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USAfrica: Africa and looming crises about Water

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By Peter Onyeri, Project Specialist and Contributing Public Affairs Analyst for USAfrica multimedia networks, Houston, Texas. USAfricaonline.com

“Water, water everywhere but none to drink”. That was the weary cry of the Ancient Mariner in the epic 1798 poem by the great English poet, Samuel Coleridge. And that realism is as true then as it is today, to underscore one of the biggest ironies of nature, as water scarcity remains a major challenge confronting mankind with about 72% of the earth’s surface covered with water. The grim situation was aptly captured by the United Nations in its projections that by year 2025, in the face of runaway population growth and climate change, the situation would assume dangerous dimensions if nothing drastic is done. Africa, with a current population of 1.341 billion in a land area of 30.37 million sq.km, is hardest hit with nine of the ten worst case countries found within its boundaries. In the face of a worrisome depletion of the finite element, a fundamental shift in the way we use water was therefore canvassed in a “Water Action” Initiative facilitated by the United Nations, UN, to “make every drop count”. If and when water is to be used, then it must be tailored for the specific task, to discourage waste.

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What a curious fascination it is that the world and indeed Africa, with such large bodies of water in the oceans and seas, a large network of rivers, expansive lakes and huge reservoir of underground water held in acquirers under its belly, should be concerned with water conservation. The answer and real challenge are really not in the quantity of water but quality. Most of these waters are contaminated, salty and not fit for most human purposes unless treated to fit. Science and technology for capacity to transform such contaminated water to useable water in a right quality is the bane of Africa, engendering a huge water crisis in the continent. Sadly, as many studies have shown, water inadequacy is a critical index of poverty. And that is why so much attention and effort is directed at water in many of its ramifications, as a strategic mechanism to uplift the poor countries of the world from poverty to deserved growth and development. This is a driving philosophy behind the UNs’ Development Goals Agenda of 2000 and 2015 as there is a verified relationship between water, poverty and economic development for prosperity and good life.

It is a well-known truism that a health-challenged person is limited in productive capacity. Africa is a health-challenged continent with a huge proportion of the population ravaged disease. Shockingly, the World Health Organization, WHO, asserts that 80% of all illnesses are traceable to contaminated water. A lack of access to clean water and hence sanitation impacts health by precipitating health challenges that are preventable or otherwise take huge sums of money to care for, thus bringing unnecessary pressure on a country’s health care system. And that pressure is massive, with scarce resources that could have been deployed for economic value used in battling a subsisting health crisis. In many parts of Africa, accessing water wastes time and time has economic value.  The UN estimates that sub-Saharan Africa alone loses as much as 40billion hours a year trying to access clean water, a labor statistic equal to what Frances’s entire workforce commits in a year. With such grim statistic, there is little time left to do any meaningful economic activity.Water scarcity, driving widespread conflicts in Africa, impacts agriculture to cause food insecurity and hunger that take a major toll on the economies of countries. 

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Education is also impacted and unnecessarily hampered when precious time is wasted by women and young girls in particular, looking for water when they should be in school. The gender issue and rights abuse impact all sorts of areas negatively. It is the cumulative effect of all these factors of water and sanitation that aggregate and conspire to engender the poverty that is hindering Africa’s growth and development. Poverty is a big inhibitor of the level of rational thinking that is required for economic progress. It was therefore reasoned that any country desirous of meaningful economic growth and development must of necessity address the issues of water because of its strategic implications on hunger, security, health, education, disease, agriculture, gender inequality, the eco-system etc. It is indeed a root cause factor in many of the challenges faced by the world, necessitating the near frenzied and massive global effort that is devoted to it.

The Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, Agenda was initiated in year 2000 by the UN, to significantly reduce identified factors that act as drag to development, principally poverty, by year 2015. Following the substantial success recorded in its implementation, a new and broader agenda for “Transforming our world” was subsequently initiated in 2015. Termed Agenda 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, are to leverage the benefits of the earlier MDGs towards “improving the world and the lives of its inhabitants” in clear success factors, by year 2030. The UN-SDG Goal 6 in particular aims to ensure “clean water and sanitation for all” in a correct appreciation of the fact that “water sustains life, but safe, clean drinking water defines civilization”.To many African countries, development and civilization, for which they need to devote the highest priorities is about thesocial and economic impacts of water inadequacy. The water crises of sub-Saharan is real and a key driver of its poverty. So, the MDG is expected to feed into the SDG in strategic alignment with the vision of good life for all in the world. There are clear metrics and performance indicators to monitor and track progression on this complex and obviously challenging assignment.

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Unfortunately, many countries in sub Saharan Africa, still grappling with the MDG issues of Agenda 2015 have herded on to embrace the SDG initiatives. The emerging portfolio is a complex mix of too many moving parts which need intricate skills to manage if objectives in value and benefits are to be met. In a ‘Leave no one Behind’ principle facilitated by the UN, a global partnership for collaboration in an inclusive way is currently being implemented, to ensure that everyone is fully engaged to appreciate and ensure value and benefit realization, as success criteria in all the water initiatives. And there are many such initiatives targeted and currently being implemented in the developing countries across the world, and particularly Africa.

The inherent value and benefits of purpose-created water are lost to many in society. Studies by the World Health Organization show that there is a return of between $3 and $34 for every $1 invested in correctly fixing water and sanitation. A strong Business Case therefore exists for investments in effective water and sanitation initiatives. Education and effective advocacy are needed to communicate the right message for attitudinal change. An African Water Initiative anchored on five pillars of recognition and embrace of water’s multiple value, protection of water sources, education for empowerment, trust and innovation is consequently being implemented all over Africa by Governments, International Finance Institutions, Donor Agencies, Non-Governmental Organizations, NGOs and other Stakeholders. A knowledge-driven strategic use of water, particularly in agriculture, in line with the “let every drop count” value mantra of the UN will help resolve many of the challenges facing society, for poverty eradication, peace and economic development. The whole gamut of action is however proving a major challenge in many African countries because of a dearth of capacity especially in the high-level project management skills required to grapple with the complexities involved.  

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As the whole world celebrates this year’s World Water Day on March 22, with the apt theme of “Valuing Water”, Africa will specially come alive to reflect on water and how it is meeting the value objectives of its numerous initiatives for the continent.

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