Irrigation in Africa (source: fao.org)

Last week, ministers from 53 African countries gathered at a FAO summit in Libya, entitled “Water for Energy and Agriculture in Africa: the Challenges of Climate Change”. It was timely. Irrigated land forms 38% of all land in Asia, but only 7% in Africa, and Africa’s food needs will triple by 2050 if population growth continues at current levels.

Many parts of Africa are already seeing diminishing water resources (as a result of both over-abstraction and climate change), and IPCC predictions suggest this will worsen in many areas, particularly the Sahel.

As is the case with many summits, a main outcome was the call for another summit, this time a bigger one, with all world heads of State and government. FAO suggested this could help find the $30 billion a year that is needed for investment in Africa’s water and rural infrastructure.

More investment is indeed urgent. Agriculture and water have fallen down the development agenda in recent years, as health and education have risen to the fore. This has been reflected in aid levels.

However, the issue of water, particularly as climate change starts to bite harder, must always be tackled holistically. There are numerous users competing for scarce resources: farmers, industry, and most importantly, people drinking the stuff. Only 58% of Sub-Saharan Africans have access to a safe drinking water supply.

Whilst it is crucial to increase water access for agricultural purposes, the poor must not be cut off for the benefit of agribusiness. Mechanisms must be developed for water resource management at a local level which take into account the voice of all users. Without this, the rich and powerful will prevail.

As Africa adapts to climate change, the mantra “some for all, not all for some” must be followed with regard to water, if resources are to be shared equitably and sustainably.


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