COP28 must deliver tangible outcomes on water

Africa is heavily reliant on rain-fed agriculture for food, manufacturing and employment. [iStockphoto]

When a group of Maasai people performed at a church’s music concert last Saturday, it was not just for the flavor their simple item added to the preceding well-arranged sophisticated singing, but also the other thing that mattered to them.

The singers from rural Endepen in Kajiado County desired to access water, and sought support to sink boreholes to save them long treks, sometimes up to 18km.

Access to clean water is a significant challenge, as climate change, population growth and urbanisation put pressure on available sources. In August, the COP28 presidency launched “Water Agenda” in Stockholm, with focus on conservation and restoration of freshwater ecosystems, “enhancing urban water resilience, and bolstering water-resilient food systems”.

For Africa, where water scarcity affects everything from food security to economic development and public health, this hits differently. According to UN, over 300 million people in Africa have no access to potable water, while 700 million need basic sanitation services.

Besides, at least 25 per cent of agricultural production in Africa is lost due to water scarcity and poor water management practices, (FAO estimates). In April, the UN’s Global Water Security Assessment – 2023 established that 13 African countries were critically water insecure.

Africa is heavily reliant on rain-fed agriculture for food, manufacturing and employment. Anything that dents agriculture worsens hunger and health crises, increases poverty, and reduces communities’ financial muscle. Add these to floods or drought, and recent earthquakes.

It is in Africa where climate induced water stresses cause previously comfortable families to be confined in small tents in camps. There, they cannot keep livestock, neither can they farm or enjoy marriage. Human/wildlife conflicts also rise during drought (lack of water) or floods (too much of it).

Nationally, budgets have to be adjusted to address emergencies involving water, or countries forced to borrow more. In countries like Kenya, where tourism is a big foreign exchange earner, biodiversity loss resulting from water stress means reduced tourists, hence loss of jobs and money.

When individuals have to walk such long distances as the Endepen people to access water, family members are separated. Children are more likely to assume parental roles for younger siblings when mothers leave. Such “parentified” children are more likely to miss school. Women are disproportionately affected by climate-induced water stresses. Women-headed homes increase where, because of water scarcity, men leave in search of pasture.

Since they rarely own property, their resilience is minimised, as they cannot borrow from banks to start businesses for lack of collateral. Without water, herders, afraid to lose livestock, arm themselves and invade ranches and other people’s property. At least 27 people were killed in such invasions between June 2021 and February 2022 in Kenya.

People with disabilities also suffer as they are dependent on others also struggling to access water. Water scarcity leads to diversion of funds when the commodity has to be bought, risk of contracting diseases, poor hygiene, among other problems.

The SDG6 seeks access to water and sanitation “for all”. It is a fundamental human right, but which many Africans lack. As African nations build resilience to cope with impacts of climate change on water resources, COP28 must help amass global support and funding to address scarcity, inequality, and increase adaptation. It must stress sustainability, infrastructure development, and regional cooperation. COP28 must not be another avenue for more talk and commitments than intent to act.

-The writer is a climate justice advocate. @Lynno16