Water Watch

Every precious drop of water in Africa counts

Grand Inga project, DRC
Grand Inga project.jpg

Africa, and especially South Africa, sits on top of vast reserves of mineral and energy resources just waiting to be extracted, but water is its Achilles heel.

At its 2014 summit the African Union adopted the Malabo Declaration to advance and revolutionise agricultural growth and food security across the continent.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that power generation capacity in Africa will quadruple from 2020 to 2040, giving nearly a billion people access to electricity.

The digital revolution is creating the world’s biggest consumer market in Africa and with massive urbanisation taking place the role of cities has become a key factor in this new market. Africa is also presently recording some of the fastest growth rates in the world and is considered to be the economic frontier of the future. 

But it is all pretty meaningless without water.

And, if not very careful, that may well be where the continent is headed. Water scarcity or the lack of safe drinking water is one of the world's biggest survival problems, already affecting more than 1.1 billion people globally. One in every six people do not have access to safe drinking water.

A recent report by the 2030 Water Resources Group found that global water demand could outpace supply by 40% within the next two decades. 

Nowhere is this problem more acute than in Africa. According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s publication Water in Africa:  Management Options to Enhance Survival and Growth, as of 2006 a third of all nations on earth were suffering from water stress. Of these, most were found in Africa, according to findings presented at the 2012 Conference on Water Scarcity in Africa.

Of Africa’s estimated 800 million people, the conference heard, more than 300 million were living in water scarce environments. Furthermore, under the existing climate change scenario, between 75 million and 250 million Africans will be living in high water stress areas by 2030. Water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid areas is likely to displace between 24 million and 700 million people.

In the economies of most African countries, it would seem that agriculture may be the sector most dependent on this scarce natural resource and also the sector where most pressure is developing. But mining and other industries are adding to the pressure.

South African example

In South Africa by 2012 it was being projected that the country could run out of water by 2025, and its economic hub, Gauteng, possibly by as early as 2015. Indeed, since late last year through January this year, parts of the province were periodically without water due to low capacity and high demand, exacerbated by the country’s electricity crisis and acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage is being diluted with good quality water from the Vaal River, a main source of water for the province

According to a McKinsey study the estimated demand for water in South Africa will reach 17.7 billion cubic meters by 2030. Current supply, by contrast, will only deliver 15 billion cubic meters. Supply is severely constrained by low levels of seasonal rainfall (about 50% of the world average), insufficient aquifers, and a dependency on water transfers between basins and from other countries such as Lesotho.

Basins supplying large South African cities are expected to face severe gaps brought about by increased household and industrial demand, says the McKinsey study. For example, the Berg River water management area supplying water to Cape Town, has an estimated gap of 28% to close on future demand.

Against this alarming background, agriculture in South Africa – where only 12% landmass is considered arable and only 3% truly fertile ­– is allocated the largest portion of available fresh water. Some 63% is for irrigation on only 1.5% of the land, producing about 30% of the country’s crops.

In a study by the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria titled Parched Prospects: The Emerging Water Crisis in South Africa, the authors say agricultural water demand accounts for 57%, municipalities for 35% and industry for 8%. 

The picture becomes more complicated when it is considered that 8.5 million people in South Africa depend on agriculture for their employment and income; 7% of all formally employed people work in agriculture; and the sector contributes 3% to the national GDP. 

This must be seen against the background of 60% of the 223 river ecosystem types in South Africa being threatened, and 25% of those being critically endangered. The situation with the 792 wetland ecosystems is even worse, say the authors.

South Africa’s former minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, said the following: “The situation currently in South Africa is that we have 98% of the water in the country being considered ‘fully allocated’. This means that my child and your child that is being born tomorrow have 2% of water for use going into the future.” 

Electricity generation

Across Africa another factor also plays a huge role in the continent’s overall water situation, the escalation of hydro power projects. Not only are these electricity plants wholly dependent on ever-scarcer water, but they also divert water away from other users and, some say, threaten the future of the natural water systems from which they are fed.

Among the major new electricity projects that will rely on water is the Grand Inga project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The multi-phase hydro power project will on completion generate up to 40,000MW, sufficient to supply electricity to half of Africa. 

Numerous other such projects have been started or completed.

The fact that water was being dammed up upstream and rivers diverted has already led to a number of serious water conflicts between African countries, such as between Egypt and Ethiopia, between Ethiopia and Kenya, and between Malawi and Tanzania.

Diverting rivers and damming them up has led to heated debates about this being the answer to Africa’s water and electricity challenges. Writing for Pambazuka online, Rudo A. Sanyanga, the Africa Program Director of International Rivers based in Pretoria, says Africa’s mega-dams have not delivered the rapid development the World Bank and other foreign sponsors promised.

“Their benefits are concentrated on extractive industries and the urban middle class, leaving out the majority rural poor.

“Mega-dams have not turned out to be a silver bullet, but a big albatross on Africa’s development. Their costs spiralled out of control, creating massive debt burdens, while their performance did not live up to the expectations.” 

He claims Africa “has become the world region that is most dependent on hydropower. As rainfalls are becoming ever less reliable, this has made the continent highly vulnerable to climate change.” 

In 2008, mining companies consumed more electricity than the whole population in sub-Saharan Africa, while 69% of the continent’s population still had no electricity. And 37% of all the people in the world, who do not have access to safe, clean water, live in Africa.

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by Stef Terblance

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