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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Water "Undervalued and Not Treated With Respect"

Lawrence Keketso

MASERU, May 14 2008 (IPS) - A two-day conference on water issues in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which opened Wednesday in Maseru, Lesotho, has seen representatives of government, civil society, the private sector, donors and other groups discuss the likely effects of climate change on development in the region.

Residents of Boa Vista in Luanda, Angola, queue for water. This situation is repeated across Southern Africa. Credit: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

Residents of Boa Vista in Luanda, Angola, queue for water. This situation is repeated across Southern Africa. Credit: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

Keynote speaker Torkil Jønch-Clausen emphasised that practical solutions were needed to help countries cope with these effects: "…climate change is an added challenge to achieving the Millennium Development Goals," he said. "We need to rise above the challenges…"

Eight goals, or MDGs, were agreed on by global leaders at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000 in a bid to raise living standards around the world by 2015. MDG seven, on environmental sustainability, commits nations to halving the number of people who lack access to potable water.

According to the latest data from the Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, an initiative of the World Health Organisation and United Nations Children's Fund, 40 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to a safe and adequate water supply. The figures, from 2004, also show that people living in rural areas are much worse off than their urban counterparts: only 26 percent of rural Africans have adequate access, compared to 55 percent of city dwellers.

While the numbers are generally better in Southern Africa – with Botswana reporting 95 percent coverage, and South Africa 88 percent – Zambia and Angola with 58 and 53 percent coverage respectively show the region has some way to go with providing water to its citizens. Mozambique, at 43 percent, has the lowest coverage in SADC – although this figure marks an improvement from the 36 percent coverage registered in 1990.

According to the United Nations, obstacles to providing clean water in sub-Saharan Africa include population growth, the relatively low priority given to water and sanitation management, and the frequent failure of water supply systems.

Jønch-Clausen is a Danish engineer and researcher who has advised the organisations that convened this week's meeting, the United Nations Environment Programme and the Global Water Partnership: a Stockholm-based organisation that brings together governments, companies and development agencies – amongst others – to help meet water-related needs and improve management of the resource.

He said there was a range of solutions at hand to help communities adapt in situations where the availability of water was declining, and that governments should look into rationing water to meet the competing needs of manufacturing, agriculture and households. New pricing structures for water, greater re-use of the resource and the introduction of drought-resistant crops could also assist.

Maieane Khaketla, chief public relations officer in Lesotho's Ministry of Natural Resources, who officiated at the opening of the meeting, also raised the issue of wide- ranging demand for water – saying the biggest challenge in meeting development goals was ensuring citizens' access to water for basic needs, while responding to increased demands for the same resource from the industrial and agricultural sectors.

With several countries in the region planning increased hydro-electric power generation to meet their future energy needs, Belinda Petrie of OneWorld Sustainable Investments urged caution in this regard: "What is the use of investing in a huge hydro-power plant that will in a few years to come have no water?" OneWorld Sustainable Investments is a South African consultancy firm working on sustainable development.

She said the answer to uncertain rainfall could be to build small hydro-electric plants, and that governments should also consider alternative, renewable energy sources such as wind power.

Pete Ashton, an aquatic ecologist from South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, told the conference that to avoid conflict and improve water management, Southern African states needed to address delicate issues such as control over shared water basins, at once. The Orange, Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers are amongst the region's trans-boundary water resources.

Ashton also said that urgent attention needed to be given to use of alternative water sources such as harvesting rain water, and to new technologies for sustainable use of these sources.

"We need to improve the way we understand the value of water," he observed. "It is undervalued and not treated with respect."

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