Human beings have for years consumed water as if it were an inexhaustible natural resource. Indeed, the vast oceans and rivers as well as recently discovered aquifers have led us to believe that water is inexhaustible. However,the fact is, 97% of all the water on the earth is salt water- unsuitable for drinking or growing crops and technologies to desalinize are expensive and beyond the reach of most of the countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Of the freshwater resources, 70% is in the form of ice and permanent snow cover. Furthermore,available estimates,put freshwater lakes and rivers as constituting only 0.3% of the total freshwater useable for the entire human and animal population of the world (Vajpeyi, 2012:1).
Currently,Kenya and Hungary heads a group of 30 member states tasked with drafting the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals- a set of mid-term global objectives to succeed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. More importantly however is that experts of water security are seeking the adoption of ”universal water security” as one of the Sustainable Development Goals. Gledistch defines water security as the availability of, and access to water in sufficient quantity and quality to meet the livelihood needs of all households throughout the year without prejudicing the needs of other users. The recommended international standard of water per person is 1,000 cubic metres per year. UN-Water’s working definition, regards water security as ”the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.”Between 1991 and 2000 over 665,000 people died in 2,557 natural disasters of which 90% were water related (World Water Development Report 2012).Global demand for water is forecast to outstrip supply by 40% come 2030 due to factors such as population growth and climate change. About 340 million people on the continent lack access to safe drinking water (239 million ‘are hungry’), while almost 500 million lack access to improved sanitation facilities (AU at 50, 2013).One in 6 people worldwide – 783 million -don’t have access to improved drinking water sources.Globally,of the seven billion people, six billion have mobile phones. However, only 4.5 billion have access to toilets or latrines (UN News Centre). In other words, people have more access to mobile phones than to toilets or latrines.The result is that human stool in open sewers sometimes cross open water lines or empty into water sources such as rivers, lakes, and streams that people depend on for drinking water (Sinei, 2010). According to the AU, the sanitation and water crisis across the continent is costing countries up to five per cent of their gross domestic product each year.
It’s argued that the issue of food security is the most significant element of the non-physical threats in the context of climate change.The UNDP’s Human Development Report of 1994 defines food security as ensuring that all people at all times have both physical and economic access to basic food.The 1996 World Food Summit gives a more complex definition:“Food security, at the individual, household, national, regional and global levels [is achieved] when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO. 1996).
An acquaintance observes that the water versus food security debate is akin to the egg and hen debate as illustrated particularly by the water-food-energy nexus. Water is needed to grow food;food transports (virtual) water. Water is needed to generate energy; energy is needed to supply water. Food can be used to produce energy; energy is needed to produce food.
The discussion that follows draws the nexus between water security and food security,effectively illustrating which one’s the ‘first among equals’. (Energy security inevitably comes into play).In 2011, the UN Security Council recognized the serious implications of climate change, with water being the medium through which climate change will have the most effects. See United Nations University: “Water Security”: Experts Propose a UN Definition on Which Much Depend. Kent-Brown asserts that ”the most important natural resource on the planet, and certainly in Africa, is fresh water; and water is perceived as the most vulnerable casualty of the impact of climate change.
The severity of the water crisis has prompted the United Nations (UNDP, 2007) in concluding that it is water scarcity, not a lack of arable land, that will be the major constraint to increased food production over the next few decades (Hanjira & Qureshi, 2010).
Water is a key resource for sustaining life and society through agricultural production (Water for Food factsheet -PDF ),industry and hydro power, as well as health and human development at large. No community and economy will prevail without water of sufficient quality and quantity (Ndaruzaniye & Volkmann). Africa as a whole is considered to be among the most vulnerable regions to climate variability and change (New African June 2011). The continent is the world’s most populous after Asia and the figure is expected to double to nearly two billion in 2050. Subsequently, the demand for water will rise not just because of the population increase but also because of economic development, urbanization and changes in consumption rates. It is estimated that by 2025, 21 countries- nearly half the continent will experience stress (Bates et al: 2008), and two-thirds globally (Water and Agriculture in the Green Economy, Information Brief) ”Unless we increase our capacity to use water wisely in agriculture, we will fail to end hunger and we will open the door to a range of other ills, including drought, famine and political instability.”-UNSG World Water 2012 statement. The development prospects of Africa are intrinsically linked to the performance of the agricultural sector, writes Ankomah for the New African, May 2012. Agricultural labour comprises 59% of the total labour force in Africa (FAO, 2011) and 13% of value added to GDP in 2009 (World Bank Report 2009). Around the globe, 2.6 billion people work in the food and agriculture sector. This is 40% of today’s global population. It thus underscores the vital role of water as a prerequisite for food security. 95% of sub-Saharan Africa’s farmland relies on rain-fed agriculture and agriculture is the biggest user of water on the globe. Irrigation claims 70% of all freshwater appropriated for human use (Can Kenya Tap Its Water to Double Its Maize? ).Rain-fed agriculture is practiced on about 80% of world’s physical agricultural area and generates about 60% of the world’s staple food (FAO, 2008). Irrigated agriculture covers only 279 million hectares or 19% of cropland (Thenkabail et al., 2010).Worth noting too is that by 2050, food production will require twice as much water as it does today i.e an additional 3,300 cubic kilometres. In as much as in April 2012, there was the revelation that at least 45 transboundary aquifers exist under Africa’s often-arid surface,underground aquifers are non-renewable (Invest in Africa 2013, AU Publication). Indeed, in the long run, climate change threatens to alter the rate of aquifer recharge, making availability even less predictable (World Bank). Over 64% of Africa’s population is rural, with much of that number living on small subsistence farming. Access to food in the rural areas of many developing countries depends heavily on access to water. Kaberuka,he of the AfDB writes thus:”We estimate that it will cost us another $50 billion a year for the next 20 years to meet Africa’s water needs, and – if that figure seems beyond our means – some perspective might help: it is less than the world spends on bottled water every year.” Unlike oil, there is no substitute for water.In the longer term, other solutions to water shortage could be considered. For example, water tankers might well become more numerous than oil tankers as they traverse the southern oceans carrying water from Antarctica, natural reservoir of 70% of the world’s fresh water, to arid destinations in the north (Kent-Brown,2012).Conflicts around water can arise between and within countries.Inter-state water conflicts can occur between riparian groups—that is when water sources (rivers,lakes, ground water aquifers) cross borders. READ: Water wars that dog Africa.
