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Southern Africa

The paradox of a region s water woes

Despite being endowed with some of the continent s biggest lakes and rivers, Southern Africa faces an acute growing water scarcity, a problem that is bound to reach alarming proportions in the near future.
James Hall and Charles Banda

Water shortage is technically known as hydrological poverty in the fourteen nations that comprise the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Experts opine that the shortage is threatening to worsen other forms of poverty - food shortages and unemployment.

Everything depends on the availability of water from crop cultivation to industry, and even tourism. Nothing makes a tourist angrier than turning on the shower tap to find nothing coming out, because water is rationed, said Simeo Matavel, a hydrologist attached to the Mozambican ministry of natural resources.

Lack of clean water is hindering economic growth and poverty eradication throughout Southern Africa. Nations which share major rivers are seeking water use treaties to avoid potential conflict as demand for water resources increases.

At stake is the development of nations, says hydrologist Samuel Kunene, who is attached to Swaziland s Ministry of Natural Resources. But ultimately what is at stake are millions of lives.

While the region uses less than 4 per cent of its total renewable water resources, the demand for safe water is increasing rapidly due to population growth and economic development. Clever Mafuta, A Zimbabwean based environmental expert says throughout Southern Africa water demand is rising by 3 per cent per year, a rate equal to that of population growth in the region.

The growing demand for increasingly scarce water resources has resulted in triggering growing concerns about future access to water especially where two or more countries share water resources, says Mafuta.

Elton Laisi, a Malawian hydrologist attributes the rising water demand in Southern Africa to population growth, industrialisation and urbanisation. As human populations increase and as countries in the region become more urbanised, the demand for water, land and wetlands resources increase, he explains.

According to Kunene, in Swaziland alone, lack of rainfall this past year has reduced water reservoirs by 25 to 50 per cent of their usual capacities. Accordingly, if regional nations hope to reduce their people s mortality rate, and increase standards of living, the perennial water shortage problem must be addressed.

The AIDS epidemic that is devastating the region is made worse by poor quality water. Immunity systems compromised by the HIV virus are further eroded by tainted water, which may carry opportunistic infections that result in premature fatalities. Clean water prolongs lives. It is as necessary as medicine and proper diet, said Hannie Dlamini, director of the Swaziland AIDS Support Organisation.

Health crises made worse by water shortages have direct economic consequences, Dr. John Ndwandwe of KwaZulu/Natal, a South African province heavily dependant on tourism. Eradication of hydrological poverty is necessary in developmental terms, for the welfare of millions of people. But failure to address basic water needs also affects agricultural output, health services, and ecological stability as expanding human populations compete for limited resources, almost always at the expense of wildlife.

This year s regional drought, which put 13 million people at risk of starvation due to crop failures, has placed water issues at the forefront of policymakers agendas. New attention is being given to ground water supplies, as farmers who had depended on rainfall begin drilling boreholes in greater numbers.

Half the world s wetlands have been lost to development in the past century. Wetlands are defined as areas frequently but perhaps not permanently covered with water that does not exceed six metres in depth at low tide. The loss of Southern Africa s wetlands due to human population pressures has lessened the region s ability to retain water that comes naturally as rain.

While on global level, 20 per cent of the world s population lacks access to safe drinking water, some countries in the region are already water-stressed. Malawi currently faces water shortage and by the year 2025 the country will be in a major crisis. Already, South Africa admits that despite importing water from Lesotho, it will not meet demand by the year 2030 while Botswana, a dry country surviving on ground water may import water by 2020.

A report on the State of the Environment in Zambezi Basin 2002 further says that though Zimbabwe at present has a reasonable amount of water the country will be hit by water stress in the next 25 years along with Mozambique and Tanzania.

Yet water is lifeblood in Southern Africa due to the fact that the region mainly depends on agriculture for the survival of its economy. Agriculture alone accounts for about 80 per cent of water usage. Although this is the case, some 40 to 60 per cent of irrigation water is lost through seepage and evaporation contributing to environmental problems such as soil salinisation and water clogging.

Growing water scarcity severely limits efforts by countries in the region to achieve food security and reduce poverty. According to a document by SADC Water Sector Coordinating Unit, poverty has been rising steadily in the region with no indications that the numbers of the poor will diminish over the short term.

The poor generally have limited access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. More than 60 million people in the SADC region lack access to safe water and more than 65 million lack basic sanitation.

On food security, the document says the majority of SADC s poor live in rural areas where household food security is reflected in insufficient food production or seasonal food insecurity due to cyclical rainfall patterns.

The document also says that environmental problems in the region pose great threat to both and availability and quality of water. One example of such problems is open sewerage, and industrial wastes which pollute rivers that pass through cities, towns and urban areas thereby posing health hazards to innocent people down-streams. In most countries in Southern Africa, most factories and industries discharge their effluents into rivers.

Hydrological experts say the region cannot achieve meaningful development if problems of water scarcity and polluted water are not solved in the region. In a bid to improve water management, countries in the region signed in 1995 the Protocol on Shared Watercourse systems. The main objective of the Protocol is to ensure equitable sharing and conservation of water resources in the region. Before this, landlocked Swaziland entered into an agreement with its giant neighbour South Africa, which surrounds the country on three sides, to share the flow of the mighty Komati River.

The Komati River Basin Accord of 1992 ensured that the waterway, which enters Swaziland from South Africa in the northwest, meanders through the mountainous northern region and exits the country in the dry northern high veldt of the northeast, would be harvested for its water in a controlled manner. Three of a series of five dams have been built for irrigations purposes. South Africa and Swaziland shared the expense of the Komati Dam near Pigg s Peak, Swaziland, which when it opened this year was the country s most expensive public works project.

But the river is also utilised by Mozambique downstream. Last month, the Komati Accord was revised to include this third country as signatory. This had always been the plan, but years of instability following Mozambique s lengthy civil war kept that country from participating.

In line with the 1995 Protocol, a US$1.12 million Southern Africa Research Fund was launched a year ago to facilitate research aimed at ensuring effective water resources management in SADC. The research is funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA). The Institute of Water and Sanitation Development is managing the Fund which provides researchers with a maximum of US$50, 000 per project.

The purpose of the fund is to build regional research capacity among institutions and individuals. It is a planned that such a strategy would promote the utilisation of research results in the planning and management of water resources and stimulate regional cooperation and coordination in the water sector.

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