Water is the new black gold

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

“It’s clear that in Africa and globally we need to be working towards doing more with less water” – Kate Brauman, Lead Scientist, Global Water Initiative (GWI), Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota

Negative water externalities
Insecurity in the Sahel, terrorist activities in the Lake Chad area, and frequent clashes between pastoralist Fulani cattle herders and sedentary farmers on grazing routes can be traced to a lack of water or little of it. Not that there used to be much water in the Sahel. But even the little that there was, has been depleted or long gone. The Lake Chad, one of Africa’s largest once, which straddles the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, could easily be mistaken for a stream these days. It is not an exaggeration. More than 90 percent of the lake is gone. “The shrinking of Lake Chad poses the greatest threat to peace, security and food security [for] the populations of the [countries in the] area”, says Verner Ayukegba, principal analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa economics and country risk at London-based IHS Markit, a research firm. “It is very likely, that the shrinking is directly linked to the economic hardship in the region which in turn provided a fertile ground for the Boko Haram insurgency. Being unable to continue fishing and farming activities supported by the lake, local populations on the shores have had to move to urban areas…for opportunities which remain scarce. Countering the shrinking of the lake or at least addressing the effects…will be at the centre of dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency long term.” Thankfully, efforts are afoot to replenish the Lake Chad.

There are competing needs for water elsewhere. Lately, Egypt has become increasingly nervous about Ethiopia’s big dam on the River Nile. Ordinarily, Ethiopia, being an upstream country on the river, is strategically located to determine or affect the flow of water downstream to Egypt and Sudan. Naturally, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has become a source of tensions; particularly with Egypt, which is historically, emotionally, and existentially attached to the River Nile. Sudan, on the other hand, is not as antsy. It is happy, in fact. The GERD would be helpful in stopping potential floods when the Nile overflows its banks. For that favour, it would also get cheap electricity once the dam starts generating electricity. Shouldn’t Egypt be happy as well? It worries about losing control over something so crucial to its national identity and existence. With water increasingly scarce, its sovereign pride makes its leaders wonder about their vulnerability to the whims and caprices of the Ethiopian regime. Say, a word or action by an Egyptian official rubs off in a bad way, what is to stop the Ethiopian government from cutting Egypt off? Well, nothing. Understandably, some worry about the likelihood of conflict. The Egyptians could bomb the dam, for instance. This has been assumeed for a long time now. There is, however, limited probability that this would ever happen.

Restraint, efficiency and creativity
But there is a different sort of water trouble elsewhere; down south in fact. Cape Town could run out of water in another year or so. That is, if concrete action is not taken to tackle the crisis. And there is good reason for concern. “Investigation on government’s effectiveness in handling the crisis effectively exposes politics, not rainfall, at the heart of the problem”, says Ibrahim Sagna, director and head of advisory and capital markets at Cairo-based African Export-Import Bank. Rising debt, mismanagement and corruption at the government’s department for water and sanitation hampered drought relief funding, for instance, according to South African Water Caucus, a civil society group. Day zero, the nomenclature the authorities have coined for the ominous day that the taps could run dry, has been shifting depending on attitudes of Capetonians. Now more conscious of saving water, when there has been an appreciable water conservation effort, day zero has been pushed back. When behaviour has not been responsible, it has been brought forward. The point is a water crisis is imminent. Without concrete action, day zero will come eventually; in Cape Town and/or elsewhere. Still, how is a city like Cape Town, awash with water, without water? What about all that ocean surrounding it? Yes, it is salty water. To make it palatable and drinkable, it has to be desalinated; an expensive endeavour. Should that be an excuse, though? Israel, another water-scarce country, is already adept at desalinating the abundant salty water on its shores. In other words, the technology exists and can be used cost-efficiently. For instance, water infrastructure could be redesigned to distinguish between that needed for drinking and cooking and those for laundry, toilet, and so on. Some businesses in Cape Town, hotels especially, are not waiting for fate or the government. Some already desalinate what is really abundant sea water. Others have deployed interesting technologies like one that harvests air to produce drinking water. Imagine that? And a more water conscious society is certainly beneficial in the long run. Since even though the ocean is abundant, the money for refining it for use is not. Dr Brauman of GWI gives another example. “There is appropriate concern in Malawi about water and energy, as the sole hydroelectric facility and really only source of domestic electricity production is on the Shire river and threatened by falling lake levels.” For Malawi and indeed other countries with similar problems but abundant alternative power sources like year-round sunlight, she advises them “to move away from centralized (not to mention water-depenedent) energy production all together and focus on distributed solar energy.”

Predominantly rain-fed, recent droughts in eastern and southern Africa weighed significantly on agriculture and power supply. So how should African countries better prepare to mitigate or prevent these negative effects in the future? For food supply, irrigation would be necessary, certainly. But where will the water come from? “The focus should be on ensuring that irrigation water is used as productively as possible – improving “crop per drop” of agriculture”, says Dr Brauman. “Water is effectively wasted if yields are low because of too little fertilizer or crop disease. That means instead of focusing just on water, we would be better rewarded by focusing on integrated farm management including fertilizer and pest management as appropriate”, she adds. The water scientist has other creative ideas: “To use water effectively, it needs to be clean enough to  use. One really cheap thing that people have done with water for a long, long time is [to] use it for waste disposal. There’s actually an old engineering adage, “the solution to pollution is dilution” – and that was really true when there weren’t many people! But now it’s a lot cheaper to keep water clean than to clean it once it’s dirty, so we need to build systems that not only use less water but keep it cleaner so it can be re-used later.” She goes further: “one idea that I think is really intriguing but I haven’t seen developed relies on flexibility in water use. If we go back to the idea of thinking about the end goals, I think it’s reasonable to assume that farmers want to be able to feed their families and make a living, not that they specifically want irrigation water. So what if there was a system in place to pay farmers to fallow their land during droughts and not use some of the water? I also think developing ways to use groundwater strategically is important. It turns out that there’s a lot of untapped groundwater in Africa, and much of it is a situation similar to the central US where the groundwater is very old and not being recharged. Could that water resource be used, but only in times of drought? Historically, once people put wells in they use them all the time, whether there’s a drought or not (to grow a crop during the dry season, for example). Perhaps there’s some kind of institutional constraint that could come along with physical access to the water to make sure it’s used wisely.”

So what models are there to make irrigation accessible, affordable and available to African farmers? Again GWI’s Brauman has some ideas. “There’s been lots of great work on what’s sometimes called “green water” harvesting – capturing and storing rainfall on farms by, for example, building small dams on gulches. What I think is critical is not trying to grow crops in places where it’s totally impossible without irrigation, but instead using affordable, small-scale irrigation to help ensure that a dry spell during the growing season doesn’t cause crop failure. There is hope. (An edited version of this article was first published by African Business magazine in April 2018)

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