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The Unique African Challenge in the Quest for Water

Africa is rich in mineral resources and competition for them has sparked conflict in a number of countries. But the continent's most precious resource is often overlooked: water. As Cindy Shiner reports, consuming unsafe water already claims thousands of lives daily and competition for access to safe drinking water could trigger conflict in the future.

Lush landcapes are the Africa portrayed in some popular movies in recent decades, but parched terrain is the reality that many Africans endure.

"Africa, as many of the misconceptions show, is viewed as a place with lush bushes - the Tarzan image - but over the last 50 to 100 years a good part of the forests have been depleted," says Alem Hailu, a professor of African studies at Howard University in Washington. "There has been severe ecological degradation, tremendous increase in populations."

As a result, the demand on existing water supplies, especially safe water, has increased dramatically. Many African women already walk hours daily to collect water. The water they bring home often is unsafe. Thousands of Africans - mostly children - die each day from water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever. Inefficient use of water resources, poor agricultural practices and deteriorating infrastructure add to the problem of a dwindling water supply.

Alem Hailu says concern is growing that increased competition for healthy water sources in Africa could be one more reason for the conflicts that have plagued the continent. "It can be combined with issues of religion, of identity, of regional pride," he explains, "so it can be a flashpoint for wars and very destructive consequences unless it is addressed fully and early."

Water experts say the . Efforts are underway to improve Africa's water supply, including projects for water purification and water treatment. Alessandro Palmieri, a water specialist at the World Bank, says African nations need to make a fundamental change in the way they manage water. He says they should have water systems that are privately owned and not under the control of the national governments, in order to ensure adequate supplies of safe drinking water. That is what the World Bank is trying to develop.

"That is the intent. Not because we are against the government as such, but we want to improve efficiency." says Mr. Palmieri. "If I am a countryman and I have to pay water to somebody who does not provide a good service, I'm not really happy. I'm prepared to pay even more if I can have a reliable service."

In the past, large-scale international development schemes often proved too costly or complex to maintain. In some cases, government corruption thwarted progress. So now, in addition to the large projects, Africans are going back to traditional efforts, such as collecting and storing rainwater.

"These communities for thousands of years have developed sophisticated systems of making use of the water," says Mr. Palmieri, "and many, many institutions like the World Bank are now coming to accept indigenous ways of solving this problem and decentralizing it."

Mr. Palmieri says water recycling is another technique to make better use of existing water supplies. "For example, you can reuse residual water from an urban city for irrigation of non-edible crops or industrial processing," he explains. "The use of brackish water in some agriculture to produce fiber and things like that is very much looked at."

He says desalination is another option to improve Africa's water supply. But the World Bank wants another fundamental change as well: involving the local population in decision making about water issues, in ways that will help maintain the quality of Africa's water, and promote more careful use.

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