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Climate Change Threatens Africa’s Biggest Water Sources

Climate Change Threatens Africa’s Biggest Water Sources

Darren Taylor

This is Part 3 of a 5-part series:   Climate Change
Continue to Parts: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5


“Water is the primary medium through which people in Africa will experience climate change impacts. By 2020, it is estimated that (up to) 250 million Africans will be exposed to increased water stress,” writes South Africa-based scientist Dr. Mary Galvin in a recent analysis of the effects of hotter weather on Africa’s water supplies.

According to leading climatologists, large parts of Africa could warm by as much as four degrees C by 2100. But an increase of just one degree C will have “terrible” consequences for the continent’s water sources and the people who rely on them to survive, said Kenyan ecological economist, Dr. Kevin Chika Urama.

Fisherman on the White Nile (Morada). Khartoum, Sudan. Increased periods of drought would likely mean less water, and fish, for Africa's basins.
Fisherman on the White Nile (Morada). Khartoum, Sudan. Increased periods of drought would likely mean less water, and fish, for Africa's basins.

Scientists say the world is warming because mainly industrial nations have for a long time pumped harmful emissions, such as carbon from coal burning for energy, into the earth’s atmosphere.

Urama is co-author of an internationally acclaimed paper that has examined the effects of climate change on water in Africa. He concluded that the region’s water sources will face, and in fact are already facing, a “multitude” of challenges because of the phenomenon. These include intense droughts and floods, the drying up of rivers and lakes that have sustained life for centuries, associated “wars” for scarce water and huge increases in the numbers of “water refugees.”

64 African river basins in jeopardy

Urama said increasingly strange weather patterns are already causing havoc across Africa. He recalled a visit to Nigeria in mid-October, which is usually a dry period for that country. But heavy rain, said the economist, had washed away crops and flooded cities and towns.

Taryn Pereira, an environmentalist with South Africa’s Environmental Monitoring Group, is researching changing weather systems in Africa. She said areas accustomed to regular rainfall are now suffering prolonged droughts.

Pereira highlighted the example of South Africa’s Southern Cape region, which up until recent years experienced regular rainfall year round. “That area has just had the lowest rainfall in 130 years of recording rainfall,” she said. “Entire districts and towns ran out of water. People were sharing water with livestock.”

Extreme variability in weather will be more prevalent in Africa in the near future, Urama said, resulting in widespread water scarcity. “We’re seeing how much carnage that is causing at the moment in Somalia and Kenya,” he pointed out.

The water resource expert predicted that future droughts will be worse than ever before, especially in areas that are traditionally dry, such as the Horn of Africa.

Zambian environmental engineer Alex Simalabwi agreed. “With the increase in temperatures, some regions are going to become much drier, such as in North Africa along the Sahara desert,” he said. “For southern Africa, the areas around the Kalahari desert and going down to the west coast in Namibia are going to become much, much drier.”

Simalabwi is director of the Global Water Partnership’s water, climate and development program. The organization is based in Stockholm and advocates for a “water secure world.

Environmentalists say less rainfall could increase competition for shared water sources, like the Nile River.
Environmentalists say less rainfall could increase competition for shared water sources, like the Nile River.

As an advisor to several African governments, Simalabwi emphasizes “intergovernmental protection” of Africa’s 64 river and lake basins. He said if these aren’t properly managed and if states don’t use them responsibly and put aside “narrow self interests” to cooperate to share the water, the consequences for the entire continent are “myriad” and “horrible.”

The scientist explained, “These basins are shared by various countries. The economic development of Africa is dependent on these water sources.

But according to many environmental projections, climate change is already harming the basins, such as Lake Victoria, which is shared by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Water and fish: ‘slow disappearance’

Urama said flows from the thousands of streams that feed the world’s largest tropical lake have dwindled in recent years because of factors including hotter and drier weather.

The United Nations Environment Program has estimated that 30 million people rely directly on Lake Victoria for their survival, with millions more indirectly dependent on it for water and food. It’s one of the biggest inland fisheries in the world.

But Urama said, “Lake Victoria is very prone to climate change impacts because it has a large surface area compared with its volume. It’s shallow, so this means that higher temperatures will mean much more water evaporating from it.”

He said the higher temperatures, combined with over-fishing, are causing the “slow disappearance” of the lake’s most important commercial fish species, the Nile Perch.

Lake Victoria is also the major source of the Nile, the longest river in the world. Simalabwi said, “A shrinking Lake Victoria means a shrinking Nile,” which could threaten the livelihoods of 160 million people in 10 African countries that depend on the Nile.

All over Africa, said Pereira, “Negative human impacts on water resources are being worsened by the effects of climate change. Fish species and fish numbers are declining and changing their behavior, and that makes it very, very difficult for subsistence fishermen to draw a livelihood from the environment….”

