WWF Report: Africa’s Watershed Moment – How better water management can underpin Africa’s development

Africa’s Watershed Moment WWF Report

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Launched during World Water Week, Africa’s Watershed Moment highlights how the management of water – and the rivers, lakes and wetlands from which it is sourced – is fundamental to sustainable development across the continent.

Said Fred Kumah, WWF Director for Africa,

“By 2050, Africa will be a very different continent. Its population will have doubled, soaring by another billion. Its towns and cities will house more people than its rural villages. Its economies will have transformed. The question is not where Africa is going: it is whether the continent gets there by following a sustainable and inclusive development path.”

And the answer will depend to a huge extent on how Africa manages its freshwater resources. Clean and reliable water supplies are essential for everything from increasing agricultural production to successfully diversifying countries’ economies. Africa will also have youth on its side, but only if the continent’s young women and men are healthy and educated, which they won’t be without sufficient water.

Four key themes

The report focuses on four key themes – sustained growth requires water investment; feeding a billion more people; rural water vulnerability, poverty and migration; and cities as the engine of water-resilient development.

1. Sustained growth requires water investment

Water is required in some way for all economic production and consumption, whether it is used in business operations and their supply chains, or to ensure healthy and educated workers and customers.

Current economic growth rates will require a dramatic increase in water use by 2030. Achieving the SDGs in Africa will require careful balancing of the needs of economic growth and industrialisation with shifting demographics and the maintenance of functioning rivers, wetlands, lakes and aquifers to sustain a reliable and clean water supply to the developing continent.

2. Feeding a billion more people

Over the next 35 years, the African population is expected to increase by more than a billion people. These people will need access to water for food, energy and water security, as well as hygiene.

Moreover, water is crucial for many rural dwellers to sustain their agricultural livelihoods. This increasing population will have the greatest impact on water through agricultural use.

Agriculture is the largest user of water in Africa, and improved water management will be required to support the development of agricultural and rural economies, as well as feeding the increasing African population to achieve SDG2 – Zero Hunger.

3. Rural water vulnerability, poverty and migration

The livelihoods of rural communities in Africa are highly dependent on water. The combination of climate variability, climate change, political instability, lack of economic opportunities and poor water resources management has far-reaching implications for vulnerable rural communities who are dependent on natural resources for subsistence livelihoods.

Water-related drought and flood events contribute to the factors driving migration. Investment in water management and access for rural communities is critical to reduce poverty and support resilient livelihoods, contributing to SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities.

4. Cities as the engine of water-resilient development

Projected rates of urbanisation are expected to result in a trebling of the population in African cities by 2050, with the urban population exceeding the rural population of Sub-Saharan Africa by about 2040.

African cities will be both the drivers of economic growth, diversification and trade, and will have an increasing requirement for water, food and energy, all of which require reliable water supply.

The water resilience and sustainable development of African cities will be dependent upon the management of their interactions with water resources, to achieve SDG 11 –Sustainable Cities and Communities.

Stakeholder groups

The recommendations to build water resilience cannot be implemented by water managers alone. Five key stakeholder groups need to be aware of and respond to the importance of water for Africa’s sustained development.

  • Economic planners should seize the opportunity to catalyse development by investing in water management, and take a holistic view on the role that water plays in economic growth.
  • Business leaders should increase investment in water management to reduce risks, advocate with governments for additional investment, and promote partnerships to support the achievement of the SDGs and resilient water management.
  • Investors should explore mechanisms to finance water development that underpins sustainable and inclusive economic growth and link these to productive use of water, considering the threats of a changing climate.
  • City managers should recognise the increasing direct and indirect vulnerability of cities to water and cooperate to ensure coherent planning between urban and rural areas.
  • Development agencies should promote water-resilient development, with a focus on the livelihoods of the most marginal people in the least developed economies.

As the report makes clear, meeting the increased demand for water will be a huge challenge and one that will be exacerbated by climate change.

“This is Africa’s watershed moment. Decisions taken in the next few years about how to manage our freshwater resources will shape the continent’s development for decades to come,” said Kumah.

“Africa urgently needs to invest in appropriate freshwater infrastructure, management and policies to catalyse economic growth, mitigate water risks and achieve its Sustainable Development Goals – or risk missing the boat,” he added.

Challenges, opportunities & partnerships

It will not be easy. The development and management of water resources always result in trade-offs. The report highlights the need for water-related development to carefully consider the potential winners and losers of any intervention, particularly rural communities and indigenous groups whose livelihoods are closely dependent on water resources.

But it also pinpoints some opportunities: the momentum created by the SDGs, expanding interest in innovative financing mechanisms, increasing private sector support for collective action, and greater understanding of the need for basin-scale planning.

And critically, new partnerships. Governments, businesses, international organisations and development agencies all have a role to play in securing investments that ensure Africa’s rivers, wetlands and aquifers continue to provide clean water supplies as the continent transforms.

Image from report: ©WWF-CANON / YOSHI SHIMIZO

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