It was a painful ordeal for a parent.
In most African cultures, rain is a sign of blessings. The irony is, in this case, the poorest of the poor, who need the water the most, are the ones who hurt the most when it rains.
Three-year-old Everlate Chauke, her father Shadrack, and mother Cynthia were in their makeshift home in Alexandra, next to the Jukskei River, six kilometers from Africa’s richest square mile, Sandton, when it started to pour. When water filled their shack, they climbed a tree for safety; Cynthia on one branch, Everlate and Shadrack on the other. The branch broke and Everlate fell into the raging waters. Shadrack jumped in after her, but couldn’t find her. What started as a celebration, amid South Africa’s longest drought ever, ended in death and despair. Little Everlate was found 10 kilometers downstream, almost three weeks later.
The Chauke family is among 150 other people who lost their homes and property in the downpour at the Setswetla settlement in Alexandra. Several other people around Johannesburg died during the floods and many others lost their property. Yet, Africa may one day go to war over the lack of water. Too much water can take lives – yet so can the lack of water that one day Africa may go to war over. It has already happened elsewhere in the world.
The Khedevite of Egypt invaded Ethiopia, in the mid-1870s, to gain control of the Nile River. The dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is largely about control of the Indus River. For now, for most of Africa, it’s a king-sized headache.
On March 10, major dams in Africa were down. In Lesotho, Katse Dam, the highest dam in Africa built in the Maluti Mountains, was 53.6% full; Swaziland’s dams stood at 75.8% and in Zimbabwe, Kariba Dam, one of the biggest in Africa at 128-meter tall and 579-meter long, stood at 32.8%. Water levels in Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya and most of the rest of Africa remain low. The UN warns of a looming crisis.
“Let us commit to invest in water security as a means to ensure long-term international peace and security,” says former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ratings agency, Moody’s, early last year, went as far as to say a lack of water was causing rising inflation, risking a weak South African economy going into recession. It is so concerning that, Cape Town’s Executive Mayor, Patricia de Lille, declared the city of the rich a disaster zone. At the time of going to print, the city had just over 100 days of useable water left.
The problem is the average household uses about 20,000 liters of water a month but Cape Town’s top water wasters, located on Haywood Road‚ Crawford‚ used a shocking 702,000 liters in one month. The city is naming and shaming all water wasters in an attempt to ensure they comply. On February 1, the city introduced harsher water restrictions; meaning everyone should use 30% less water or face a R5,000 ($380) fine and a higher bill. It is helping.
On March 6, in the Western Cape province, dam levels had dropped to 31.5%, which was 1.6% down from the week before. If the situation does not change, the province could run out of fresh water in dams by 2019.
“With the last 10% of a dam’s water mostly not being useable, dam levels are effectively at approximately 21.5%. Consumption has broken through the 800 million liter barrier for the first time to 783 million liters of collective use per day, but we have still not achieved the new collective usage target of 700 million liters per day,” says the City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Informal Settlements, Water and Waste Services, Councillor Xanthea Limberg.
Water Scarcity: Cooperation or Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa?, an article in Foreign Policy Journal written by Lisdey Espinoza Pedraza, International Relations lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, and International Relations researcher, Markus Heinrich, suggests while Africa struggles to quench its thirst, some regions of the world have ample supply of this scarce resource.
“While 70% of the planet is covered in water, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Of this, only 1% is easily accessible, as much of the world’s freshwater is trapped in glaciers and ice caps. Compounding this is that this scarce resource is very unevenly distributed,” say Pedraza and Heinrich.
One problem is Africa is not pouring money where the rivers flow.
Water projects account for a meagre 1.3% of total infrastructure investment in Africa, according to the Africa Construction Trends 2016 report by Deloitte Africa. The report notes that there are only 15 water projects across the continent, valued at $4.8 billion, in comparison to 271 non-water infrastructure projects valued at $319.2 billion. The water sector is thirsty for investment. But it’s not that simple.
“If you are asking the private sector to finance water, what’s the return, who is going to pay them and how are they going to collect their money? Water is a basic human right. This also colors how people treat water from a drinking point of view. Should you be paying for something that falls from the sky? In many instances, the charges that cities levy on water are often far too low from a cost recovery basis,” says John-Pierre Labuschagne, Infrastructure & Capital Projects Leader at Deloitte.
According to Labuschagne, water does have an opportunity for investors.
