Why water should be a priority for Africa’s leaders

It is vital that Africa and its leaders (in government, civil society and the private sector) take a more proactive role in managing water resources more effectively and sustainably. In the face of a continuing crisis of water access, with more than one third of sub-Saharan Africans still lacking access to an improved source of drinking water, numerous emerging challenges threaten to further exacerbate the problem.

 A Bangladeshi evacuee bathes at an UNHCR refugee camp REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
A Bangladeshi evacuee bathes at an UNHCR refugee camp REUTERS/Yannis Behraki

Several factors in water management risk severely hindering Africa’s future economic growth, including the wide-ranging effects of climate change, growing water scarcity due to surging demand, and the growing threat of pollution. By implementing management approaches that recognize the many competing demands and pressures on water, namely through integrated water resources management, Africa can proactively address these challenges and ensure its sustained growth in the near and long term.

Water resources in Africa face a multitude of immediate and long-term impacts as a result of climate change, including drought, flooding, rising sea-levels, and changes in precipitation and hydrology patterns. While the pattern of changes and level of vulnerability is highly geographically variable, it is clear that climate change poses an unprecedented risk to communities, economies and ecosystems across sub-Saharan Africa, with direct effects on productivity, health and food security.

Water’s fundamental role in fuelling Africa’s continued economic and social development is clear. At the community level, access to safe water dramatically improves health, productivity and education outcomes. On a larger scale, water is a critical input to industry, energy production and electricity generation. Its role in agriculture is even more self-evident, and improving irrigation efficiency will indeed be critical in addressing growing water scarcity in many parts of the continent.

However, in the face of these competing and interrelated demands and pressures, there is a need to move away from the oft-prevailing silo approach, whereby each factor is managed in sector-by-sector isolation, towards a more holistic, integrated and sustainable approach. The key framework to underpin this change is integrated water resources management (IWRM), defined by the Global Water Partnership as “a process which promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in order to maximise economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.”

Rather than providing a universal blueprint, IWRM provides a set of key principlesand provides the paradigm shift in thinking needed to respond to the water challenge in a cohesive and effective way. As such, IWRM practices vary by context, but universally key is cross-sectoral integration that combines both a top-down and a bottom-up approach. Therein, all stakeholders play their respective roles, whether policymakers, communities, companies, local authorities, NGOs or interest groups. National governments and African political leaders must therefore expand their outlook beyond being responsible merely for implementing effective national level policies, strategies and regulations, but also for establishing an effective enabling environment. This means moving from an exclusively prescriptive, centralized approach to one that focuses on coordination, arbitration and extensive stakeholder engagement.

IWRM approaches provide a major opportunity to Africa and its leaders within and outside of government. Acting proactively through concrete steps that reflect IWRM will sustainably enhance Africa’s growth potential well into the future while at the same time helping to prevent, mitigate or manage the risks posed by climate change. While institutions in Africa face a starkly different reality from their counterparts in the Global North, most notably severely limited financial resources and a relatively low level of infrastructure and institutional development, the implementation of IWRM approaches must not be viewed as an impossibility but rather as an unmissable opportunity.

Business as usual is a lose-lose scenario. Leaders in government and the public sector must therefore take more concrete steps to bring investment plans, policies, laws, regulations and governance structures more in line with IWRM principles. In parallel, relevant civil society stakeholders must work to mainstream IWRM into their projects, initiatives and advocacy efforts, while private sector actors must also acknowledge the potential of IWRM to help improve business outcomes, minimize risk and increase efficiency.

None of this is to say that progress is not already being made. Indeed, the application of integrated approaches to water resources management was espoused as a key component in the Africa Water Vision 2025, published jointly by UNECA, the Africa Union and the African Development Bank. A recent African Union reportprovides detailed analysis and demonstrates that 76% of reporting African countries are implementing national water laws and 44% are implementing national plans based on the application of integrated approaches.

While these actions provide valuable first steps, efforts must be redoubled across the continent. Sustainable water management is not only the fundamental lifeblood of the environment and of human health and wellbeing, but of the wider economy, including agriculture, electricity and energy production and the extractive industries. With the risks posed by climate changes becoming not only evident but imminent, leaders across Africa must strive to take the lead. IWRA provides a unique opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive to crises, and to ensuring a more resilient and prosperous future to communities across the continent.


Authors: Saran Kaba Jones is the Founder & CEO of FACE Africa and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. John Skolout is the Grants and Partnerships Officer at FACE Africa.

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