground aquifers.

Elsewhere, surface waters were being polluted or used up rapidly by a burgeoning human population, particularly by people who had moved to the cities.


"Concentrations of waste frequently exceed the ability of rivers to assimilate them and water-borne and water-based diseases have become widespread."

The rapid rate of urbanisation was leading to a relentless hunt for water. Cities in many parts of Africa were now digging ever deeper to reach groundwater, or were pumping fresh water from greater distances to meet the thirst of the cities. Too little had been done, overall, to reach agreements on how to divide up the common water shared by many nations. Egypt and Mauritania, for example, were almost totally dependent on water flows which originated outside their borders.

"Very few shared waters are jointly managed at present, and in many respects, the issue of water rights and ownership of international waters remain unresolved."

Another area of failure, says the report, was the previous tendency of investing in major water schemes, without hiring enough qualified people to maintain them. In some cities and large towns, up to 50% of water was wasted because of inefficient technologies or neglect of equipment. Up to one quarter of the investments made in water-related sectors by African and other developing countries had been "ineffective" because of poor management. But it was not all bad news. The report points to several areas where things are getting better, or where there is the potential to do things better.

Very few large rivers had been tapped to their full potential for fresh-water storage or hydro-electric energy supply. There ware also signs of a renewed political commitment to tackling water-related issues, and the potential to attract major investment and foreign aid projects. Opening the regional meeting, former Namibian water and agriculture minister Helmut Angula said that at the end of the day, only Africans could develop their continent and end poverty.

"Africa has to take the lead in its own development. Partners can only assist us - but the job has to be done by ourselves."

Africans needed to talk to each other with their heads held up proudly if they wanted to end the distressing media images of African children dying of malnutrition or famine.

"Let us cast aside narrow nationalism and work together for the benefit of future generations of our peoples," Angula suggested.

Published on the web by Mercury on December 12, 2005. © Mercury 2005. All rights reserved.
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