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Scientists Gather in Drought-Stricken Kenya to Urge Better Use of Africa's Water

Scientists meeting in Nairobi are urging Africa's leaders to develop more sustainable models for the continent's water use. Kenya is currently suffering under a serious drought that is leaving millions hungry and stifling the country's economic recovery.

The scientists gathered at the Sustainable Water Conference in Kenya say Africa is mismanaging its water resources. The conference is organized by the Pan Africa Chemistry Network, a joint initiative of the Britain-based Royal Society of Chemistry and a leading crop protection company.

The group plans to submit its recommendations to the United Nations on World Water Day 2010.

A representative for U.N. environmental agency UNEP, David Osborne, told the conference delegates that Africa's water problems are unacceptable because they are avoidable.

"Too many of the adults and children who die from too little water in droughts, too much water in floods, or too polluted or disease-ridden water are in Africa," he said. "Yet the saddest fact is that most of their deaths are preventable."

The calls from the scientists for better water usage models is magnified by the alarming situation outside the conference's walls, where the city of Nairobi is reeling under the country's severe water shortage.

The U.N. World Food Program this week announced 3.8 million Kenyans were at risk of hunger because of an ongoing food crisis. For much of the country's urban poor, the high prices for food are simply unaffordable.

Speaking to the group, Kenya's permanent secretary for the Ministry of Higher Learning, Science and Technology, Crispus Kiamba, acknowledged the water problems were a result not just of global climate trends, but also of the deforestation destroying some of Kenya's most vital water catchment areas.

"The conference takes place at a time when Kenya is experiencing an acute shortage of water. We have had rain failures since 2007," said Kiamba. "Some of our rivers have dried up due to a combination of climate change effect and human destruction."

Kenya's political leaders are engaged in an intense political dispute calls for the eviction of settlers who have taken over and destroyed huge portions of Kenya's main water source, the Mau Forest in the nation's Rift Valley. The government Tuesday issued a two-week notice for the settlers to leave, but area politicians are resisting the mandate and threatening violent clashes.

The scientists at the water conference warned Africa's leaders that water scarcity is a cause of not just hunger and thirst but also the spread of disease, the death of wildlife, and shortages in power.

Kenya is heavily dependent on hydroelectricity for its power needs, and drying river beds have left the nation with a significant power shortfall.

The country has initiated planned power outages to ration its short supply, but this is crippling small businesses unable to afford generators. These small businesses drive much of Kenya's economy, but without power many can not operate.

Speakers at the conference stressed that worsening water quality is also a serious threat across the continent, and said forest destruction is also destroying a key natural water filter.

The conference was addressed by the former president of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, who encouraged the scientists to help Africa improve its use of water resources.