The recently launched United Nations World Water Development Report 2016 themed, “Water and Jobs” marks a turning point in global viewpoints on water governance and international water politics. According to the report, globally, 78 per cent of jobs are water dependent in varying degrees. This lends a whole new meaning to the oftquoted, yet hackneyed dictum “water is life”.
Worldwide, across history, water has dictated the pace and patterns of human settlement and civilization and, by extension, socioeconomic progress. From the Mississippi Missouri and the Amazon in the Americas to the Huáng Hé (Yellow) River and the Ganges in Asia, the influence accessibility to water has had on human progress is unmistakable. In Africa, the Nile and the Congo rivers share similar hallmarks.
Undoubtedly, accessibility to water is a powerful trigger of socioeconomic progress. Regrettably, the 21st century finds many parts of Africa faced by severe water stress. This state of affairs, obviously, spells doom to the quest and prospect of rescuing millions from poverty and disease in many parts of the continent.
To transform the water situation in Africa demands more. The pangs visited upon whole communities by water scarcity and stress should cease to become perpetual totems of intellectual armchair tournaments by water experts. The time to take a fresh look at options that will transform Africa’s water situation is now.
These and related thoughts are uppermost in my mind as I humbly assume the role of Unesco Special Envoy for Water in Africa, an honor more Kenya’s — and indeed Africa’s — than mine as an individual.
To appreciate the gravity of the matter at hand and the enormity of the task ahead, it is necessary to briefly explore the basic facts that define Africa’s water dilemma.
According to a 2012 Africa water report by the Netherlands-based Leiden African Studies Centre, by 2025, more than 50 per cent of the continent will suffer a severe water shortage, thereby exposing 230 million people to water scarcity and a further 460 million to water stress. Not much rainwater is being conserved and hardly any meaningful recycling of water takes place in Africa.
Yet the need to boost water resources cannot be gainsaid.
Lack or scarcity of water incapacitates human progress. It hampers the growing of food and construction of dwelling places. It compromises the pursuit of good health and complicates the search for health-related interventions. Without water, it is difficult to imagine decent schooling and a productive workforce. Unquestionably, water is the centerpiece of human progress.
Africa has vast unexploited water potential. So, what are we doing with this resource to improve Africa’s lot?
I believe Africa has what it takes to overcome her water predicament, but we need to ask ourselves a few questions. Why have we not embraced effective rainwater harvesting and recycling mechanisms? How efficient have we been in utilizing available water resources? What investment have individual African governments dedicated to protecting aquifers, wetlands, and water towers?
I am under no illusion that the task ahead is huge and even daunting. However, I am also persuaded that there is sufficient goodwill as there is unexplored expertise within the continent that would, if better coordinated, chart a new destiny for water in Africa.
As we seek to reverse the trends and practices that threaten Africa, we need to reflect on how best to engage the public to acknowledge that the change we seek calls for a transformation in attitude.
To inculcate progressive attitudes towards the use and conservation of water, we need to engage younger generations.
Whatever we do to fulfill the goal of reversing negative and undesirable water trends, we should remember to align our efforts to the bigger agenda of working towards sustainable development and prosperity.
UNESCO Special Envoy for Water in Africa.