Shared water resources — source of conflict or co-operation

But Anthony Turton of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa — which conducts research and development for socio-economic growth in Africa — dismisses the notion of water wars in Africa in general and in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in particular.

IPS spoke to Turton about potential conflict, virtual water, and cooperation initiatives within Southern Africa.

IPS: You reject the idea that there could be water wars in Southern Africa. Could you elaborate on this?

Anthony Turton: There is no evidence that there will be water wars in Africa. The only region where water has led to conflict is the Middle East, but this certainly cannot be applied to the rest of the world.

So no, there will be no water conflicts in terms of Country A versus country B. In Southern Africa water has actually triggered closer cooperation among the different states, instead of animosity.

Research has shown however, that the level of conflict intensity does increase the closer you get to the level of the individual, and the further you go from the level of the state. For instance: an individual farmer is more likely to pick up a Kalashnikov to “solve” his perceived water problem than a government is, because the government has recourse to a wider range of remedies. One remedy is the trade in virtual water.

Virtual water is the amount of water that is needed for the production of food and other products. For example, the production of one kilogramme of wheat requires about 1,000 litres of water. This is the amount of the virtual water.

With the trade of commodities, there is a flow of virtual water. It is in general better for a water-scarce country to import products containing a lot of virtual water instead of producing these goods locally. This relieves the pressure on these countries’ local water resources. In this way water, which would be used to produce these goods, can now be used for other means.

IPS: How is the SADC dealing with issues related to water scarcity?

AT: Water and water security are being treated as a priority within the region. It might not be done this way elsewhere in Africa, but within the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), water is certainly a main concern.

Southern Africa has probably the most sophisticated level of inter-state water management treaties in the world. Furthermore, it is the only region on the continent that has mainstreamed the key elements of UN watercourse Convention via the SADC Protocol on Shared Waters. This document is the foundation for co-ordinated and integrated development of trans-boundary water resources in the region.

On top of that, almost all basins in the SADC region are managed by multilateral agreements between the riparian states of that specific basin.

IPS: What threats exist to water resources in the SADC region?

AT: We have unique threats. One is over-allocation of rivers, which means that they lose their capacity to dilute pollution. Another is a century-plus of unregulated mining, where closed and defunct mines are now decanting toxic and radioactive wastewater into river systems. Yet another is the fact that in SADC, all of the centers of development are — not on a river, a lake or a seafront — but on watersheds instead. This results in pollution flows into drinking and industrial water systems.

IPS: How many people in Southern Africa are suffering from water shortages?

AT: The fact that people live means they have access to water, because you die when you don’t have water. The question is not whether there is a shortage, but whether the supply is assured. The World Bank calls this “hostage to hydrology”.

Many African countries have low assurance of supply. This means that they are not buffered from the shocks of droughts and floods. As a result people drink dirty and contaminated water, and have health problems. Additionally, due to this low assurance of supply, crops fail and industries cannot develop.

IPS: Are communities being involved in water management practices in SADC?

AT: The truth is that river basins are very complex things. The more over-allocated the basin is, the greater the complexity of how to manage the basin. This means that in the absence of robust institutions, it actually undermines the capacity to manage these basins by cascading decision-making down to community levels.

This does not mean to say that communities are unimportant. They are very important. The trick is to engage them in an appropriate way and at an appropriate time. The CSIR has developed what it calls the Trialogue Model of Governance to solve this dilemma.

IPS: Which African river basin is doing a good job when it comes to water management, and which one needs improvement?

AT: The best-managed basin in SADC is probably the Orange or Senqu basin, with the Okavango being a close second best. Both of these have robust agreements and institutional processes in place. Both are extremely important water sources for the most economically developed states in each basin.

The worst managed basins are those in which Zimbabwe is an upstream riparian and Mozambique is a downstream riparian state. Pungue Basin, for instance.

The reason for this is that both countries have limited water management capacities..

IPS: Can we take lessons learned when it comes to successful water management in basin A and apply it to basin B?

AT: Each river basin is unique, so we can’t take a solution from one basin, say in Europe, and then transplant it to an African basin. Homegrown solutions are best. ‘ IPS

August 2008
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