Professor Albert Wright | The Water Page

Torrential rain and floods have devastated parts of southeast Africa, but the main worry for most of the continent’s inhabitants is having not too much water, but not enough.Nearly two out of three Africans living in rural areas lack an adequate water supply, and nearly three quarters have insufficient sanitation, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).And things are getting worse.More Africans lack adequate water services than in 1990, and Africa is the only continent where poverty is expected to increase over the next 100 years, according to projections by the United Nations Development Programme.“It’s a vicious circle,” said Professor Albert Wright, a Ghanaian civil engineering and sanitation specialist who has played a key role in drafting Africa’s presentation to the World Water Forum which opens in The Hague on March 17.“Because of the lack of water there are socio-economic problems, which mean there are not the resources to develop the water resources,” Wright told Reuters.Lack of water is literally sapping the strength of African people. Apart from the millions of people malnourished because of crop failure, water-borne disease is rife.“People are laden with worms and diseases which make them weak. People say that half the work of a sick peasant goes to producing food to feed the worms that make him sick,” said Wright.Almost half of all Africans suffer from one of six main water-related diseases, with cholera and infant diarrhoea the most pervasive, the AfDB says. Of the 46 countries worldwide where infection by the bilharzia worm is endemic, 40 are in Africa.With three percent population growth a year — the highest of any continent — demand for water can only increase.DISTRIBUTION IS BIGGEST PROBLEMAfrica’s problem is not how much rain falls, but where it falls.“Africa is plagued with extreme variations in weather,” Wright said. “In places like the Congo, water (supply) is increasing, while in other areas it is decreasing — places like Angola, Mozambique, Namibia.”Which makes the floods in Mozambique and surrounding countries, which have killed hundreds and made hundreds of thousands homeless, all the more cruelly ironic.Wright said a key problem was compiling information on rainfall and other water sources to help plan supply strategies.Poor information means water extraction projects are at risk of exacerbating the very problems they are meant to solve, and projects such as Libya’s which pumps ground water from beneath the Sahara desert can become politically charged.“We don’t know very much about the extent of the ground water resources in Africa. There is a lack of information,” Wright said.Experts say climatic factors such as global warming are also making it increasingly difficult to forecast rainfall on the basis of historical weather patterns. WATER WARS A WORRYAs water becomes an ever more crucial commodity, experts fear it could cause more conflict in an already war-torn continent.“Current approaches to water resources management are unsustainable and are most likely to lead us to crisis and disastrous consequences,” Wright said. “One of the major concerns is that water becomes an instrument of war, not of development.”Major problems occur where catchment basins or water sources such as lakes and rivers are shared by several countries, who compete for the available water.One such flashpoint is the Okavango river, which briefly crosses Namibia on its way from the highlands of Angola to empty itself into the Okavango Delta in Botswana.In the Namibian capital Windhoek fresh water is so scarce that around one sixth of the water supply comes from recycled sewage. There are proposals to build a 250 km (155 miles) pipeline from the Okavango, which Botswana fears may harm the delta and its lucrative tourist industry.Another area of potential conflict is the rapidly disappearing Lake Chad. The lake, bordered by Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad itself, has shrunk from 25,000 square kilometres (9,653 square miles) in the early 1960s to just 2,000 square kilometres (772 square miles) today.Fishermen still eking out a living on the lake have even had to narrow the mesh of their nets in order to catch ever smaller fish.DESERTS EXPANDINGLake Chad is a victim of the relentless southern advance of the Sahara Desert towards the humid and fertile southern tract of West Africa.Politicians and experts from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean who gathered in the Malian capital Bamako on March 6 to discuss desertification heard that two thirds of Africa’s surface was desert.desertification, told delegates.Whatever the complex causes of spreading deserts, it is clear that deforestation, over-grazing and unsustainable agricultural practices all play a part. Africa, the economic laggard in global terms and still highly dependent on agriculture and related industries such as logging, is the continent the least well equipped to mend its ways.At least part of the answer lies in improving basic education, and teaching “water wisdom” Wright said. Improved technology, both in more efficient use of water for sanitation and agriculture as well as cheaper methods of purifying sea water for coastal regions, is also vital.As water sector specialists prepare to put Africa’s case to the Hague summit, Wright said that pushing water up the international agenda is essential if the continent’s water problems are to be resolved.“At this stage what we want to do is to raise awareness of the problem we face and the need for help.”