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DEVELOPMENT-AFRICA: ”Extreme Water Events” Predicted

Moyiga Nduru

PRETORIA, Apr 26 2007 (IPS) - In Africa, 25 countries are expected to experience water scarcity or water stress in the next 20 to 30 years. This translates into 16 percent or 230 million of Africa’s population facing water scarcity by 2025, and 32 percent or 460 million people living in water-stressed countries by that time.

This is according to a paper presented by Ahmed Nejjar of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) regional office for Africa at a conference looking at water management. The two-day conference, entitled Water Management Africa 2007, was attended by representatives from multilateral, nongovernmental and governmental agencies. It ended in the South African capital Pretoria on April 24.

Signs of climate change can be seen in decreasing rainfall and severe droughts in Africa, environmentalists warned at the conference. River levels are dropping. In extreme cases, rivers are drying up.

”I went to Limpopo in early April and found the river level low. April is supposed to be the end of the rainy season (when the water level should still be high in South Africa),” Marius Classen, manager of water resources at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a governmental research organisation based in Pretoria, told IPS.

This scenario is reflected across Africa. For example, the level of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest inland fresh water, has been decreasing in the past decade which has affected Uganda’s electricity supply.

Some environmentalists have attributed the decrease in the level of Lake Victoria to climate change while others have blamed it on a decision to divert water from the lake to a nearby dam. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania all extract water from the lake.

The Limpopo river, which is shared between South Africa and its northern neighbour Zimbabwe, gave its name to South Africa’s Limpopo province with its population of eight million. ”The majority of the people of Limpopo depend on groundwater. The river feeds the groundwater. When it is dry, it affects the groundwater,” said Classen.

”Groundwater is extremely important in Africa. It is estimated that more than 75 percent of the African population use groundwater as their main source of drinking water,” said Nejjar in the paper he presented at the conference.

”We used to have good rains but the rains are now disappearing. We should expect more droughts,” Kevin Scott, a researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Agricultural Engineering, told the conference. He is involved in research work in Limpopo province.

”Rainfall is declining in the region. We have to work together and have a joint vision,” he argued.

Environmentalists at the conference warned that most of the effects of climate change will be seen in or through water. The climate will be characterized by greater variation and more intense, extreme water events.

The Stern Review of 2006 placed the current global temperature level, which is blamed for the melting of ice in the Arctic and the drought in southern Africa, at 0.6 degree centigrade. The review investigated the economics of climate change and development and was produced by a committee chaired by Sir Nicholas Stern, advisor to the British government.

If the temperature rises to 4 degrees centigrade it will potentially cause a 30-50 percent decrease in water availability in some vulnerable regions such as southern Africa and Mediterranean, said the report. If it reaches 5 degrees centigrade or more, rising sea levels will threaten major world cities, with devastating effects.

Part of the solution lies in collecting and harnessing rain water, according to Johnson Klu of the Mvula Trust. The trust has provided 750,000 South Africans with a basic level of water supply and over 500,000 with improved sanitation in the past five years in South Africa.

The other solution lies in technology. In his opening speech at the World Nano-Economic Congress in Pretoria on April 23, South Africa’s deputy minister of science and technology, Derek Hanekom, urged scientists ”to assist us in our quest to halve the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

”They should help advance the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals,” he said.

South Africa, regarded as a water-stressed nation, has made some progress as the government has committed itself to halving the number of people without access to water and sanitation by 2015, as required by the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Cornelius Ruiters, deputy director general for water resource infrastructure at the department of water affairs and forestry, told the water conference that since the demise of apartheid in 1994 basic water infrastructure has been supplied to about 14 million people.

Currently, 31 million South Africans (67 percent of the population) have access to free basic water. Basic sanitation infrastructure has been provided to over 1.8 million households.

”The target for eradicating the entire water supply backlog is 2008. For sanitation it is 2010,” Ruiters indicated. ”If this is achieved, it will mean that South Africa will not only have met the MDG targets of wiping out 50 percent of the backlog by 2015, but will in fact have wiped out the entire backlog.”

The effects of climate change around the continent have remained a cause of concern. Zimbabwe’s political problems have been exacerbated by environmental phenomena such as the shortage of rain and droughts.

This has contributed to the influx of an estimated three million Zimbabweans into South Africa, Botswana and Zambia over the past few years, according to human rights groups and campaigners.

The conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur is also about natural resources, including water.

”In Nigeria, 1,350 square miles (2,160 square kilometres) are converted into deserts each year. Farmers and herdsmen are moving to the cities,” Sue Taylor, climate change programme manager at the Pretoria office of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), told participants at the water conference.

”People have been talking about war over water. With climate change, it is becoming possible.”

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