An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2021

Water Security in Africa in the Age of Global Climate Change

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Africa is at the center of the global water predicament and climatic upheaval: The continent contains the greatest number of least-developed countries, the most woeful sanitation infrastructure, and the highest share of people in highly weather-dependent rural employment. Due to global warming, crop yields are expected to decline sharply, and sea-level rises along the African littoral are already higher than average.

The Fall 2021 issue of Dædalus features authors from Africa and the Global North who explore policy debates and conflicts over water use as well as the efforts to mitigate these tensions. The essays focus on four dimensions of the water crises facing the African continent: 1) the increasing scarcity, privatization, and commodification of water in urban centers; 2) the impact of large dams on the countryside; 3) the health and sociopolitical consequences of water shortages; and 4) water governance and the politics of water at the local, national, and transnational levels. The contributors share the concern that without commitments to creating more equitable access to water, the effects of water insecurity will continue to be devastating.

“Flow 54.” A reflection of semi-dry mud and the texture it creates. Mixed media on B3 Canvas, August 2021. Artwork © Tibian Bahari.
“Flow 54.” A reflection of semi-dry mud and the texture it creates. Mixed media on B3 Canvas, August 2021. Artwork © Tibian Bahari.

Water Security in Africa in the Age of Global Climate Change

This essay explores the multiple ways in which the nexuses between water scarcity and climate change are socially and historically grounded in ordinary people’s lived experiences and are embedded in specific fields of power. Here we specifically delineate four critical dimensions in which the water crises confronting the African continent in an age of climate change are clearly expressed: the increasing scarcity, privatization, and commodification of water in urban centers; the impact of large dams on the countryside; the health consequences of water shortages and how they, in turn, affect other aspects of people’s experiences, sociopolitical dynamics, and well-being, broadly conceived; and water governance and the politics of water at the local, national, and transnational levels. These overarching themes form the collective basis for the host of essays in this volume that provide rich accounts of conflicts and struggles over water use and how these tensions have been mitigated.

Urban Struggles over Water Scarcity in Harare

This essay counters the growing tendency in current scholarship to attribute nearly all the enduring water scarcity problems to climate change. Focusing on Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, this essay contends that recurrent water crises can only really be understood within the contentious, long, and complex history of water politics in the capital city from the colonial to the postcolonial period. Although the colonial and postcolonial states in Zimbabwe had very different ideological and racial policies, for various reasons, neither was willing nor able to provide adequate supplies of water to the urban poor even as water was abundant in the city’s reservoirs. It posits that while the colonial government racialized access to water by restricting its use by urban Africans, the postcolonial government failed to change the colonial patterns of urban water distribution and did little to increase water supplies to keep pace with a swiftly growing urban population and a geographically expanding city.

Water for Bongo: Creative Adaptation, Resilience & Dar es Salaam’s Water Supply

Global climate change poses a serious threat to the water supplies of the world’s cities. This is perhaps no truer than for Dar es Salaam, the largest city and commercial capital of Tanzania. What was eighty years ago a small town of a mere forty thousand residents is today the world’s second-fastest growing city, with a population of more than six million. This growth has come despite a history of racist, colonial urban development and the inadequacy of its formal water supply, which services a fraction of the needs of its residents. This essay examines the development of Dar es Salaam’s anthropogenic waterscape, or water infrastructure, and argues that the city’s tremendous growth has come despite its inability to provide basic services. In the absence of reliable public water, its residents have adapted creatively, developing their own solutions in a way that has drawn on knowledge and practice from rural areas as well as new urban-centered strategies. This history of creative adaptation, and its benefits and drawbacks, provides a useful framework for thinking about the meaning of resilience in Africa’s urban centers in an era of increasing climate uncertainty.

Everyday Experiences of Water Insecurity: Insights from Underserved Areas of Accra, Ghana

At least half of Accra’s residents do not enjoy safe, secure, and affordable access to water on a regular basis. Focused on underserved communities in and around urban Accra, this essay highlights the meanings and importance of water insecurity for residents’ daily lives. In particular, this essay extends beyond the well-established ways that the lack of safe and affordable access conditions poor public health outcomes, to a broader understanding of well-being informed by residents’ own experiences of irregular and insecure access to water. This essay thus seeks to broaden understandings of water insecurity beyond the basic and minimum access required for daily needs, and to consider broader social-contextual dynamics, such as reported experiences of stress or conflict, that residents face daily in negotiating water insecurities.

Water Scarcity & Health in Urban Africa

Water is the cornerstone of public health. Yet many people living in Africa’s cities face serious challenges obtaining an adequate supply of clean water. This situation, which poses significant public health concerns, promises only to grow in magnitude in the coming years as rapid urbanization and climate change meet head-on to further constrain urban water provision. This essay explores the relationship between water supply and health in urban Africa through the lens of water scarcity and health as political relationships as much as environmental or technical phenomena. By bringing infectious diseases like cholera and chronic ailments like kidney disease into the same frame of analysis, this essay also directs attention beyond the overwhelming public health focus on microbial contamination to emergent forms of water-related illness and injury that proceed unchecked.

