SA's water security in peril

Cape Town:  African economies lose up to 25 percent of GDP through floods and droughts in a continent where 35 percent of people do not have access to safe drinking water, according to Unesco’s African regional hydrologist Abou Amani. Amani, who gave the keynote address at the Third ChinAfrica Water Forum Conference in the city yesterday, warned this GDP loss was set to increase by five percent because of the future impacts of global climate change.

The impact of climate change was already being felt, with the increase in the number of reported floods from around 200 in the decade from 1971 to 1980 to around 1 900 from 2001 to 2010. In addition to economic losses from floods and droughts, Africa lost another five percent of GDP because of the poor provision of water and sanitation.

In many African countries, less than 40 percent of the country had access to formal sanitation.

More than 80 percent of diseases that affected the continent were water-related.

Amani said many African countries were extremely vulnerable to the huge variation in water availability, yet water formed the core of sustainable development and was essential for realising one-third of the Millennium Development Goals. These included eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health. Only seven percent of Africa’s hydropower had been developed and there were growing gaps in electrification.

Amani said Africa’s main activity for most of the population was agriculture, which was largely rain-fed.

However, Africa’s agricultural water management was “woefully deficient”, resulting in the continent’s $17bn (about R212bn) bill for importing food. It was vital for any significant economic growth that the continent made progress on water and food security.

Water security is defined as the capacity of a population to have access to enough good quality water to sustain both people and ecosystems. It also entails sufficient protection of life and property against floods and droughts.

The UN Environment Programme, which had examined water stress and scarcity in Africa, projected that by the year 2025, nearly 230 million Africans would be faced with water scarcity and about 460 million would live in water-stressed countries. Water scarcity already affected 2.8 billion people globally.

Water stress describes a situation where the availability of water is such that it places a major constraint on all human activity, including on the economy. Water scarcity is a lack of enough water to meet the demands of the population within a region.

A country is water stressed if the amount of water available is less than 1 000 cubic metres a person a year. By 2025 those African countries that would have insufficient water to meet their demands included South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco. And many others would be water stressed.

Amani called for “game-changing approaches and technologies” to water management in Africa.