1 December 2007

Southern Africa: 'Make the Issue of Water Attractive to the Authorities'

Victoria Falls, Northern Zimbabwe — To tackle droughts in Southern Africa, one needs to think out of the box instead of pointing fingers at obvious causes such as lack of rainfall, experts said this week during the third Zambezi Basinwide Stakeholders Forum, held in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

The Nov. 27-29 gathering, an annual event, was organised by the 'Zambezi Action Plan Project 6, Phase 2' (ZACPRO 6.2), an initiative of the Southern African Development Community that aims to facilitate social and economic development in the Zambezi River Basin through improving management of its resources.

The Zambezi Basin -- one of the largest river basins in Africa -- is shared by eight countries (Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe) and is home to over 40 million people.

One of the discussions at the meeting focused on the management of water related calamities such as drought -- a common phenomenon in Africa's southern region, often blamed on scarce rainfall.

However, the reality is more complex, Dominic Mazvimavi of the Okavango Research Centre in Botswana told IPS: "Insufficient rainfall is one of the causes of droughts, but there is more to the story."

Bad management, poor decision making and lack of investment are also important causes of water scarcity and droughts, he added.

"The Zambezi River has enough water to provide each person living in the basin with 200 litres per day. So why is it that some communities do not have enough water? It is not expensive to pump water from the Zambezi."

According to Mazvimavi, droughts in general are avoidable -- if the root causes of such events are treated, rather than the symptoms and consequences.

Government's role is central in this regard. "We need to be more proactive instead of being reactive. Government participation is crucial. Unfortunately, many authorities tend to treat water as a non-priority. The development of water infrastructure has, for instance, fallen behind in many regions in Southern Africa."

Mazvimavi said it was now necessary for governments in the Zambezi Basin and elsewhere in Africa to put more funds aside to tackle hydrological problems.

"More money is needed for water infrastructure development, human resources, research, and systems to collect hydrological and climatological and scientific data. And, this information needs to be transformed into understandable knowledge, which should be made available and accessible to people at grass roots level."

Water organisations, non-governmental groups and other stakeholders should also increase efforts at making authorities more aware of water related challenges. "We need to come together and make the issue of water attractive to the authorities," noted Mazvimavi. "We have to make them realise why they should invest in water."

It is incorrect to state that the frequency of droughts in Africa is on the increase, Mazvimavi said.

"This is often claimed so by the media, but it is nonsense. Scientific evidence rejects this. According to the statistics, the number of droughts in Southern Africa has not increased over the past decades. It may be that the structure of rain seasons is changing, but this does not mean that specific regions are becoming dryer."

Sometimes what it termed drought may in fact be aridity.

"There is a lot of confusion about the difference between drought and aridity. Not every dry period is a drought, and it is a misconception that areas are drought prone," Mazvimavi explained.

"Dry periods occur in every region across the continent, even in Victoria Falls, which is not famous for being dry. This is simply due to the fact that climate in this part of the world is incredibly variable. The 1970s were a wet period, while the 1980s were dry. The key is how these dry periods are handled."

Mazvimavi said crop failure was often blamed on lack of rainfall, but that other factors -- poor land use, high population density -- should also be taken into account.

"If land is used extensively in a non-sustainable way, land erosion occurs and soil fertility decreases. This augments the chance of failed crops. This situation worsens when a lot of people extensively use the same water source."

Furthermore, "When crops are not suitable for a certain region, they have a chance of failing. To prevent this, people need to adapt their crops to the region and not the other way around."

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