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Rethinking Africa’s water resources

By Mwai Kibaki | April 6th 2016

The recently launched United Nations World Water Development Report 2016 themed 'Water and Jobs' marks a turning point in global viewpoints on water governance and international water politics.

According to the report, globally, 78 per cent of jobs are water-dependent in varying degrees. This noteworthy deduction lends a whole new meaning to the oft-quoted yet hackneyed dictum, ”Water is life”.

Worldwide, across history, water has somehow dictated the pace and patterns of human settlement and civilisation, and by extension, socio-economic progress.

From the Mississippi-Missouri and the Amazon in the Americas to the Huáng Hé (Yellow) River and the Ganges water course-ways in Asia, the influence accessibility to water has had on human progress is unmistakable. In Africa, the Nile and Congo River course-ways share similar hallmarks.

Undoubtedly, accessibility to water is a powerful trigger of socio-economic progress. Regrettably, the 21st century finds many parts of Africa faced by severe water stress.

This regretful state of affairs, obviously, spells doom to the quest and prospect of rescuing millions from poverty and disease in many parts of the continent.

To transform the water situation in Africa demands more than fact file upon another on the pitiful state of water in the continent.

The pangs visited upon whole communities by water scarcity and stress should cease to become perpetual totems of intellectual armchair tournaments by water experts.

The time to take a fresh look at options that will visibly transform Africa’s water situation is now.

These and related thoughts are uppermost in my mind as I humbly assume the role of UNESCO Special Envoy for Water in Africa, an honour more Kenya’s—and indeed Africa’s—than mine as an individual.

To appreciate the gravity of the matter at hand and enormity of the task ahead in this new role, it is necessary to briefly explore basic facts that define Africa’s water dilemma today.

According to the 2012 Africa water report by the Netherlands-based Leiden African Studies Centre, by 2025, more than 50 per cent of the continent will suffer a severe water shortage, thereby exposing a whopping 230 million people to water scarcity and a further 460 million to water-stress.

Not much rainwater is being conserved and hardly any meaningful recycling of water takes place in Africa.

Yet the need to boost water resources cannot be gainsaid given expert estimates put one in four persons in Sub-Saharan Africa as malnourished.

Back to water and human progress. Lack or scarcity of water incapacitates human progress in very real ways. It hampers the growing of food and construction of dwelling places.

It compromises the pursuit of good health and complicates the search for many health-related interventions. Without water, it is difficult to imagine decent schooling and a productive workforce. Unquestionably, water is the centrepiece of human progress.

Africa, strictly speaking, has vast unexploited water potential. For example, the continent hosts one-third of the world’s major international water basins covering more than 100,000 square kilometres.

The question is; what are we doing with this resource to improve Africa’s lot?

I believe Africa has what it takes to overcome her water predicament. To do so, it is necessary to ask ourselves a few questions.

Why have we not embraced effective rainwater harvesting and recycling mechanisms? How efficient have we been in utilising available water resources? What investment have individual African governments dedicated to protecting aquifers, wetlands and water towers?

I am under no illusion that the task ahead is huge and even daunting. However, I am also persuaded that there is sufficient goodwill—as indeed shown by UNESCO in the appointment of a Special Envoy for Water in Africa—as there is unexplored expertise within the continent that would, if better coordinated, chart a new destiny for water in the continent.

As we seek to reverse the trends and practices that threaten to dampen Africa’s water situation even further, we need to reflect on how best to engage the public to acknowledge that the change we seek calls for a radical attitude change. In this mission, close partnership with media is critical.

However, to succeed in inculcating progressive attitudes towards the use and conservation of water in a sustainable manner focused on long-term goals, I strongly encourage that we engage younger generations a lot more. Certainly, the best place to get them is school and other learning institutions.

Whatever we do to fulfil the goal of reversing negative and undesirable water trends in the continent, we should remember to align our efforts to the bigger agenda of working towards sustainable development and prosperity for all.

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