SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE’S poetic rendition in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is proving to be a poem not only restricted to the man on a sea voyage. It may be having a wider ramification in relevance now based on the ubiquity of its application in real life experiences outside sea voyage. It may have inadvertently captured the dilemma of the world in relation to availability or non-availability of water in today’s world and the future. The legendary statement was that of “water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.” In this poem, Coleridge might have been predicting the unfolding global phenomenon involving cyclical droughts and deluge, now becoming recurrent in many parts of the world. While scarcity of potable water is real and common in both cases, the case of seasonal flooding has a semblance of that voyager adrift on the high sea but desperately in need of water to drink. Our attention here will be on both situations as the floods often bring disasters of untold magnitude just as does the droughts. The impacts of both on economic, social, political and cultural aspects of lives have been, and will likely remain tremendous in years ahead.
The world urgently has to decide on how to strike a delicate balance on various alternative actions paths on the supply and use of water. The industrial use of water is increasing in volume and a greater proportion of it is discarded as waste water. The household use is also increasing as the population of people increases and the world becomes more urbanised, in which case more water is used in urban than rural or sub-urban households. The third major area of large scale water use is for agricultural purposes in form of irrigation for crops, water for aquaculture and livestock. Many fruit-bearing trees in plantation farming use enormous quantity of irrigation water. In the case of livestock, one of the major consumers is the dairy cow, a study 2018 study, based on the global milk supply, demonstrated that 628 litres of water are required to produce one litre of cow milk. As long as the world is mindful of balanced diets, dairy products will continue to be relevant. We need therefore to strike this delicate balance in our quest for protein-rich diets, adequate high energy-giving foods, vegetables and fruits needed for good health and vitality.
On the frontiers of power and energy, Africa faces huge challenges for global competitiveness in the sense of absolute outputs of power generated, particularly from the renewable energy sources, chief among which is the old-fashioned but still relevant hydropower. Zambia and Zimbabwe currently grapple with low, erratic and unsustainable power supply for their populace as Zambezi River recedes and the volume of water captured by the dams – one of which is the Kariba Dam – are shrinking, thus diminishing the amount of power generated by the turbines. The impacts on industries and economies of both countries have been tremendously negative. With longer production downtimes and higher costs of alternative sources of power, the two countries are vulnerable in price competitiveness of locally manufactured products. Nigeria currently faces the experiences similar to Zimbabwe and Zambia as its supply of electricity is now in crisis. Only recently, some of Nigeria’s supply lines collapsed as a result of low level of power generation in a circumstance of lower levels of water to drive the hydropower plants while the demands for energy are rising.
The fixation of many African countries on dams as major sources of electricity without serious consideration for alternatives is already creating some unintended consequences, one of which is the environmental impact on the immediate neighbourhoods and catchment areas. A case in point is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has created some disputes and diplomatic standoffs that have largely proved hard to resolve between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. On the ambition of Ethiopia to establish a large dam of installed capacity of 6.5 GigaWatts and capable of supplying huge amount of energy, Egypt and Sudan fear that the dam will jeopardise their access to water downstream and will impair their prospects of food security as the dam restricts the volume of water flowing downstream, particularly during the dry seasons. The ambitious dam remains a major sticking point and a cause of diplomatic row between the three countries, which may yet escalate to armed conflicts in case it is not well handled to the satisfaction of all concerned.
Connecting four countries (Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon) – two in the West and two in Central Africa respectively – is the Lake Chad, an economic mainstay of an estimated 30 million people living in close proximity to the lake. Since the 1960s, Lake Chad has reported shrunk by 90 per cent due to climate change, an increase in the population and unplanned irrigation. Moreover, since the 1980s, droughts, low rainfall have led to a decrease by about 30 per cent throughout the region as the receding lake has negatively impacted fishing communities, farmers that rely on the lake for irrigation and households that depend on the water. It has been projected that the lake might completely dry up in a few decades as a result of non-replenishment. Clear links have been established between the rising insecurity in the Lake Chad region and the drying up of the lake as the area around the lake have been described as one of the most unstable in the world. The 2020 Global Terrorism Index report has described countries of the region as among the 10 least peaceful countries in Africa. Our research focused on how the drying of this important water body contributes to the instability in the region.
Fish industry contributes enormously to the GDP of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and has continued to be an important source of foreign exchange earned from fish exports, particularly for Uganda. This brings the importance of Lake Victoria into clear focus as a reduction in size of the water body will significantly impact on the economies of the affected countries. This phenomenon is already leading to negative ecological and socio-economic consequences in forms of reduction in fish species and oxygen depletion, threatening the artisanal fisheries and biodiversity as shrinking lake water becomes saltier and the lake is threatened by overfishing. The livelihood challenges experienced following the low lake water level include fish shortage at some points in time have been estimated at 34.5 per cent, while household food scarcity has been as much as 23.6 per cent, apart from some social vices arising as part of the consequences of the water reduction.
Policy failure in Africa has manifested in many ways. One is that which fails to see far into the future the consequences of immediate interventions. The hitherto unconsidered – but potent – effect of concentration of development in few urban centres at the expense of the rural communities is the fact that less available and safe water in the rural communities have prompted migration of millions of people from rural to urban and peri-urban areas in many parts of Africa. The presence of urban water supplies, commercial water merchants and some unsafe water ponds have been considered better than the unpredictable supplies in many villages experiencing the perennial challenges of water supplies. Therefore, consideration on the subject of internal displacement of people during peace times and periods without any particular natural disaster has not done enough justice to the broader issues leading to population displacement. It seems to have either omitted or avoided the official policies in many African countries that tend to skew water projects more in favour of urban communities, thus unintentionally encouraging the migration of rural vulnerable populations into the urban city centres or sub-urban environments.
If water issues constituted part of the security crisis in Lake Chad region, it should be easy to infer that similar things could arise in other settings. The uncontrolled migration of the displaced people from rural to urban settings comes with its own complications in terms of short-term and long term consequences. The unplanned development and sprawling of many African cities today are part of the broader issues. In these cases, many of the peri-urban communities become breeding grounds and hideouts for criminals and miscreants that pose serious security risks for the core urban communities. Without skills and commercial activities, the young adults become great threats to those affluent and upwardly mobile working class people nearby. South Africa’s most affluent city is just a microcosm of what obtains elsewhere in African cities. Just north of Johannesburg’s flamboyant suburbs lies Diepsloot, and the sprawling township is a assembly of wooden and corrugated iron shacks as Johannesburg is sharply divided between the slum dwellers and the rich in close proximities.
All politics is local, but their impacts can be global. And politicians decide on policies sometimes not based on rationalities but on how the figures will play out in their favour. What makes it difficult to slow down, stop altogether or reverse the rural-urban flow of people on the ground of social services remains a sticking point. Failures of politicians to face up to realities and their timidity about facing the facts just to avoid offending the vulnerable population is one of the major causes and consequences of these urban environmental safety and security crises. And the problems remains, or are even getting more complicated. Considering the wider ramification of water for our contemporary lives and the future, the hosting of the ninth World Water Forum – the first time – in Sub-Saharan Africa was as instructive as it is timely. The choice of Dakar in Senegal for a week-long event that ended at the weekend was also remarkable. It is hoped, however, that this event will make a positive mark on Africa’s future prospects on the matter of water upon which much of our lives and livelihoods invariably depend.