Vthree and a half years ago, reports circulated around the world that the South African coastal metropolis of Cape Town, which is popular with tourists, was running out of water. A “Day Zero” when not a drop runs out of the pipes seemed only a matter of weeks. Horrifying visions of long queues in front of public water points guarded by the military made the rounds. The catastrophe did not happen. Thanks to unusually heavy rainfall, the reservoirs are currently well filled again. Nonetheless, this episode highlights the significant water vulnerability of large parts of Africa.
While the continent has significant unexploited reserves, they are very unevenly distributed and are found primarily in the large basins of some rivers such as the Congo, Nile, Niger and Zambezi. More than a third of Africans live in regions threatened by drought. Africa, although responsible for less than four percent of global greenhouse gas production, bears a key burden of climate change today. Poor people suffer particularly from extreme weather conditions, intense heat, drought and flooding. A distressing example of the effects of global warming is Lake Chad, once one of Africa’s largest freshwater lakes, which has shrunk to a quarter of its size from around 45,000 square kilometers in 1960.
Four aspects of the supply crisis
Against the backdrop of the prospect of “water wars,” an interdisciplinary research landscape on water security in Africa has emerged and is featured in the latest issue of Daedalus (Vol. 150, Issue 4), the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As co-editor historians Allen Isaacman and Muchaparara Musemwa introduce, the research highlights four aspects of the water crisis: the increasing scarcity, privatization, and commodification of water in urban centers; the impact of large dams on rural areas; the health consequences of water scarcity and finally water management and water policies at local, national and international levels.
The issue pays particular attention to the historical dimension of current constellations, which manifests itself not least in the continuation of colonial preferences for large-scale development projects. In the decades following World War II, the construction of large dams represented a deep belief in scientific advance and technology shared by African nationalists. As Stephan Miescher explains, the Akosombo dam in Ghana was specifically intended to help the young African nation build up.
Nkrumah set an industrial monument
The dam formed the core of the Volta River project, which included a large artificial lake, an aluminum smelter, the resettlement of 80,000 people, new cities and towns, a deep sea port and other infrastructure measures. Kwame Nkrumah, who had become head of government in 1951 while the British were still in colonial rule, made the realization of the Volta River project one of the central goals of an independent Ghana. Hopes for rapid industrialization and less dependence on cocoa exports were not fulfilled, even if Ghana’s power supply was significantly better than that of its neighbors for a long time.
Many of the dams built during the colonial period and thereafter, several papers mention, produced only a small part of the hoped-for energy. In return, they often had devastating consequences for people and the environment: tens of thousands of people, often entire villages and small towns, were often forcibly resettled, local fishing industries were destroyed, waterborne diseases spread, shorelines eroded, and floods and water shortages increased . At the same time, the urge for major hydroelectric projects in Africa is unbroken. Dozens of major dam structures in Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania are under construction or recently completed. They are leading to increased tensions between countries, for example in the north-east of the continent. The GER dam built on the Nile in Ethiopia, which President Abiy Ahmed sees as a sign of progress and regional strength, is currently causing angry protests and appeals to the world of states in neighboring Egypt and Sudan.
In his contribution, political scientist Harry Verhoeven points out that popular thinking about climate change and water security still paints a simplified picture of Africa as a victim of nefarious exogenous interests. It’s not that these interests don’t exist, but the exclusive focus on them hides local ideas and practices in dealing with the climate and water. Not only the international community, but also African politicians have largely ignored these perspectives. However, it is impossible to imagine a scenario in which African societies successfully adapt to climate change without at the same time fundamentally redefining their relationships with the rest of the world and with each other. And this would also mean questioning local institutions of control and exclusion.