Water Security and Climate Change in Africa


Duke Kent-Brown,  Project Leader: Peace and Security Council Report, ISS Addis Ababa

The problem of climate change is very real and will probably not go away during this century or this millennium. In approaching the problem of climate change the question to be asked is not what is causing climate change (human insouciance, solar activity or some other cause) but what should we be doing to mitigate its effects. How can we best survive its anticipated impact? Certainly, a worldwide reduction in CO2 emissions, particularly by the major industrial countries, including China, would help. Yet, even as we fight that battle, water resources, particularly those in Africa, will continue to diminish through evaporation, wastage, drought and pollution.

Although the UN announced in March 2012 that an important objective of the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals had been achieved, of halving the number of people on the planet without access to safe drinking water, it was also made clear that much remained to be accomplished. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, 70 percent of Africans do not even have access to toilets. In addition, some 738 million people on the planet do not have clean drinking water and 2.5 billion people lack basic sanitation. Both are contributing causes of diarrhea, which is believed to kill up to 2000 African children per day. Unfortunately, the UN announcement served as a reminder that water needs, as articulated by the MDGs, were classified by the UN as being subordinate to the goal of ensuring environmental sustainability, with the main focus on clean drinking water and sanitation. What ought to have been an obvious goal in its own right, of ensuring fresh water access and sustainability, was apparently not considered.

Therefore, we need to engage in even more serious long-term planning, because our survival requires an understanding of how climate change may threaten individual and collective human existence. This is true particularly in the developing world, including Africa. We should begin by treating fresh water with the respect it deserves.

The most important natural resource on the planet, and certainly in Africa, is fresh water; and water is the perceived most vulnerable casualty of the impact of climate change. The oil rich countries of the Gulf are the latest examples of economic growth in the face of a shortage of natural water resources. Therefore, in order to survive they have relied on expensive technologies to convert sea water into the desalinated water they need for human, agricultural and industrial growth to take place. There are few rivers in that region, and most available natural water sources lie underground. In Africa too, countries such as Libya and Algeria respectively, are 95% and 60% reliant on subterranean water sources.

In 2007, some scientists forecast that by the end of this century, Southern Africa would experience a 3.4⁰c increase in annual temperature, a 23% decrease in annual winter rainfall and a 13% decrease in annual summer rainfall. A year later, in Sirte, Libya, the African Union (AU) conference on water use for agriculture came up with more dramatic rainfall statistics for the region and relatively less worrying temperature fluctuations. Nonetheless, the many problems confronting Africa were made very clear, particularly in terms of food and energy production, as well as the increased threat of disease and pestilence, as a result of global warming and anticipated water shortages. The AU conference report also noted that Africa had 10% of the world’s fresh water and some 12% of the planet’s population.

Consequently, a practical plan of action that aims to avoid the negative consequences of climate change and human carelessness, with resultant pressures on human security, needs to focus specifically on the preservation and protection of valuable water resources. A continent-wide campaign throughout all the countries of Africa, emphasising the value and precious nature of water, rewarding water preservation and water wastage, would be a good start. Everybody from a king to a beggar or a doctor to a shopkeeper, is surely capable of appreciating the value and indispensable nature of water? To save and preserve water now is also to save and preserve Africa and its people in the years ahead.

Unlike the countries of the Gulf and some other desert states, many of Africa’s countries have access to rivers and lakes. There is no immediate need to introduce expensive desalination plants to convert sea water into fresh water. It would be a much cheaper alternative to focus on preserving and conserving Africa’s existing water resources so that less wastage takes place and maximum use is made of what we already have. If necessary, sea water desalination would be the next step. In the longer term, other solutions to water shortage could be considered. For example, water tankers might well become more numerous than oil tankers as they traverse the southern oceans carrying water from Antarctica, natural reservoir of 70% of the world’s fresh water, to arid destinations in the north.

By making it Africa’s primary resources goal to provide potentially more than two billion Africans thirty years from now with fresh, usable water, the threat of depleted fresh water resources would become a manageable phenomenon. Africa’s future sustainable development needs would be assured and human security problems would be reduced to manageable proportions.  It could be as simple as that.