Stretching water further in rural Africa

Securing water for farming and sanitation is no pipe dream

A gravity-fed, gated irrigation system pulls water from Sebwe River at Mubuku, Uganda ©FAO/Eva Pek


Months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the FAO-led report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020, had identified Africa as the region with the fastest-growing number of undernourished people.

In the absence of a dramatic change of fortunes, the report said, Africa was on course to overtake Asia and host more than half of the world’s hungry by 2030. And this, with less than a fifth of the global population. With the pandemic seen as accelerating social trends and intensifying economic undercurrents, this unenviable breakthrough could come, if anything, even sooner.

Some of the reasons are historic. Others, such as persistent pockets of instability and conflict, are more circumstantial. Among structural causes, one stands out: the unforgiving climate that affects large sub-continental areas.

A dry, exposed land…

The whole northern third of Africa, the greater part of its southern third and the Horn all show red hot on FAO’s global map of aridity. Much of the continent, with the exception of its central belt, receives less than the five millimetres of rain considered effective for agriculture. This makes it imperative that water be derived from renewable sources.

Yet more than 60 percent of renewable water sources in Africa are concentrated in just five countries: Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This leaves fifty nations, including Africa’s largest and most populous, sharing the remaining third.

COVID-19 is causing added strain. More water must be allocated to hygiene: the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates global extra needs for handwashing alone at some 58 cubic tonnes per day. “That’s as much as a tenth of all the water in the rivers, the lakes and the ground of France,” explains Maher Salman, who heads FAO’s Water resources management group.

There is more: while we have yet to tally the precise amount of water hoovered up by COVID-19 hospitalisations, evidence from the nearest precedent – the SARS epidemic of 2003 – points to some 100 litres per patient.

Left/bottom: Source: FAO AQUASTAT; Right/Bottom: Source: UNICEF & WHO, 2019

… a false dichotomy…

Even with COVID-19 removed from the equation, the fact remains: in highly water-stressed environments, the competition between agricultural and sanitation use of water is intense at the best of times. There is a solid argument for these two, equally vital demands to be addressed symbiotically rather than in adversarial terms – and Salman makes it forcefully.

“It’s often unrealistic to expect governments to put all things water-related under a single ministry or administrative umbrella,” he says. “But as a matter of policy practice, there should be coordination – not rivalry, as has historically been the case. Water for growing food and water for staying healthy are not antagonistic propositions.”

In a report entitled SMART Irrigation-SMART WASH (where WASH stands for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), FAO has reviewed Africa’s vulnerabilities using a combination of water stress indicators, public health metrics and food security markers. Densely analytical, the report is also chock-full of solutions for greater water efficiency.

… and a way through it

Constructed wetlands, for example, are artificial ponds that use natural processes to filter wastewater and render it safe for crop irrigation. Other techniques include the application of biostimulants – organic micro-organisms that enhance nutrient uptake – to reduce transpiration, the process by which moisture drains out of plants in Africa’s harsher climate zones. There are also mesh screens to harvest humidity from fog; schemes to capture rooftop runoff into dual collector systems – open canals for irrigation, and underground cisterns treated through disinfection wells for sanitation; and a variety of ingeniously designed tanks and pumping rig-ups.

A branched network feeds Nile water into a pressurized irrigation system in Assiut, Egypt ©FAO/Eva Pek

COVID-19’s delayed arrival in Africa, sparse transport links and early action by Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the African Union’s health agency, appear to have shielded most of the continent from the worst of the pandemic. There have also been suggestions that a youthful population may have helped. Even so, the pandemic is far from over. And longer term, no other continent has to live under Africa’s compound threat of intense water scarcity, precarious food security and fragile health systems.

The report’s co-author, water management specialist Eva Pek, hails from Hungary, a country long known as water-rich and hydrologically savvy. Hers, she explains, is the third generation in her family to have taken up this line of work. “The solutions we propose,” Pek says with spirited conviction, “are designed to work well in African settings. They’re cheap to install, lo-tech, but truly transformative for rural homesteads and village communities.”

The SMART Irrigation-SMART WASH report is meant as a three-in-one: awareness raiser, policy blueprint and funding opportunity signal. But at ground level, its impact may well be measured in clean hands and blooming fields.

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3. Good health and well-being, 6. Clean water and sanitation, 9. Industry innovation and infrastructure