Friday, May 11, 2012

Can the Fourth African Water Week Deliver On the Continent's Water Challenges?

Starting next Monday, African policymakers, water experts, institutions and water related non-governmental organisations will converge in Cairo, Egypt, under the auspices of the African Water Week to consider the numerous challenges and researches released in recent times on the water situation in Africa.

As the week which is in its fourth edition prepares to meet, it is pertinent to say that recent research findings show that the water situation on the continent requires urgent attention as over 300 million Africans still lack access to clean water.

Access to water is recognised as a fundamental right of human beings by the United Nations which lists it among one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In Africa, the water problem is acute. The continent lacks equipment in terms of access to safe water and sanitation. This is also where rivers are the least adapted for hydropower projects and where irrigated agriculture is the least developed.

Lack of access to water is a larger problem in Africa than anywhere else. Of the 25 nations in the world with the greatest percentage of people lacking access to safe drinking water, 19 are in Africa.

A fact sheet released recently by WWF noted that Africa appears blessed with abundant water resources including large rives such as the Congo, Nile, Zambezi and Niger while Lake Victoria located in Kenya is the world's second largest lake.

The sheet also noted that inspite of all the abundance, Africa remained the second direst continent in the world after Australia and that millions of Africans still suffer from water shortages throughout the year.

Already, about 14 African countries are experiencing water stress while another 11 countries are expected to join by 2025, a time about 1.45 billion Africans will be facing stress and scarcity.

A decade ago, a pan-African conference on water in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, attended by African water ministers and development planners identified lack of money and technology as the major hindrances to solving Africa's water and sanitation problems. "The average annual investment between 1990 and 2000 for water supply and sanitation in Africa was $4.6 billion, or 40 per cent of the requirement for meeting basic needs," Mr. K.Y. Amoako, former executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa told that conference.

Many countries do not have the money. During the last 20 years, African economic growth rates were low, resulting in financial constraints and competition for ever-declining public resources. As a result, budgetary allocations to social services such as health, education, water supply and sanitation suffered. To make matters worse, donor support for the sector has also been declining.

The Addis Ababa meeting produced a framework for water management on the continent, "Africa Water Vision 2025," which calls for more resources to be allocated to the sector. The plan estimated that the continent needed to invest at least $20 billion annually over the next 20 years to attain its goals. Out of this amount, at least $12 billion would have to be spent on basic water supply and sanitation.

That conference ended with an agreement that each country set up a national task force to prepare country plans detailing annual service-delivery targets for achieving the water and sanitation goals. The ministers pledged to allocate at least 5 per cent of government budgets to water and sanitation within five years. They also agreed to set up a fund, the African Water Facility, to raise more than $600 million by 2008 for water and sanitation programmes.

Ten years after, the situation still remains the same, the agreed 5 per cent budgetary allocation to the water sector in most countries is yet to be met even as the situation in some countries has gone from bad to worse.

Perhaps the greatest cause of Africa's problem of lack of water is that the continent cannot effectively utilize its resources. Though approximately 4 trillion cubic meters of water is available every year, only about 4 per cent of that is used. The continent and its people lack the technical knowledge and financial resources needed to access their water supplies.

Meanwhile, Africa has abundant water resources that are not being efficiently utilized. With 17 large rivers and more than 160 major lakes, Africa only uses about 4 per cent of its total annual renewable water resources for agriculture, industry and domestic purposes. The challenge, according to Alhaji Muktar Shagari, Nigeria's former Water Resources minister, is getting water to where it is needed most, affordably and efficiently. Currently, about 50 per cent of urban water is wasted, as is 75 per cent of irrigation water.

The week, according to Hon. Bee Molewa, President, African Ministers Council on Water is to put water at the centre of Africa's development. "The effective utilization of the water resources as well as efficient and harmonious management of our trans-boundary waters will lead to greater food security, better harnessing of our energy sources, creation of diversified transportation means including effective means of intra and inter socio-economic and political integration, peace and security, factors germane for more robust sustainable development.

According to her, the conference therefore provides a platform for Africa and our friends at global level to turn focus on addressing challenges faced in the water resources management and also to accelerate progress in attaining the MGD targets on water and sanitation as we head for the bigger picture, achieving the 2025 Africa Water Vision.

The week, which is expected to also mark the 10th anniversary of the formation of AMCOW, hopes to also honour distinguished Africans who have contributed to the success the continent has recorded in its fight to provide clean and safe drinking water for Africans.

The week is coming at a time when all hope seems lost but observers in the sector say government commitment to promises made about raising budgetary allocation to the sector would go a long way in changing the current situation.

The African Water Week represents a political commitment at the highest level where governments, regional institutions, international partners, the private sector, the scientific community, civil society, and the media from all over the world, and in particular Africa, will be meeting to discuss and collectively seek solutions to Africa's water and sanitation challenges. Failure, therefore, to have a conclusive agreement and arrangement from Cairo would not be acceptable as picture of Africans struggling for water with animals common in the international arena remain a bad sight for all well-meaning Africans.


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