Africa is home to some of the largest lakes in the world, both in size and volume. These lakes play a significant role in the political, social, economic and environmental life of many of the continent’s people and their importance is set to increase.
However, the strain placed upon these water resources is also forecast to pose significant challenges for their future sustainable development. This points to the important internal dimension of African water politics. That these issues remain, for the moment, relatively marginal, also impels all those concerned with water to consider its future management with great care. Mainstream consensus in water security and politics holds that African water resources are at risk, and that most countries are water stressed.
Moreover any decision-maker has to take into account the variability of rain, risks of droughts and floods and the fact that sovereignty over rivers and lakes is often shared as a result of the demarcation of colonial borders.Firstly the issue of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing must remain firmly fixed in the spotlight. Indeed, the World Wildlife Fund South Africa (WWF-SA) recently highlighted the perilous future facing inshore fishing sources for Africa’s littoral states. For instance according to the WWF-SA a great number of South Africa’s inshore marine resources are considered overexploited or collapsed.
This also applies in other parts of Africa, yet attention must be paid to internal sources of fish such as rivers and lakes, thereby placing emphasis on the importance of cooperative monitoring and regulation of fishing.
The dependency on fish as a source of protein and livelihood is also likely to increase and the example of Lake Victoria further shows how the management of these areas must be efficient and coordinated. The introduction of Nile Perch in the past was primarily motivated by the objective of bolstering development, but this had a detrimental effect on the lake, whose ecology has changed as a result of this past meddling.
In August 2011 the tiny Kenyan island of Migingo in Lake Victoria became the focal point for a dispute between Uganda and Kenya resulting from past uncertainties of borders and contemporary pressures for securing food and livelihoods.
The value of the island lies in its location within rich fishing grounds; it is however a mere 500m from Ugandan waters, and accusations of poaching and unequal access to ostensibly shared resources heightened tensions. It also illustrates how the past management of lakes continues to impact upon the situation today, and advocating prudent and cooperative strategies now is vital to avoid a repetition of tension and possible conflict. In addition, many people continue to lack access to safe drinking water and water shortages leave many people suffering from diseases. The objective of meeting the Millennium Development Goals is likely to remain difficult to attain for the majority of African countries.
Analysis that utilises satellite imagery has helped reveal a particular source of concern into the future – the amount of water available and the speed at which water becomes ever scarcer, notably the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)’s 2006 study Africa`s lakes: Atlas of Our Changing Environment.
In particular the threat posed to what remains of Lake Chad is well publicised, but it is seemingly doomed to follow the terrifying precedent of the Aral Sea in Asia, which underwent such a precipitous retreat, so that what was once one of the largest bodies of water in the world almost entirely disappeared. In Lake Chad’s case it remains indicative of the problems of interstate cooperation. The Lake Chad Basin Commission is the oldest such commission in Africa, but has been unable to prevent the retreat of the lake.
Moreover, it occurs in a continental and global context of climate change, leaving many in a perilous state of uncertainty and deprivation. Few solutions are deemed viable, or else come with attached costs and risks.
In the past it was suggested that transferring water is the only means of resupply, given the strain placed on rivers that feed Lake Chad such as the Chari and Logone. This betrays a reliance on thinking that any problem is only amenable to a technical solution. A long-standing proposal to divert waters from other basins has often been considered, with consensus being this would be too technocratic a solution, and could further jeopardise the environment.
The proposed solutions for the retreat of Lake Chad also highlights the final issue that deserves attention, the calls for and politics of dam building and large projects resulting in inter-basin water transfers.
Africa has nearly 1,300 dams but according to the Economist only 3 percent of water resources of the continent are exploited because of poor water reservoirs, extraction and routing infrastructures, leaving great scope for the building of dams in the future. The recent announcement of the expansion of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) will further integrate South Africa with Lesotho, ensuring an adequate water supply to counter fears of a looming water scarcity, but the costs involved have to be clearly defined.
As the project will take a long time to complete ensuring that water is not wasted must remain the top priority. It is crucial therefore to bear in my mind the late former South African minister Kader Asmal’s conclusions for the World Commission on Dam’s report, which noted that while “dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and benefits derived from them have been considerable… in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.” The controversy over the construction of a number of proposed dams in Ethiopia that would affect the waters of the Nile as well as other rivers such as the Gibe III on the Omo river, could heighten existing tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt.
Egypt can lay claim to the majority of the Nile’s flow by virtue of the authority of treaties that date back years before the independence of many African states. While the viability of these treaties is disputed, for the meantime the status quo is set to continue.
Therefore the debate of the Nile states will continue to be the major issue in water security that will attract the most attention.