Water Politics in Africa: How Colonial Powers Prepared the Way for “Water Wars”.

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.


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