Let’s take note of transboundary waters now, shall we? Stats from UN Water has it that approximately 40 per cent of the world’s population lives in river and lake basins that comprise two or more countries, and perhaps even more significantly, over 90 per cent lives in countries that share basins.The existing 276 transboundary lake and river basins cover nearly one half of the Earth’s land surface and account for an estimated 60 per cent of global freshwater flow (Transboundary Waters ).The Nile basin covers almost 10% of Africa’s landmass (3.1 million square kilometres) and supports over 200 million people, more than half living below the poverty line and dependent on rain-fed agriculture for their survival.The twin pressures of energy and food security—through hydroelectric generation and irrigation schemes—are placing ever-greater demands on the Nile.Climate change, population growth,economic growth amongst other factors therefore only serve to exacerbate water insecurity.
In an increasingly liberalizing (globalizing) world, Transnational Corporations (TNCs) have increased their control over the supply of water, especially in the South. In many cases, private sector participation in water services has been one of the “aid conditionalities” of the so-called “donor assistance” (ODAs) from donor countries and the IMF and the World Bank. Just three companies, Veolia Environnement (formerly Vivendi Environnement), Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux and Bechtel (USA), control a majority of private water concessions globally.(Tendon, 2008).The biofuels industry is inherently predatory on land and resources, especially if it is generated out of food such as maize and Soya beans. It is estimated that to produce 50 litres of biofuels to run a car for one day’s long trip or three days city-run, it would consume about 200 kg of maize -this is enough to feed one person for one year. This does not even take into account the cost of energy, water and other resources that go into biofuels production. In five years, rich countries have acquired about 80 million hectares of land in Africa and other continents with developing countries. Behind the land grabs lies the anticipated rise in consumption rates and market demand for food (projected to increase by 60% by 2050), water (19% increase of agricultural water consumption by 2050) and bio-fuels as an alternative to fossil fuels.
The EU for instance requires that 10% of all transport fuel should come from plant based bio-fuels.This ‘second scramble’ for Africa by top investment banks (Emergent Asset Management) as well as other American, Asian and Middle East companies which have leased millions of acres in developing countries not only poses significant ramifications for food but also water security.At the same time, economic growth and individual wealth are shifting diets from predominantly starch-based to meat and dairy, which require more water.Water, energy and food are strategic resources sharing many comparable attributes: there are billions of people without access to them; there is rapidly growing global demand for each of them; each faces resource constraints; each depends upon healthy ecosystems; each is a global good with trade implications;each has different regional availability and variations in supply and demand; and each operates in heavily regulated markets (Bazilian et al., 2011).
Critics holdthat a crisis for some is an opportunity for others and as such ”for decades it is has been the work of capitalist inspired international organizations to reveal a different narrative, that of water scarcity and water shortages in Africa. Whether it has been the World Bank project to sell the idea of ‘water shortage’ to promote the marketing of water in Africa or the United Nations Environmental Programs (UNEP) that produced the Africa Water Atlas, the fiction of water shortage in Africa has been a multi-million dollar business.” It’s argued that the pertinent question therefore is the accessibility and not the scarcity.
Statistically, Africa receives enough rainfall per year to feed 9 billion people (New African July 2012).However, only about 4% of Africa’s annual renewable water resources have been developed for irrigation, water supply and hydro-power use. Per capita water storage is less than 100 cubic metres, appallingly low compared to other regions. There is more than enough water in Africa and the immediate task is to source it, says Donald Kaberuka. Let’s not be in a haste to heave the collective sigh of relief though. This is why: 70% of freshwater resources is in the form of ice and permanent snow cover and these too are under threat. For instance more than 80% of the glaciers on East Africa’s highest peaks are no more, putting the lives hundreds of millions of people who rely on these natural reservoirs at risk.Glaciers are an important source of the planet’s fresh water; they store and release it seasonally, replenishing the rivers and ground waters that provide people and ecosystems with life-sustaining produce all year round (DN2, Tuesday, August 20, 2013).
According to UN Water,’there is enough water available for our global future needs, but this world picture hides large areas of absolute water scarcity which affects billions of people, many of whom are poor and disadvantaged. Major changes in policy and management, across the entire agricultural production chain, are needed to ensure best use of available water resources in meeting growing demands for food and other agricultural products.’ .(World Water Development Report 2012).
However much the continent has achieved with regards to access to water,opines Kaberuka, the water resources still face an existential threat, and an existential challenge.The existential threat is climate change.The existential challenge is the costly and complex task of unlocking the vast potential of Africa’s untapped water reserves,only a fraction of which are yet on stream.