Right the injustice of Africa’s water crisis

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Alex Simalabwi

IMAGINE that a crisis emerges in your home, workplace or community. You neither created it nor benefited from it. And yet, you are bearing the brunt of the consequences, whereas those who did create and benefit from it continue to make the problem worse. For Africa, such an egregious injustice has become all too real.

Although Africa contributes only 4% of global greenhouse-gas emissions annually, it is among the regions most vulnerable to climate change and climate variability. Already, climate disruptions and crises are severely undermining human wellbeing and economic development, and water-related disruptions pose some of the most serious risks.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 report confirmed that global warming intensifies and accelerates the water cycle. Climate change will not only continue to fuel ruinous rainfall and flooding, but will also cause more frequent and extreme droughts in many areas. This means reduced access to drinking water in a region in which one in every three people already face water scarcity daily. It also means more hunger, malnutrition and even famine.

Last year, Madagascar had the worst drought in four decades and confronted a food crisis that left 1,3 million people facing severe hunger, with tens of thousands enduring life-threatening conditions. But the plight of Madagascar’s people received precious little attention in international media.

Madagascar is not alone. In the horn of Africa, drought is destroying crops and livestock in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. When people cannot access their basic needs at home, they are likely to migrate in search of better conditions, potentially exacerbating economic and political insecurity and compromising future prosperity. That has already happened in Angola, with persistent drought forcing thousands of people to seek refuge in neighbouring Namibia.

But whereas those who have benefited the least from the activities that have fuelled climate change could lose their homes, health and livelihoods, those who bear the most responsibility for this outcome have not provided nearly enough funding to enable Africa to adapt.

In 2009, rich countries pledged to mobilise US$100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries cope with climate change. But they fell short, and the lion’s share of the funding was allocated for mitigation, rather than urgently needed adaptation measures. Whereas African governments estimated that they needed US$7,4 billion a year by 2020, Africa received less than US$5,5 billion (roughly US$5 a person) a year between 2014 and 2018, and funding for adaptation amounted to just US$16,5 billion — barely half the total for mitigation.

Africa’s funding needs are now much larger — and growing fast. The United Nations Environment Programme’s latest Adaptation Gap Report estimates that adaptation in developing countries will cost about US$70 billion each year, with costs potentially rising to US$140 billion to US$300 billion in 2030 and US$280 billion to US$500 billion by 2050.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Scotland (COP26) last November offered Africa some reason for hope, as developed economies pledged at least to double their collective provision of adaptation finance to developing countries from 2019 levels by 2025. But even if they fulfil these commitments — no sure thing — more must be done to deliver water security to Africa.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that US$64 billion will be needed annually to meet the continent’s water-related needs. Yet, as it stands, only US$10 billion to US$19 billion is being invested in water infrastructure in Africa each year.

To close this gap, AU leaders last year adopted the Continental Africa Water Investment Programme (AIP), focused on accelerating investment in climate-resilient regional, transboundary and national water infrastructure, such as dams, irrigation systems, water-management information systems and sanitation facilities. The AIP estimates that, by 2030, it will be able to leverage some US$30 billion of investment in these areas, creating at least five million jobs.

Moreover, the African ministers’ council on water has co-convened a high-level panel on water investments, together with the UN Development Programme, UN Children’s Fund, the African Union Development Agency, the AfDB, the Global Centre on Adaptation, and the Global Water Partnership. At its inaugural meeting last September, the panel adopted a roadmap for mobilising international financing for water investments and accelerating policies to achieve UN sustainable development goals.

The Wash (water, sanitation and hygiene) initiative, being pursued by the Southern African Development Community with Global Water Partnership support, is also advancing vital water-related objectives. By installing hand-washing facilities at border posts across the region, the initiative will help to stem the transmission of infectious diseases, thereby facilitating intra-regional trade and economic activity and, ultimately, contributing to the realisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

But, as with all these initiatives, success depends significantly on funding. That is why African countries and their international partners have developed the water investment scorecard, a data-driven approach that, by tracking progress, will help to sustain pressure on decision-makers.

Africa did not cause the climate crisis, but African leaders are taking the initiative in developing strategies for coping with it, including its effect on the continent’s water security and sanitation. The question is whether those who are most responsible for climate change will put their money where their mouth is before it is too late.

  • This article was first published by Project Syndicate
  • Alex Simalabwi is executive secretary and global head of Climate Resilience for the Global Water Partnership