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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Africa’s Unquenchable Thirst

David Kuria

08 Apr 2015

The idea that water might become as contentious a resource as ivory, would have seemed far-fetched two decades ago, when the world signed the Millennium development Goals. But just last week the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Khartoum to end a protracted dispute that has threatened to sour diplomatic relations among the three countries over Ethiopia’s construction of a hydroelectric dam on the River Nile.

Egypt has staunchly opposed the diversion of the Blue Nile by Ethiopia since 2013, when former President Mohamed Morsi, insisted that Egypt would not allow any threats to its water security, going as far as to suggest that blood would be spilt if the Nile ‘loses one drop’ over the debacle with Ethiopia.

The new Nile agreement reached under the leadership of Egypt’s now President al-Sisi- who this week described the Nile as Egypt’s ‘source of life’ – coincides with the launch of the 2015 United Nations World Water Development Report which finds that the planet is facing a 40 per cent water shortage by 2030 unless water management is dramatically improved worldwide.

There are few countries where this predicted shortage is of greater concern than in Kenya – a country where water demand is almost double that of available supply, and where 60 per cent of the capital’s residents are already suffering from water shortages.

During a recent trip to a health centre in Nairegie Enkare, in Narok, Kenya, I witnessed some of the impacts of these current and predicated worsening water shortages first hand. A few shallow wells provide the only source of “fresh” water for the health centre in Enkare, but they are also used by the local community for drinking, feeding livestock, washing clothes and even bathing children and with over 100 donkey water vendors, all scampering to get a drop.

Amid the hustle and bustle around the wells I noticed an expectant mother – in the later stages of pregnancy – carrying 20 litre jerrycans to the maternity unit. On enquiry, I was shocked to learn that pregnant women are required to carry the water needed for the delivery of their own babies. The health center, which offers daily services to over 100 patients, depends on the mercy of unpredictable rain water for all its hygiene use, and therefore has little choice but to request patients to bring their own.

This is just one harrowing example of how the escalating threat of water insecurity is affecting the daily lives of people all over the country. The good news is that both nationally and internationally we are beginning to rethink our relationship with water.

In Kenya, The Water Act 2002 (currently under review) has led to the creation of pseudo private water companies, fully owned by the state. This has enabled more water revenues to be invested in water management to improve water supply, also resulting in the introduction of performance contracting and better alignment of donor aid and government funding to the sector.

As part of any new relationship with water, African and international governments should explore more innovative water access and delivery mechanisms that can spur greater investments in water management, as well as the adoption of new affordable technologies.

For example, the public private partnership (PPP) model which has worked so well in the telecoms sector is now being tested in the water sector with the recent launch in Kenya of Africa’s first ever Water Fund this month in Nairobi. The Water Fund is based on a successful PPP which is providing 50 million people with a secure water supply in North and Latin America. The fund, if successful, is set to raise millions of dollars for water conservation measures to protect Kenyans from escalating water and food insecurity.

For those who may argue that water privatization is a bad thing, my response is that the gradual privatisation of Kenya’s water services, beginning with the Water Reform Programs of 2000, has led to the establishment of the water service providers (wsp) in every municipality and in rural districts, with private commercial entities increasing water access in major towns like Nairobi.

However, much more needs to be done. With the new constitution giving counties jurisdiction over water services, they are under increasing financial pressure to maintain and increase access to water, something which will be made all the more difficult without significant injections of private capital. This is why the Water Trust Fund and development banks need to explore financing innovations including pre-financing, output based aid, and PPPs to boost investment in safe water. This would allow county governments to divert more public funds to the health, education and agricultural sectors where investment is also badly needed.

As the United Nations prepares to adopts a new set of Sustainable Development Goals, the state of Kenya’s, Africa’s and the world’s depleted and degraded water resources makes it clear, that we need to rethink our relationship with this precious resource, starting by devoting at least one goal to its future treatment. In doing so we need to look beyond the urgencies of drinking water and sanitation, to the entire water management cycle, including governance, water quality, wastewater management and the prevention of natural disasters.

No woman should have to carry the water needed for the birth of her own child. And no nation should go to war to make sure its citizens have something to drink. If private sector investment, research and innovation can help to ensure a future for water in Africa, then I for one can only applaud the efforts of all players to make the most life-sustaining resource on earth available to all.


About the Author:

David Kuria is a Ph.D Researcher on Project Management and CEO of Ecotact; He is a 2015  Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.

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