Human dignity, water and revolutions in Africa
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Human dignity, water and revolutions in Africa
Saturday, 18 February 2012 06:53

This week's invited contributor is Andrew Wigley, a public affairs consultant and researcher, from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.  As he analyses the issue of human dignity, water and revolutions in Africa, he asks the critical question of "Will the Arab Spring spread south?".  This article was originally published on The Nordic Africa Development Policy Forum, February 3, 2012.

 

The issue for much of Africa is not the volume of water it can access, but its uneven distribution across the continent. Alongside the Middle East, the drylands of North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa face the challenge of balancing declining resources with increased consumption borne from rapid population growth.

Water scarcity in North Africa and the Middle East is at the root of the region’s uprisings. In the coming years, it will be the source of further social unrest across North and sub-Saharan Africa.

Human dignity has been widely acknowledged as the engine for the Arab Spring. There is broad consensus that the right to have a voice as well as a more equitable stake in the future of a nation have been significant factors. Dignity also includes more prosaic notions, such as having access to basic staple foodstuffs and to water, both to drink and for sanitation purposes.

Given the challenges it faces, a regional water strategy stretching across northern Africa and the Middle East is no longer an option; with unprecedented levels of water stress, it is a necessity if it is to avoid further social and economic crisis in the coming years.

Human dignity has been widely acknowledged as the engine for the Arab Spring. There is broad consensus that the right to have a voice as well as a more equitable stake in the future of a nation have been significant factors.

Dignity also includes more prosaic notions, such as having access to basic staple foodstuffs and to water, both to drink and for sanitation purposes.

Poor political governance and moribund economic policies have failed to provide adequate protection against increased water scarcity in North Africa and much of the Middle East. Two-thirds of the region’s water supplies originate outside the region. Consequently, Arab nations need to import more than half their food; they are the greatest importers of cereal in the world. This means that when commodity prices surged in the autumn of 2010, largely due to water scarcity issues such as the Russia’s disastrous drought, basic foodstuffs were in short supply and, therefore, more expensive.

Even in Egypt, where the government spends close to 7 percent of gross domestic product on food and energy subsidies, commodity hikes led to food price inflation hitting 11 percent in 2010. It’s not a co-incidence that the Food & Agricultural Organisation’s food price index, a measure of the monthly change in international prices of a basket of food commodities, peaked at the beginning of 2011.

Unrest has been simmering south of the Sahara as well. Before the Arab Spring, riots erupted in a number of African countries between 2008 and 2010 due to similar hikes in food. A lack of water needed for increased agricultural production to feed rapidly growing populations lay behind those riots.

In the run up to the disturbances in Tunisia in 2010, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development cautioned that the region would face severe water scarcity as early as 2015. It also warned lack of water would also have profound social, political and economic ramifications.

Few could have anticipated that events would have unfolded with such alacrity less than a month later. But the warning signs were there.

Mohamed Bouazizi, the market stall holder in Sidi Bouzid whose self-immolation triggered the Tunisian uprising, made a statement not only about corruption and malfeasance but also about food and water. In the days that followed his action, the town took to the streets in protest chanting ‘Water and bread, yes! Ben Ali, no!’

Projections to 2025 indicate that water scarcity will increase across all of Africa, impacting hardest the dry north including the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.

There can be little dispute that the current famine in the Horn of Africa has been caused, in part, by drought and associated water and food shortages. UNICEF has already issued a chilling prediction of further famine this year including in the Sahel. Niger, Africa’s poorest country, is particularly susceptible say relief agencies.

Most water withdrawals in Niger are used to irrigate its fragile subsistence farming. Its population growth over the last 20 years has resulted in a loss of more than 80% of the country’s freshwater wetlands, which have traditionally provided important ecosystem services for the country, not least being important dry season grazing for the country’s livestock population. Oxfam is reporting that Niger is already seeing people displaced by hunger. Population movement in already water-stressed regions can be destabilising.

Djibouti, sub-Saharan Africa’s most water stressed nation is also struggling to cope. The spectre of what’s happening in nearby Yemen is fuelling concern. Riots erupted in the port city of Aden in 2009 triggered by water scarcity. The price of water has risen five to tenfold in the country since January. With fuel supplies used to pump water from underground aquifers becoming scarce, Sana could be the world’s first capital to run out of water. Increasingly policymakers talk about the Water, Food, Energy nexus and Yemen looks set to become the case study when that relationship collapses.

The issue for much of Africa is not the volume of water it can access, but its uneven distribution across the continent. Alongside the Middle East, the drylands of North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa face the challenge of balancing declining resources with increased consumption borne from rapid population growth.

Surface water supplies will not meet growing demand while groundwater resources have been over-exploited beyond safe yield levels leading to significant declines in water tables and in the pollution of aquifers. Some countries could benefit from so-called fossil water. Libya’s exploitation of this resource through the Great Man-made River (GMR) water supply project is the most extensive water transfer scheme in Africa. Fuelled by oil revenues, Libya has been able to fund this large-scale exploitation of fossil resource but few other countries have the means to undertake such expensive solutions for their water problems.

So what steps does can be taken to meet water demands while averting a looming environmental and social crisis?

First, a regional approach should be adopted to deliver a sustainable strategy for the equitable provision of water in a region equally hard hit. Bold thinking is required to begin looking at North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East as one region united by a common cause.

This needs to include a co-ordinated regulatory framework. Without proper regional co-ordination, measures taken that may disadvantage neighbouring countries will lead to water conflicts. Trying to separate the Sahel from North Africa or the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula would reduce the effectiveness of any concerted action in a region bound by historical trade and migratory flows. A welcome initiative by the Qatari Government to establish a Dry Land Alliance may be a starting point in that process.

Second, proper management of municipal and industrial water supplies requires the introduction of water pricing schemes. Water pricing is likely to be poorly received in the short term, but it is proven to moderate consumption behaviours and to lead to a more efficient use of water, and helps protect water supplies from overuse and pollution.

Third, with the right political and regulatory framework in place, the poorer nations in the region need technical expertise to build capacity and aid from wealthier Arab states and OECD nations to help provide technology, such as more efficient irrigation and recycling systems.

Fourth, raising investment and providing sources of funding is crucial. The region’s formidable collection of sovereign wealth funds and leading investment institutions should pool some resources and launch a regional water investment fund to invest in the huge outlays required for the necessary infrastructure.

The Arab Spring has taken hold for a variety of complex, and interconnected reasons. Water, or the lack of it, is a fundamental element in that mix. The intriguing question is whether the Arab Spring will spread south.

With 70 per cent of the continent’s population under 30, Africa may yet begin to feel the ripple effect. Like young Arabs, young Africans are better educated and better connected and have higher expectations of their governments and leaders than do their parents. Meeting those expectations will, to a large extent, rest on access to water.

Given the challenges it faces, a regional water strategy stretching across northern Africa and the Middle East is no longer an option; with unprecedented levels of water stress, it is a necessity if it is to avoid further social and economic crisis in the coming years.

Reference:

Wigley, Andrew.  Human dignity, water and revolutions in Africa: will the Arab Spring spread south?  The Nordic Africa Development Policy Forum.  February 3, 2012.

www.naiforum.org/2012/02/human-dignity-water-and-revolutions-in-africa/


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