Water

Water Infrastucture Overlooked In Climate Policy

In many African countries water management is key to surviving climate variability, but the resource has been omitted from international negotiations.

Three hundred million Africans lack access to clean water; 500 million lack access to proper sanitation, according to Bai-Mass Taal, executive secretary of the African Ministers’ Council on Water.

"Lack of water security will be exacerbated by climate change, which directly threatens food security," says Dr Ania Grobicki, executive secretary of the Global Water Partnership (GWP).

"There is no single dedicated United Nations agency for water, and there's no international Convention regulating water resource management and there is no water focus under the UNFCCC," says Grobicki. "Water also evaporated from the text of the Copenhagen Accord."

Grobicki and her colleagues argue for a focus on adaptation measures on the ground. Rehabilitation and maintenance of existing infrastructure is one place to start.

GWP worked with the government and local communities in Swaziland to rehabilitate an earth dam at KaLanga. Restoring the dam's broken-down irrigation set-up, constructing sanitation facilities and drinking troughs for cattle, along with raising community awareness and training in water conservation and rainwater harvesting contributed to improving access to water for the more than 9,600 people in the area.

Burkina Faso, where 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture for a living, has invested in the construction of more than 1,500 small dams since 1998. These reservoirs - built at relatively low-cost, often with local communities contributing labour to their construction - are a vital protection against drought.

Most African agriculture is rain-fed, says Grobicki. "As climate variability increases and temperatures rise, water security drops radically. Dams ensure water is available throughout the year."

The scale and operation of water infrastructure needs to be carefully planned. "Using water from the river for irrigation might benefit a farming community, but it could have damaging effects downstream. That’s why it is important to have shared decision-making. In this process there will be trade-offs, but also shared benefits," she says.

Other adaptation measures include shifting to more drought-resistant crops and the use of satellite imaging to reveal moisture content of soil and guide farmers' irrigation efforts: pilot projects in several countries already send out such information via text messages to farmers' phones.

Water-saving technologies can further maximise the benefits of these strategies. "Drip irrigation offers huge potential for saving water in rural areas, while remote sensing can be used to inform farmers about the moisture content of the soil so they know how much water they need to use to grow their crops," says Grobicki.

Drip irrigation is a highly efficient means of watering crops and applying fertiliser via tubing spread throughout the field.

In Zimbabwe and Malawi, smallholder farmers are coping with drought with simple drip systems consisting of a couple of large plastic containers on a raised platform, and 100-odd metres of plastic tubes delivering the water to vegetable gardens.

Israeli expertise is demonstrating the system's potential in larger-scale plots in West Africa under the African Market Garden project.

"Apart from hard adaptation measures like dams, dikes and treatment plants, it’s important to build capacity to assist decision-making processes between countries," says Alex Simalabwi from GWP's Partnership for Africa's Water Development project.

But investment in water infrastructure and information systems has actually declined, according to the GWP, while more resources are needed to address water issues.

"The [Copenhagen Accord's] fast track fund of $30 billion is not enough," says Taal, a former minister of water affairs in Gambia. "To ensure water security for all Africans who don’t have it now will cost an estimated $16 billion if we just spend $50 per person."

The call is for water to be recognised in climate change negotiations as both the transmitter of climate change impacts and an important vehicle for strengthening social, environmental and economic resilience to them.

"We believe that water and its management can offer a unifying focus for global, regional as well as national co-operation on adaptation to climate change," says Grobicki. "Investments in integrated water resources development and management are investments in adaptation."

Servaas van den Bosch is a freelance journalist based in Windhoek, Namibia, specialising in environment and trade stories.
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