Safeguarding a lifeline
Employing better practices in water management is crucial for sustainable urbanisation and development of African countries. Eman Youssef reports from Nairobi on Africa's water woes
A campaign to raise public awareness on the urgent need for water conservation in African countries has recently been launched at a workshop in Nairobi on water policy issues in Africa. Sponsored by UN- HABITAT -- the United Nations Human Settlements Programme -- and the World Bank Institute, and organised by the Third World Water Forum, the Water Media Network, the Water and Sanitation Programme, the Water Utility Partnership for Africa and the Coalition of African Organisation on Food Security and Sustainable Development (COASAD), the workshop brought together over 13 African countries, including Egypt.
Participants discussed issues related to water, sanitation and the environment in Africa. Themes covered at the meetings included health issues, efficient and equitable water service provision, management of water resources, river clean-ups, waste recycling and reuse, public awareness campaigns, water education and the role of the media.
"The workshop was a unique opportunity to interact with the utility managers from Africa, representatives of civil society and governments," said Tracey Osborne, programme manager at the World Bank Institute.
Water scarcity in African cities is fast becoming a potential source of social and political conflict.
"More than half of the population living in African cities today are denied access to municipal supplies of water," said Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of UN-HABITAT. "What is worse is that the urban poor are forced to pay street vendors five to 20 times more for a litre of water than their affluent neighbours pay for the same quantity from municipal supplies.
Meanwhile, nearly 50 per cent of the water supply in many cities is being wasted or is unaccounted for, Tibaijuka said.
As the world's population rises, demand for water is increasing rapidly, said Ali Shabou, chief of the information services section at UN- HABITAT. The world commission on water estimates that by the year 2025, 48 countries are expected to face chronic freshwater shortages, affecting more than 2.8 billion people, who represent 35 per cent of the world's projected population. By 2025, demand for water will exceed supply by 56 per cent.
Given the rate of urbanisation and the growing number of people living in slums and squatter settlements, without adequate shelter or basic services, Tibaijuka said it was time countries did their best to meet the water and sanitation targets set during the World Summit on Sustainable Development held earlier this year in Johannesburg.
"The severe water shortages in Nairobi just over a year ago are still fresh in the minds of most city residents," said UN-HABITAT spokesperson, Sharad Shankardass.
The public awareness campaign is part of the Water for African Cities Programme initiated in December 1999 by UN-HABITAT to address the looming water crisis in most African cities, said Shankardass. The programme includes improving the capacity of city authorities to manage the delivery of water. Don Okpala, chief of the urban economy and finance branch of UN-HABITAT, said that paradoxically, a dweller in the slums of Nairobi earns less than a dollar a day, but pays five times more than the average US citizen for the same quantity of water.
"The battle for water and sanitation will have to be fought in the slums of the growing urban areas of the developing countries," Zahra Hassan, of the press and media relations office of UN- HABITAT, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Winning this battle will not be easy, given the mounting population pressures, rapid urbanisation and resource constraints within which countries will have to work. A strategy that is workable and realistic is needed. "Affixing a price to water is indispensable for cost recovery and managing the demand along a sustainable pathway," Tibaijuka said.
"Water is indeed a social good, which must be affordable to all," she said.
S Ananthakrishnan, chief of the civil society partners section at UN-HABITAT, said "sustainable development will remain a distant dream if we are unable to provide the basic human needs of safe water and adequate sanitation to people, particularly to the urban and rural poor."
According to Tibaijuka, the water for African cities programme has proved to be the most cost- effective among all projects supported by the United Nations to date, with a total funding of about $400 million.
Experts acknowledged that available information on water and sanitation coverage in urban areas and the quality of services did not adequately reflect the living conditions of the urban poor. This was a major obstacle in scaling up investments in water and sanitation directed to the urban poor. Current annual investment in water and sanitation projects in developing countries stands at nearly $15 billion.
The most vivid example of the interaction between population growth, water scarcity and international conflict is the vast basin of the Nile River in northeastern Africa. According to a UN Development Programme (UNDP) report, the 10 countries with territory in the Nile basin contain 40 per cent of Africa's population and make up 10 per cent of its land mass. More than 85 per cent of the Nile's water comes from the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. However, the vast majority of the river's flow, estimated at about 85 billion cubic metres annually, is used by Egypt.
For centuries, the Nile has provided almost all the fresh water used by the Egyptians living along its banks. When modern economic development was a distant dream for the few people who lived upstream, Egypt had no reason to worry about its supply of Nile water, said Ragab Saad, a researcher and chairman of the Clean Water Organisation. "Its complacency is now ending, however, as upstream nations are increasingly harnessing the Nile waters to provide economic prosperity for their growing numbers," he said.
Though Ethiopia's current economic development plans will require only 500 million cubic metres of the Nile's flow annually, its potential demands could significantly reduce the river's flow into Egypt. Ethiopia has an estimated 3.7 million hectares of land that could be irrigated. With a population nearly the size of Egypt's and a faster annual rate of population growth of 3.2 per cent annually -- versus two per cent for Egypt -- Ethiopia will need to develop a large portion of this land for agricultural use. Irrigating only half of this land area with water from the Nile could reduce the river's flow to Egypt by 15 per cent. Research has revealed there is a doubt the basin will produce enough renewable fresh water to satisfy the irrigation plans of both Ethiopia and Egypt.
The remaining Nile basin countries currently use only a small portion of the river's water. However, with their cumulative population now amounting to over 140 million and projected to grow to more than 340 million by the year 2025, it is inevitable that these countries will soon begin to lay claim to a larger share of the Nile's flow to meet their growing irrigation and development needs.
The Egyptian government has long recognised upstream development of the Nile waters as a potential national security threat and has stated its willingness to go to war to preserve its access to fresh water. The main conflicts in Africa during the next 25 years could be over that most precious of commodities, said Sekou Toure, director of the United Nations Environmental Programme.
Potential water wars are likely in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country, according to a UN Development Programme (UNDP) report. The report predicts population growth and economic development will lead to nearly one in two people in Africa living in countries facing water scarcity within 25 years. By 2025, 11 more African countries will join the 14 that already suffer from water scarcity.
A recent report by the Environmental Research Institute has shown that if the combined population of the three countries the Nile runs through -- Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt -- rises as predicted from 150 million today to 340 million in 2050, there could be intense competition for increasingly limited water resources.
Egypt recently threatened war if Ethiopia carries through with plans to divert more water from the Blue Nile for agricultural use, halving the amount of water Egypt now receives from the river. "Clearly, the Egyptian government sees this as a life and death issue," said one Egyptian water expert in Cairo, on condition of anonymity.
Though Egypt is dependent on the Nile for 98 per cent of its water needs, the nation has fouled the river with untreated municipal and industrial wastes and agricultural chemicals.
From the Aswan High Dam north to the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile waters are used again and again by each village and town and by every farmer's field. Before it even gets to Cairo, the river is laden with pollution and carrying so much salt leached from croplands that the water must be desalinated before it can be used for agricultural and municipal purposes further downstream.
Egypt is facing increasing water needs, demanded by a rapidly growing population, increased urbanisation, higher standards of living and by an agricultural policy that emphasises expanded production in order to feed a growing population. With the population rising by more than one million people a year, Egypt is expected to be home to 86 million people by 2025.
Egypt's Water Research Centre reports reveal that satisfying future demands in Egypt depends on better utilisation and efficient use of present water resources.
"Optimal water management is an essential prerequisite for sustainable development in Egypt," Osborne said.