“The economics behind it though is what makes it difficult… The trick is how do we get the water from the dams to the cities? The water network is crucial. It needs to be rehabilitated and also expanded,” he says.
Ethiopia is leading the way to a solution with its $5-billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project.
Located about 500 kilometers north west of the capital, Addis Ababa, in the region of Benishangul-Gumuz along the Blue Nile, it is expected to be completed in July this year. It will be the largest dam in Africa at 1,800 meters long, 155 meters high and with a total volume of 74 billion cubic meters. The dam will generate some 6,000 megawatts of electricity which will be sold to neighboring countries and is expected to aid Ethiopia’s growing economy.
This world’s ninth biggest hydroelectric project dam, however, has been under fire because it will flood 1,680 square kilometers of forest, displace 20,000 people and possibly affect the flow of the Nile River, which is shared by Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.
In Namibia, 4,860 kilometers south of the Nile, the answer is desalination.
Dewald Duvenhage, General Manager: Engineering Services at the Swakopmund municipality in Namibia, says desalination may be the only solution for the water problems Africa faces. The only problem is it uses a lot of energy.
“If the energy is renewable – solar panel farms, wind generation, concentrated solar power – all with suitable storage to allow 24-hours-a-day operation – then yes, it is sustainable. Interesting also is that all the large luxury shipping passenger liners are producing their water with desalination,” he says.
Sustainable, yes. Cheap, not so much.
The Namibian government is considering desalination with a special Cabinet committee, but media reports indicate that about N$57 billion ($4.36 billion) may need to be spent on it.
“Desalination water is presently exclusively used for mining water supply, yet since the same pipes transport and the same reservoirs store the water, we are all drinking desalination water mixed with borehole water as far as Henties Bay, Swakopmund and Arandis is concerned,” says Duvenhage.
He says we should use water responsibly but should also consider other avenues.
“We may consider recycling – but given the complications when industrial waste pollutes water, it is cheaper and physically simpler to desalinate seawater than to recycle sewage back to potable water. Yet we should first ask whether there is anything we can do to solve the energy supply crisis. No energy, no desalination, no water,” he says.
Professor Neil Armitage, the Head of the University of Cape Town’s Urban Water Management research unit, agrees that desalination is expensive and power-hungry.
“Most of our power is generated by thermal power stations that contribute to greenhouse gases contributing to global warming and contributing to climate change which is what caused the problem in the first place,” says Armitage.
That’s not all. For many years, Australia had a drought and opted for desalination plants, which according to Armitage, would cost between AUD2 billion ($1.5 billion) and AUD4 billion ($3 billion). As Australia was in the process of commissioning them, it rained.
“There were major floods, people were washed away in cars, reservoirs filled up and the residents said they don’t want to pay for the water when they can have water at a quarter of the price from the tap,” he says.
To do a similar project in Johannesburg or Cape Town, according to Armitage, may cost anything between R30 billion ($2.3 billion) and R50 billion ($3.8 billion).
“Someone proposed to me that we should build an undersea pipeline from the Congo River to Cape Town… another said can’t we get water from the Orange River to Cape Town… these are very expensive for something that can be managed if we change the way we manage our water.”
Armitage says two to three times more rain falls on Cape Town than is distributed to the people. The rest of it is wasted.
“There are two ways of dealing with that. One is rain water harvesting where you have a rain barrel taking water straight off your roof. This is very common in farming rural areas… the biggest problem though is that Cape Town’s climate has long dry summers and relatively short winters. You need more water in summer time than winter… If you are going to make rain water harvesting to work, you will need rainfall all year round.”
Another option is storm water harvesting.
“If we can find a way of harvesting that, storing it and treating it, then there is potential to supply all the cities with storm water. The reality is, it is very difficult. Storage and quality is a problem. Storm water can be very polluted,” he says.
It has worked in Singapore. For years, the country heavily relied on imported water from Malaysia and catchment water. Now it also has NEWater, produced from treated purified used water and desalination.
“In Cape Town, we have a natural sand aquifer on the Cape Flats. We are doing research to see if we can’t store water underground for periods of time; could be a month, six months or a year. It has been done in Cape Town for many years up on the coast where, for about 40 years, water to [the Western Cape town] Atlantis came from harvested storm water, treated sewage affluent put into the ground and then taken out again after a period of time… we are proposing to do something similar but on a bigger scale.”
It’s time Africa pours more money in its water, before a long dry season could lead to war.