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Africa’s Water Security Hinges on Better Infrastructure

Thalif Deen

STOCKHOLM, Sep 10 2010 (IPS) - As Africa continues its seemingly endless struggle for water security, why is the beleaguered continent lagging behind Asia and Latin America – despite commitments and declarations by political leaders?

“It is hard to generalise across a continent,” Alex Simalabwi of the Global Water Partnership told IPS.

He pointed out that progress has been made, and the African Ministers’ Council on Water has a framework programme to implement the commitments.

“The political will is there in most countries because the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have created pressure for leaders to deliver,” said Simalabwi, lead author of a new report titled ‘Water Security for Development’ released here to coincide with World Water Week.

But he said that funding is always an issue with limited national budgets and competing priorities.

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa is in need of an estimated 30 to 50 billion dollars in investments annually in the water sector.

But the challenges to advancing water financing in Africa are primarily low economic returns, long payback periods, and political, regulatory and market risks, says Ali Kies, director of AfDB’s Water and Sanitation Department.

The way to increase investments, he argued, is to make the value of, and market for water more effective to investors. This can be done by raising its economic profile among national and donor decision makers and attracting repayable sources of finance.

Asked if there are any African countries that can be singled out for their relatively high achievements in water and sanitation and in MDGs, Simalabwi told IPS: “Yes, Senegal and South Africa have made strides. And Ethiopia has made a lot of progress in sanitation.”

But he said the United Nations has a more up to date list of African countries that have made significant progress in their MDGs, which will be the focus of a key summit meeting of world leaders in New York Sep. 20-23.

Addressing World Water Week Friday, South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica bemoaned the lack of infrastructure development in Africa.

“The issue in Africa today lies not in whether or not we should build infrastructure, but rather what type of infrastructure is most appropriate in specific cases.”

What is not in doubt, she said, “is that we need to build, extend or refurbish our water delivery systems.”

“We need to grow our storage capacity and build dams to attenuate floods and reduce the impact of drought. And we need to tap Africa’s vast hydropower potential in order to catalyse economic growth,” Sonjica said.

She also urged the strengthening of African institutions such as the African Water Facility “that has been created to assist in our quest to plan, design and to raise the necessary funding and create the capacity to build infrastructure.” Sonjica is also president of the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW).

She spoke of a joint initiative currently underway in Southern and East Africa which aims at addressing past mistakes in the development of major water infrastructure.

The programme has developed training manuals, all of which are being peer-reviewed to train engineers, professionals as well as civil society in appreciating the need to be sensitive to social and environmental concerns.

The project is ready to be rolled out in both regions, she said. “It is our hope and desire to share and upscale it to the other (African) regions in the near future.”

Meanwhile, the report on ‘Water Security for Development’ says there has been progress in enhancing the enabling environment for integrated water resources management (IWRM) in 13 countries spread over four regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

IWRM is now integral part of the national development plans in Benin, Malawi, Mali and Zambia.

At the same time, water policies have been drafted and updated in Benin, Eritrea, Swaziland and Zambia, while a new legal framework for the administration of water resources has been developed in Cape Verdi.

While remarkable progress has been made towards water security in 13 countries, there is considerable work to be done among the remaining 30 sub-Saharan countries.

“To achieve a water-secure world, policies and plans for water need to be incorporated into national and international development processes,” the report argues.

Simalabwi, the lead author of the report, says that people in the water sector have to make convincing economic arguments for the scaling up of investments in water resources infrastructure.

But as important as funding is, so is good governance. He said good governance comes with building the capacity of local institutions. “Funding shouldn’t be used just for putting in ‘taps and toilets’,” he noted.

It also needs to be put into strengthening institutions so that they have the skills to manage a nation’s water resources and to influence government policy, he added.

Simalabwi said the tighter the integration of water management planning with other development activities, the better the outcome.

“Water is connected to everything – food, energy, health, industry. It’s the world’s lifeline. So how it is managed in relation to competing uses is what policy-makers have to fix their minds on.”

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