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AFRICA: Taking the Lead on Water

Zenzele Ndebele and Nasseem Ackbarally

MIDRAND, South Africa, Nov 11 2009 (IPS) - Water is a resource that binds people together, for better or worse.

Building a catchment pond in Uganda: Africa Water Week is a forum to discuss water issues across the continent. Credit:  Glenna Thomas/IRIN

Building a catchment pond in Uganda: Africa Water Week is a forum to discuss water issues across the continent. Credit: Glenna Thomas/IRIN

The care taken to prevent pesticides or sewage from washing into water supplies in one place, or decisions made in another about managing its flow to generate electricity or irrigate crops: it’s clear that water issues spill over boundaries.

The ongoing Second Africa Water Week taking place in Midrand, South Africa, gathers water ministers, U.N agencies, development partners, civil society and the private sector to discuss water and sanitation. The meeting takes place at the same time as the seventh meeting of the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW).

“There is an under-utilisation and uneven sharing of water resources in Africa, and that remains a growing challenge in the achievement of food and energy securities,” African heads of state declared at the Sharm el Shaik summit of the African Union in July 2008.

That concern is part of the force behind the African Ministers’ Council on Water. AMCOW was established in 2002 in recognition of the central role water resources play in sustainable development in Africa.

Podcasting Africa Water Week

Click on the links below to listen to audio reports from the week-long summit on water issues.

Africa Water Week begins in Midrand, South Africa

Studying effects of climate change on rivers

Women and water resources

Calls for less talk, more action

The cost of water

AMCOW creates a platform for providing political leadership, policy direction and advocacy in the provision, use and management of water resources for sustainable social and economic development and the maintenance of African ecosystems.

Opening the meeting on Nov. 9, South Africa’s minister for water and environmental affairs, Buyelwa Sonjica summarised the issues to be discussed in Midrand.

“There will be four themes. First, financing water and sanitation infrastructure. We are also going to be discussing managing trans-boundary waters. We share the rivers in Africa, so we share the water.

“(Third), climate change adaptation. You will appreciate that Africa is very vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“The last theme will be how do we deal with the sanitation gap that exists.”

Sanitation was highlighted as critical to the social, economic and environmental development of Africa at the 2008 AU summit, with a recognition that Africa was lagging behind on achieving sanitation goals.

The Sharm el Shaik summit committed to increasing efforts to implement past promises; and raise the profile of sanitation issues on the continent, to address issues related to water and agriculture and food security; and develop national water management policies in order to achieve MDG targets for water and sanitation by 2015.

Ada Williams works on sanitation issues in West Africa with the non-profit organisation Water Aid. She says that sanitation should be prioritised, including receiving dedicated funding and agencies to design and implement sanitation policy.

She also argues that communities should become more involved in improving sanitation.

“There has hardly been an opportunity for citizens to voice their wants. In fact, all programmes, especially on sanitation, are driven by the expert advice and opinions of people from the outside,” Williams says.

“The opinion of the community is not being heard.”

To Williams’s call for greater citizen involvement, Nkoulou Mfoulou Parfait, a rural engineer from Cameroon, urged better education on water issues.

“At the level of policy, we have to to understand that water is the driver of public health and that in a country like Cameroon more than 60 percent of illnesses are linked to water,” he told IPS.

“It’s necessary to improve public awareness because we don’t stress this enough. We need to talk about it in the media, in schools, so that people know that (unsafe) water is a threat.

“Water is life, but dirty water is death.”

Burkinabé MP Yacouba Sawadogo had a different perspective.

“Water should be an instrument for development, but it’s not. Because we have not mastered the key points that would allow us to harness water for social and economic development. When it rains in West Africa, only 15-17 percent of the water is captured.

“We have to have it before it can be useful. We don’t have it. We don’t have enough water for it to be an instrument of development. We must master water before it can serve development needs.”

AMCOW is seen as a key mechanism for achieving all these goals and more.

As Africa Water Week and the AMCOW summit get underway in South Africa, the water ministers’ president, Bruno J.R. Itoua, sees the body as an important part of the solution to Africa’s problems.

“We think now we have (a body) which is becoming a leader in achieving all the issues about water sanitation in Africa, on behalf of the African Union, governments and civil society. We have established the basis for a very clear leadership on issues of water in Africa.”

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