Dealing with Africa's water problem
by Bai-Mass Taal
Access to clean water is essential for healthy communities and freshwater availability is a key determining factor in ensuring food and energy security as well as in increasing industrial production
At the turn of the century, African leaders from across the continent established the Africa Water Vision 2025 - with aspirations for "an Africa where there is an equitable and sustainable use and management of water resources for poverty alleviation, socio-economic development, regional cooperation, and the environment". Now at the midway point of that journey, it is an opportune time to reflect upon the progress made towards this goal - especially taking into consideration the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development or 'Rio+20'.
The importance of water to development cannot be over stated. Access to clean water is essential for healthy communities. Freshwater availability is a key determining factor in efforts to ensure food and energy security as well as in increasing industrial production. The health particularly of freshwater ecosystems has a direct consequence on human wellbeing and productivity and, therefore, on the sustainability of economic growth and development. The benefits of investing to improve water resources management and access to clean water and sanitation then remain clear and germane.
Precisely because water underpins nearly every aspect of economic growth, managing the resource is both highly complex and challenging. Almost universally, the responsibility for various aspects of water development and management is shared by numerous government ministries, private sector actors and local administrations that do not necessarily have coordination mechanisms. The outcome is often inefficient use and inadequate protection of valuable water resources. And so governments need a more integrated approach to the planning and implementation of water resources management, but that is no simple task. Communication, coordination and cohesion must overcome the norms of competition, conflict and confusion between government bodies over the responsibility and authority to regulate, develop and protect water resources.
Despite the challenges, there are positive signs showing steady progress on this front. At the recently concluded Africa Water Week, the African Ministers' Council on Water released the findings of its 2012 Status report on the application of integrated approaches to water resources management in Africa. It found that nearly half - 18 of 40 - of the AMCOW member countries that responded to a detailed survey conducted by UN-Water as part of a global study, are executing national plans for integrated water resource management. A similar study, conducted in 2008, found that five countries - out of the 16 that responded to the survey - had IWRM plans or were in the process of developing them.
The progress report is not without challenges. A great deal more, in terms of implementation and resources, is required to assure food and energy security as well as access to safe drinking water and sanitation for a growing population. The implementation of integrated water resources management is a long-term process and the progress with instituting the required instruments lags behind other elements. Other key challenges to achieving this in the continent include financial constraints, institutional capacity gaps and weaknesses in coordination mechanisms between sectors and government departments. However, the greatest physical threats to Africa's water resources are floods, droughts and pollution - and are likely to become more severe due to climate change and variability. Nonetheless, there is already a lot of good experience in Africa that could be shared more effectively to speed progress. For example, country-to-country knowledge sharing on disaster preparedness and early warning systems can be promoted to increase resilience to climate change.
The progress made so far in the application of integrated approaches to water resources management will help establish a solid foundation for development and peace. As we consolidate the gains of the last decade and build on the strong foundation of political commitment to deliver tangible benefits of water management to the peoples of Africa; there is a need to develop more regular, objective, evidence-based reporting on the water sector - in order to create a benchmark for measuring progress and to strengthen the awareness of the political leadership, and other stakeholders.
Developing appropriate tools and indicators for measuring the contribution of water to development is particularly important to provide a basis for highlighting the pivotal role of water resources as an essential ingredient in the advent of a green economy in Africa. This makes it imperative to mobilise the resources needed and to to finalise ongoing activities to establish a permanent pan-African monitoring, evaluation, and reporting mechanism - on both the status of water resources management as a basis for informed decision making and the implementation of relevant political commitments. It is crucial then that all African states and development organisations increase their efforts to implement previous declarations on water and sanitation, and unleash the political will required to achieve the Africa Water Vision by 2025. This is the key to advancing the wellbeing of Africa's people, environment and economy.
Bai-Mass Taal is executive secretary of the African Ministers' Council on Water
For many African societies, providing a suitable domestic water supply will liberate women of the heavy gender burden of abstraction and transport of water. The working time devoted to the job may be spent in many other useful tasks or saved to themselves.
Francisco G Novo - University of Seville, Spain