Africa: Aiming for a Predictable Water Supply

13 March 2012

As the Sixth World Water Forum is being held in Marseille, France, this week, AllAfrica looks at the lack of predictable water supplies and challenges to building infrastructure to rectify this.

"Where do you get water when the tap runs dry?" asks Promise.

"There is nowhere else," says the water seller. "We just have to wait. It usually comes back within a few days."

Eleven-year old Promise lives in Ingwavuma, a remote, rural area in the northeast corner of South Africa, south of Mozambique and east of Swaziland. When it rains, the luminous green uMkhanyakude trees* flourish and the uniquely patterned hides of the beloved local Nguni cattle are sleek. In dry years, well-points dry up, grasses turn to stalks and small household vegetable patches wilt in the searing heat.

One of the daily chores for children in the area is to fetch water from the communal pumps that dot the landscape. For those lucky enough to own a wheelbarrow, two or three large containers can be filled, supplying water for the day. Poorer households must make do with what can be carried back and forth, one bucket at a time.

Speak to any young girl in the area and she can recount the difficulty of learning to hoist a 15-litre container onto her head and navigate the uneven path home. This is a daily routine for all children before they can wash and get ready for school.

Promise is one of a group of child radio reporters in Ingwavuma, the Abaqophi BakwaZisize Abakhanyayo (the Shining Recorders of Zisize), co-ordinated by Zisize Educational Trust. Among other things, the non-government organisation runs a project through which children learn how to record and produce their own stories.

In a programme entitled, "Water, for some it's an everyday sound, for us it's a luxury", recorded during a drought three years ago, the "Shining Recorders" interviewed other children and tried to find out from local officials why the water supply was so erratic and uncertain.

At one of the communal taps the reporters met Ntombifuthi, a young girl who had this to say about the situation: "I wake up at 2 a.m. and come and queue at the hand pump for water. I also pump water in the afternoon. I don't get enough time to sleep. Our problem is water. We see others getting electricity and good roads - we can handle living without these luxuries - but we can't be patient any longer in this issue of water. We have an inkosi (king) but we don't see any progress; we have an induna (headman) and counsellors, but we don't see any efforts from them to improve our situation. The message I want to get across to those who are able to help, please help us with water."

Ntombifuthi's appeal echoes in many communities across Africa.

The average annual rainfall across the continent is around 800mm a year. But conditions vary dramatically from country to country - and within countries. While the average rainfall along the coastal regions of West Africa and the forests of Central Africa is around 2,000mm, the deserts of the Sahara, as well as northeast and southeast Africa, may receive less than 100mm a year.

But it is not necessarily the amount of rainfall a country receives that is of most importance. While quantity does matter, what is essential for a country's growth and prosperity is that it has a predictable water supply.

The damage wreaked by floods or drought can have disastrous consequences, whereas even limited water availability is easier to manage, so long as the economy is geared towards this and the relevant infrastructure exists to store and convey water.

According to Mike Muller, visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, without dams to store sufficient water and within an economy that is more diverse than rain-dependent agriculture, "Africa is the continent most vulnerable to the economic impact of drought."

Muller, who served as director-general of water affairs and forestry in the South African government from 1997-2005, was one of the authors who contributed to the first volume of Africa in Focus, a series dedicated to African research, published by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in South Africa.

In a chapter entitled, "The challenges of implementing an African water resource management agenda", Muller examines the consequences of the gap "between African realities and donors perceptions of them" when it comes to foreign aid for improved access to water on the continent.

This divide has been particularly evident, says Muller, when it comes to the question of whether donor countries will finance African countries' desires to improve their access to predictable sources of water by building dams.

Ironically, says Muller in a podcast produced by the HSRC, one of the obstacles preventing African countries from building the necessary infrastructure for water storage is the environmental lobby in the West.

"You have a situation in Germany or Switzerland where you have strong environmental lobbyists who feel that dams are an infringement on the natural environment ... And you have situations where ministers will say, 'We cannot talk about storing water because that involves construction, which we cannot support'. Yet African governments know that if they don't store water given our variable climate, we are at the mercy of nature and it's a very cruel nature at times."

Muller says there has been a "decade-long drought of funding for infrastructure investment in Africa, despite the acknowledged need to expand irrigation and achieve greater water security". He cites examples from Zambia and Ethiopia, both of which he says, sought money to build dams to generate hydropower and to produce water for irrigation, but both were refused by international agencies, including the World Bank.

A further irony, says Muller, is that there are many examples of African countries doing what they can to conserve the environment and to improve water management and efficiency, but that most of them start from zero.

Countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia store one, one-hundredth of the amount of water that rich countries store, which weakens their capacity "to deal with nature's variability and unpredictability".

According to Muller, where countries in Europe and North America have developed some 60 or 70 percent of their hydroelectric potential, Africa has developed just six percent of its hydroelectric power.

"The potential in the Congo could power all of Africa's current electricity needs and the same again, spare," says Muller. "If we start looking at the rest of southern Africa we could probably have replaced two of the huge coal-fired power stations that we're building in South Africa with hydropower, but the environmentalists don't want it, it's really anomalous."

Describing the current situation, as "silly", Muller says while Europeans are "desperate" to reduce carbon monoxide generation, at the same time they have "systematically blocked hydropower development". Yet hydropower is the only proven technology to produce large amounts of electricity without producing carbon dioxide. Nuclear energy is another alternative, but this is not an option for most African countries.

For Africa, says Muller, a silver lining to the weakening of Western power in recent years is that the rise of China may enable African countries to build the dams necessary to ensure a more predictable water supply.

"There is a coherence between China's capability as the world's pre-eminent builder of large water infrastructure and its interests in Africa's natural resources, many of which require the development of power, transport and water infrastructure for their successful extraction," writes Muller.

While he acknowledges that the "terms of engagement" between China and African countries need "much more attention" in future, there are positive signs regarding China's role as an alternative supporter for Africa's water sector.

"Dams being built are a useful indicator of whether African countries have been given the space to do what they think is the priority at any one time," he says.

Muller is hopeful that in June this year, at the Rio +20 earth summit conference on sustainable development, "we will cement the changed relationships that have emerged over the decade and we will see a fairer set of outcomes."

* "uMkhanyakude" (Acacia Xanthophloea Fever Tree) is a greenish tree with some thorns that mainly grows in the uMkhanyakude district in northern KwaZulu-Natal. "uMkhanyakude" literally means "that shows light from afar".

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