Africa, Combating Desertification and Drought, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs, The Southern Africa Water Wire, Water & Sanitation

SOUTHERN AFRICA: Unequal Water Resources Present a Challenge

Steven Lang

JOHANNESBURG, Jul 25 2007 (IPS) - Water resources are unevenly distributed throughout the countries of Southern Africa. The region boasts of some of the world’s largest lakes and rivers, but is also a land of vast deserts.

Women carrying water in eastern DRC, where many struggle to access this resource. Credit: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

Women carrying water in eastern DRC, where many struggle to access this resource. Credit: Tiggy Ridley/IRIN

Measured by volume the Congo River, rising in the East African highlands and flowing through the rainforests of Central Africa, is second only to the Amazon. Lake Tanganyika, one of Africa&#39s Great Lakes, contains the second largest volume of freshwater in the world, and Lake Victoria has the second largest surface area of any freshwater lake.

Five river basins – the Zambezi, Congo, Orange, Limpopo and Okavango – carry more than enough water to ensure that all inhabitants of the region are well supplied. The Congo basin has almost 30 percent of the fresh water reserves in Africa, yet supports only 10 percent of the continent’s population.

The region is, however, also home to two extensive deserts. The Kalahari spreads through South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, and the Namib Desert covers most of the country named after it.

Frequent droughts have struck large parts of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi. These long dry periods have proved disastrous for farmers trying to eke out a living in marginal areas and left the inhabitants of urban slums vulnerable to diseases due to a lack of proper sanitation.

This manifestly uneven distribution has motivated many engineers and visionaries to devise plans to improve the management of Southern Africa’s water resources. Some of these plans have already been turned into valuable water projects such as the Kariba (between Zambia and Zimbabwe), Gariep (South Africa) and Cahora Bassa (Mozambique) dams.

A number of other schemes such as the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and the Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River are in varying stages of completion.

However, in spite of the overall regional availability of water and substantial international aid efforts to ensure the safe provision of water, there are still many rural people and urban poor who do not have sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

In Mozambique, just 43 percent of people have access to potable water, according to 2004 figures from the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, overseen by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children&#39s Fund (UNICEF) – and in Angola, 53 percent. In Zambia, the figure is 58 percent.

The United Nations, regional and international organisations recognise the importance of ensuring that everyone has access to clean water. "Access to improved water supply is not only a fundamental need and human right, it also has considerable health and economic benefits (for) households and individuals," notes the website of the WHO and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation.

In the Millennium Declaration of September 2000, paragraph 23 on protection of the environment, the U.N. General Assembly committed itself to "…stop the unsustainable exploitation of water resources by developing water management strategies at the regional, national and local levels, which promote both equitable access and adequate supplies."

To implement the Millennium Declaration, the United Nations drew up eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at significantly reducing poverty and improving living conditions for the poorest people by 2015.

Goal seven, which seeks to ensure environmental sustainability, includes a target to halve the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

While the international community as a whole appears to be on track to meet this target, sub-Saharan Africa is falling short.

According to the 2007 update of a U.N. report, &#39Africa and the Millennium Development Goals&#39, 63 percent of people in this region lacked access to basic sanitation facilities by 2004, for instance – only marginally down from 68 percent in 1990, the base year for the MDGs. Projecting this slow rate of progress into the future leaves little doubt that most of Africa will fall short of achieving goal seven by the MDG deadline.

National and local water authorities in Southern Africa are slow in piping water to rural areas most frequently affected by drought. These areas often experience water shortages because in some cases storage dams have not been built, while in others existing dams and pipelines have not been properly maintained.

Poor farming methods have exacerbated water shortages, degrading the soil, and opening the door to soil erosion that diminishes the ability of land to retain water when it rains. Instead of water being stored in the soil, it gushes through erosion channels into the nearest river – putting the sustainability of the agricultural sector that feeds the population at risk.

Rapid population growth and urbanisation are putting strain on the water authorities in urban areas. In many slums, dozens, and sometimes hundreds of people share a single water source. A lack of sanitation infrastructure means that effluent remains exposed among the shacks, and so creates a breeding ground for bacteria.

More positively, leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) seem aware of how important it is to make better use of existing water resources. Most countries in the region have devoted substantial resources to their national water authorities, and are working together with donor agencies to improve water provision. Dedicated commissions have been set up for the four largest river basins in Southern Africa, and usage of all the major rivers is governed by multilateral commissions.

SADC as a whole is fortunate in that most of its rivers and lakes are relatively clean and unpolluted when compared to waterways in the industrialised world, and in other emerging countries in South East Asia.

However, much remains to be done to ensure that this relatively pristine state will persist in the medium and long term.

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