Water wars

In the near future, said Urama, more people will be struggling for less water – resulting in conflict across Africa. Simalabwi said the “first signs” of this are already happening, in the form of violence between pastoralists and farmers.

“The pastoralists graze their cattle in the wilds of Africa. But as grazing areas dwindle because of higher temperatures, you find the pastoralists encroaching on arable land where people grow their crops.”

Urama said the potential is also growing for conflict between local African communities and foreign companies, which are increasingly buying land in Africa.

“They’re buying that land because of decreasing resources in their own countries, to produce food for export to their home countries. They’re using up water resources that many Africans depend on. So we are likely going to see conflicts between communities that are going to be trying to resist these kinds of external investments that, though economically viable for a country, may not be sustainable for the communities that have relied on these water resources for ages.”

This year, heavy rains have washed away crops and flooded towns in Nigeria.
This year, heavy rains have washed away crops and flooded towns in Nigeria.

Simalabwi said people will be forced to flee from country to country in search of water. “The refugee situation in Africa will become much worse. This has a lot of implications in terms of regional stability and peace.”

Urama said battles over meager water supplies will also pit humans against animals. “Already you see a lot of conflicts between elephants and humans in Kenya because of these dwindling resources,” he said.

According to Pereira, the tension over water won’t be limited to Africa’s rural areas. She expects piped water to soon become much more expensive in the cities. “The urban poor will be faced with much, much higher water bills. When they don’t pay, the authorities will cut their water off.”

This, Pereira said, had already resulted in riots in several African countries, most notably in South Africa.

Floods may destroy communities, economies

While a lot of attention is on the droughts that look set to sweep Africa, some regions will become much wetter, said Simalabwi. He expected “transforming precipitation patterns” because of hotter weather to result in more rain falling in Central Africa in the near future.

“The region is already very wet, with the Congo Basin being one of the biggest water towers in Africa. It’s expected to be much, much wetter as a result of climate change…and this is going to lead to excessive flooding.”

The floods, Simalabwi said, could be on such a large scale that they’d “wipe out” entire communities and destroy economic growth in Central Africa. “Agriculture will not be possible and mining and other industries will shut down.”

Urama said African coastal areas will also experience more flooding, as the sea level rises because of melting ice in polar regions.

Poor water management

The harm done by extreme weather caused by climate change is made worse by the fact that water resources are poorly managed in Africa, said Urama.

“While some places will see heavier rains, Africa generally does not have the necessary systems of water harvesting so most of the water is lost. So when the long droughts hit, Africans really suffer,” he said, adding, “It’s the normal story in Africa – we have food abundance during the harvest seasons, and we have starvation, famine in some cases, during the lean periods. The same logic happens in the water resources case.”

Simalabwi agreed, commenting, “What’s missing in many parts of Africa is not the water, but the good management of the water.”

He maintained that one of the biggest constraints on Africa’s water resources is “poor and inadequate” information. Simalabwi said most of Africa’s hydrological monitoring stations, which are supposed to calculate how much water they’re receiving and the sources of such water, are dysfunctional.

A woman in Mwanza, Malawi, collects tap water. Ecological economist Keven Urama calls for better water management to save rainwater for dry periods.
A woman in Mwanza, Malawi, collects tap water. Ecological economist Keven Urama calls for better water management to save rainwater for dry periods.

“They are dilapidated; they are disused; they are not in a way that you can rely on them to get accurate information of how much (water) a country is using and how much water is moving from one country to the other,” he said, asking, “If countries don’t know exactly how much water they have available on average, how can they plan for climate change events?”

Simalabwi also pointed out that many dams in Africa are in poor condition. “They aren’t maintained,” he said. “So at the same time as we are moaning about droughts, we are wasting our water.”

Urama called for big investments in the repair of existing dams and the large scale construction of new water saving technologies. “We live in a hot region so much water is lost through evaporation. Let’s prevent this by building water storage dams that are below ground so when there’s drought, communities will have access to clean water.”

But South African environmentalist Taryn Pereira said she sees little evidence of any “real, tangible, practical planning” for climate change in African water sectors.

Small steps

Simalabwi said it’s “very disappointing” that water won’t be on the official agenda at the United Nations global climate talks scheduled to begin in South Africa on November 28.

“Why the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) has not dedicated special attention to discussing water resources is difficult to understand,” he said. “When considering the already very bad impacts climate change is having on water resources, it’s very discouraging.”

Nevertheless, said Simalabwi, the Global Water Partnership still has hope that at least small steps will be taken towards ensuring the protection of water resources from present and future effects of climate change.

“We are hopeful that during the talks some of the parties will call for some of the references to water resources that are already in the UNFCCC text to be made operational,” he said. “We are also hopeful that the parties can agree on specific funding to protect water resources from climate change, from the Green Fund, which is being designed to help the world adapt to climate change.”

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