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DEVELOPMENT: New Threats Aggravate Africa's Water Crisis

Thalif Deen

STOCKHOLM, Aug 21 2009 (IPS) - The widespread water scarcity in the African continent, impacting on the lives of nearly 300 million people, may be aggravated further by several new threats, including climate change, transboundary disputes and the negative fallout from military conflicts.

Along the Zambezi River, which supports about 32 million people, climate change is being blamed for an increase in rainfall and flooding. Credit: Worldtraveller

Along the Zambezi River, which supports about 32 million people, climate change is being blamed for an increase in rainfall and flooding. Credit: Worldtraveller

Par Granstedt, general secretary of the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa (AWEPA), points out that the African continent has contributed least to the emissions causing climate change, but is hardest hit by their effects.

"We need to develop common strategies to cope with the impact of climate change both in Europe and Africa, and we should learn from each other," he told a weeklong international water conference in Stockholm, which concluded Friday.

And he warned that "under no circumstances should new burdens be loaded on Africa".

Along the Zambezi River, which supports about 32 million people in Angola, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, climate change is being blamed for an increase in rainfall and flooding.

This year's flooding in Namibia, which caused the deaths of over a hundred and displaced more than 55,000, has been designated a national disaster.

"Europe has a responsibility to help Africa to cope with climate change, which is expected to aggravate land degradation, water scarcity, floods, droughts, forced migration, and accessibility to energy resources," said Granstedt of AWEPA.

Dr. Tesfaye Tafesse of Addis Ababa University said that although 60 percent of the African continent is covered by transboundary water basins, about one-third of its population (300 million people) is experiencing increasing water scarcity.

"It is projected that by 2025, half of African countries will suffer from water stress while the sharing of transborder water resources will play a significant role in inter-state relations," he added.

Rejoice Mabudafhasi, South Africa's deputy minister of environmental affairs and tourism, told reporters: "Transboundary river basins are inherently political and economic." Thus, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution, she said.

While ongoing conflicts in countries such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are undermining development efforts, the devastation caused by past conflicts has also slowed progress.

Muyatwa Sitali of the London-based charity Oxfam says that after 14 years of civil war, Liberia's infrastructure fell into severe disrepair, making it difficult for the government to provide for people's basic needs, including water and sanitation.

Four in five people still lack access to basic health and education, and similar proportions have no jobs. Only one in four Liberians has access to safe drinking water while less than one in five has access to human waste collection and disposal facilities. And over half (55 percent) of households do not use any toilet facilities at all.

Sitali said the government's aim is to increase access to safe drinking water from 25 to 50 percent of the population, while providing adequate sanitation to 31 percent (from the current 15 percent) by 2011.

And its efforts are being backed by five humanitarian organisations: Oxfam, Tearfund, Concern, Solidarites and Action Contre la Faim.

Mahimbo Mdoe of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF zeroed in on the Central African Republic, which had suffered decades of "brutal dictatorships, revolts and coups", seriously hampering development.

"There has been minimal or no investment in the public sector for decades and much infrastructure were destroyed due to conflict," Mdoe said.

The water and sanitation sector was no exception, he said. Only 26 percent of the four million population has access to safe drinking water, while only 27 percent have access to adequate sanitation facilities.

Currently, about 15 international and humanitarian organisations, including UNICEF, are involved in rehabilitation and reconstruction.

On the brighter side is the increasing collaboration among Africa countries in sharing waters.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been mandated to promote political, economic and ecological cooperation among its 14 member states.

In the field of water, SADC addresses its goal through several agreements, including the "Protocol on Shared Watercourses".

The Orange-Senqu River Basin, which provides water for communities in Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia, is described as one of the driest in southern Africa, suffering long periods of droughts.

But Simon Hughes of the Canada-based Hatfield Consultants says it is "possibly one of the most developed river basins in Africa".

The management of water in the river basin, he said, supplies water to a population of 19 million people, as well as large industry, power generation, and agriculture, through a network of dams and inter/infra-basin water transfers.

Still, he warned that "a balance must be struck between meeting the needs of municipal, agricultural and industry water supply, the requirements of the individual basin states, and environment flows."

Meanwhile, the world's longest river, the Nile, has been described as "an asset of extraordinary regional and global importance" shared by 10 African countries: Burundi, DRC, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

A paper presented by three World Bank economists says that recently Egypt's Investment Minister wrote to the World Bank on behalf of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to seek financing for a first cooperative regional investment on the "Eastern" Nile.

Ethiopia's Finance Minister then wrote endorsing his Egyptian colleague's request. Subsequently, the finance ministers of Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania have also each written seeking join financing for a cooperative regional investment.

"Experience suggests, quite simply, that countries cooperate in the management of transboundary waters not when compelled by principles or an 'ethics of cooperation,' but when the net benefits of cooperation are perceived to be greater than the net benefits of non-cooperation, and the distribution of these net benefits is perceived to be fair," the paper notes.

The authors of the study, David Grey, the World Bank's senior water advisor (Africa and South Asia), Claudia Sadoff, lead economist (South Asia), and Genevieve Connors, water specialist (South Asia), say if benefits are to be generated, they must be shared.

The three partners in the Senegal River Basin, Mali Mauritania and Senegal, developed a clear methodology and framework to first quantify and then allocate benefits and costs of multi-purpose investments across the basin.

The Manantali Dam, located inside western Mali, was constructed for hydropower, irrigation and navigation benefits to be distributed across all three countries.

The scale of benefits derived, as well as the perceived fairness of the benefit sharing arrangement and of the solidarity between countries, has sustained substantive cooperation and a strong river basin organisation on the Senegal River, the authors conclude.

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