Swaziland: Water Crisis Threatens Economy

Mbabane — Swaziland's continuing water crisis is jeopardising more than just food security: foreign investors are threatening to pull out, and employment opportunities, already scarce, are quickly drying up too.

Struggling to cope with one of the longest dry periods in memory, about 40 percent of Swaziland's one million people are facing acute food and water shortages, according to UN agencies. Rivers and dams are at record low levels and in early September the national water utility announced rationing regimens throughout the country.

"The effects of the drought on food security and the lives of poor rural people have received a lot of attention, but the lack of water in commerce and industry is causing havoc," Ambrose Mkhonta, a manager at an Asian-owned garment factory, told IRIN.

The textile industry has long dominated the small landlocked kingdom's manufacturing sector: nearly 30,000 people were once employed in the now struggling industry and with unemployment topping 40 percent and rural job opportunities drying up in a country of 1 million people, those jobs are vital.

Industry dying of thirst

Several businesses warned a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) in September that if the government failed to deliver on the promise of adequate water to run their operations, they would pull out of the country.

The Swazi Government has invested heavily in a factory-building programme - a cornerstone of its poverty alleviation strategy since the mid-1990s - to lure foreign direct investment.

"Foreign investment means jobs. In the past ten years, tens of thousands of Swazis have found work in these new manufacturing businesses," said Zizwe Vilane, Director of Foreign Direct Investment at the Swaziland Investment Promotion Authority. But the significant strides to reduce poverty through job creation are now at risk of being reversed, he warned.

Foreign investors were attracted by favourable trade agreements with the European Union and the United States in particular. Swaziland, like Lesotho and other African countries, had taken advantage of the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), whereby certain countries enjoyed tariff preferences on exports to the US.

Asian investors were especially keen to exploit Swaziland's trade benefits and as a further incentive dozens of factory premises were built in the Matsapha Industrial Estate, outside the central commercial hub of Manzini, southwest of the capital, Mbabane.

Firms were also promised ample water supplies. But a recent PSC investigation into occupation of the factory shells erected by the government found that the promised water never materialised, jeopardising operations.

"Discussions with investors indicated that, inasmuch as they found Swaziland a safe and secure place to live in, and with a competitively priced labour force, they had serious concerns with utilities, such as serious water shortages that are a huge threat to their continued stay in Swaziland," said a report on the findings.

In Nhlangano, provincial capital of the southern Shiselweni Region, Asian-owned garment factories employ over 5,000 Swazis; five years ago there was not a single manufacturing job in the area.

"Unless an alternative water supply is sourced from the Mkhondvo River [which bends across the southern third of the country], as promised many years ago, [factory owners] said they would have no alternative but to relocate to Lesotho, where there is a huge supply of water," the report added.

Unless an alternative water supply is sourced from the Mkhondvo River [which bends across the southern third of the country], as promised many years ago, [factory owners] said they would have no alternative but to relocate to Lesotho, where there is a huge supply of water

Factory manager Mkhonta pointed out that "Industrial operations are particularly thirsty. Adequate planning for water was not made, and promises were not delivered. If this costs Swazi jobs, it is a big setback for social development."

Industry leaders fret that government gave little thought to providing for the water, electricity and waste-disposal needs of industry. "They just built the factory shells and roads, and invited us to move in," Mkhonta added.

Almost 90 percent of the water used in Swaziland is absorbed by large sugar plantations in the eastern lowveld, according to the Swaziland Water Services Corporation.

Rural areas remain parched

Industrialisation and lure of employment spurred the urban migration of Swazis, but 80 percent of the population still live in rural areas. Abdoulaye Balde, Country Representative of the UN's World Food Programme, said the hunger situation was particularly critical now that it was early spring, historically a period of great want among Swazis.

"Those people who managed to salvage something from last year's harvest, which was fairly wiped out by drought, have finished their food stocks. Planting of the new crops has not begun, so they have nothing," he said.

Donors have pledged enough in response to the UN's call for humanitarian aid, Balde said, and if the pledges translated into actual delivery of promised funds, a more acute situation could still be averted.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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