Cahora Bassa Dam & the Delusion of Development

On December 6, 1974, two pressure-driven steel gates of the Cahora Bassa Dam, each weighing 220 tons, stopped the mighty Zambezi River in its course. After five years of toil by more than five thousand workers, the construction of Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa was complete. At the time, it was the fifth-largest dam in the world. The hydroelectric dam was the last megaproject constructed in Africa during the turbulent era of decolonization. Through the voices of peasants and fishermen, displaced by the dam and the workers who built it, this essay analyzes the far-reaching social, political, and ecological consequences of Cahora Bassa. It also explores the devastating impact on riparian life downriver from the dam, which dramatically reduced the annual inundation of the floodplain that supported hundreds of thousands of farmers as well as fish, birds, and mammals.

Ghana’s Akosombo Dam, Volta Lake Fisheries & Climate Change

In Ghana, the Pwalugu Dam in the Upper East is in the final planning stage. Whereas promoters of Ghana’s first dams emphasized the need for generating electricity to modernize and industrialize the new nation, the planners of Pwalugu have focused on water issues. Due to climate change, droughts have had a devastating impact on local agriculture. The dam’s primary purpose is an irrigation scheme and flood control. This essay historicizes these concerns by revisiting the Akosombo Dam, Ghana’s largest hydroelectric dam, completed in 1965. The discussion juxtaposes personal recollections of dam-affected communities with reports by administrators, biologists, and social scientists. The essay draws on government records, scientific studies about Volta Lake, and oral histories. Ultimately, it argues, builders and administrators of the Akosombo Dam failed to address most water issues, despite ample knowledge about their existence. One hopes that these shortcomings will not be repeated in the Pwalugu project.

The Dammed Body: Thinking Historically about Water Security & Public Health

This essay traces the historical relationship between the construction of the Nile River and the prevalence of disease in Egypt in the long twentieth century, with an eye to the relevance of this history to other regions on the African continent impacted by the construction of large dams. Beginning in the second decade of the nineteenth century and stretching through the 1970s, the Nile River underwent a dramatic process of transformation. Two large dams–the 1902 Khazan Aswan and the Aswan High Dam–were constructed on the river. Networks of perennial irrigation canals facilitated the practice of year-round agricultural production and the High Dam provided electricity. The remaking of Egypt’s riparian ecologies also had important implications for the health of Egypt’s population as these ecologies were associated with new landscapes of disease and approaches to biomedical treatment.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Africa’s Water Tower, Environmental Justice & Infrastructural Power

Global environmental imaginaries such as “the climate crisis” and “water wars” dominate the discussion on African states and their predicament in the face of global warming and unmet demands for sustainable livelihoods. I argue that the intersecting challenges of water, energy, and food insecurity are providing impetus for the articulation of ambitious state-building projects, in the Nile Basin as elsewhere, that rework regional political geographies and expand “infrastructural power”–the ways in which the state can penetrate society, control its territory, and implement consequential policies. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam should be understood as intending to alter how the state operates, domestically and internationally; how it is seen by its citizens; and how they relate to each other and to their regional neighbors. To legitimize such material and ideational transformations and reposition itself in international politics, the Ethiopian party-state has embedded the dam in a discourse of “environmental justice”: a rectification of historical and geographical ills to which Ethiopia and its impoverished masses were subjected. However, critics have adopted their own environmental justice narratives to denounce the failure of Ethiopia’s developmental model and its benefiting of specific ethnolinguistic constituencies at the expense of the broader population.

Hydropolitics versus Human Security: Implications of South Africa’s Appropriation of Lesotho’s Highlands Water

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which exports water to South Africa, has enhanced the unequal structural relationship that exists between both states. Lesotho, one of the few countries in the world that exports water, has transformed from one of the largest sources of labor for South Africa to a water reservoir for South Africa. Though the project provides mutual strategic economic and political benefits to both riparian states, its construction has negatively affected environmental and human security in Lesotho. Due to hydropolitics, environmental threats in Lesotho caused by the project’s construction are overlooked. These threats, which have devastating effects on resettled communities and the country’s ecosystem, also constitute a threat to domestic and international security. The desire to prevent interstate conflict and maintain cooperation between the two riparian states further enhances the lopsided interstate relationship.

An Offer You Can Refuse: A Host Country’s Strategic Allocation of Development Financing

Hydropower projects are one of the leading energy sectors being developed in Africa. In the past two decades, this demand has been increasingly met by Chinese financing and Chinese contractors, creating an impression that host countries have no choice but to accept Chinese advances against their preferences. This essay demonstrates through the case study of the Mount Coffee hydropower project in Liberia that host countries strategically allocate financing from different sources to different projects, based on domestic development needs, administrative capacity, flexibility of financiers, and institutional memory between the host and the financiers. This essay also shows that concerns over Chinese contractors’ environmental- and social-impact records reflect a combination of host enforcement, financier self-sorting, and Chinese contractors’ own perceptions of their comparative advantage. More broadly, this case study provides empirical observations of host countries’ agency and strategic calculus in the financier-host relation, as well as the limits of China’s role in Africa’s hydropower sector. 

Author Jyhjong Hwang

Between Principles & Power: Water Law Principles & the Governance of Water in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Debates over the management and allocation of water in the postcolonial era, and in post-apartheid South Africa in particular, reveal that struggles over water resources in Southern Africa occur within three broad frames: the institutional, the hydrological, and the ideological. Each of these realms reflects tensions in the relationship between power and principle that continue to mark the governance of water. Each perspective offers a way to understand the use and the limits of law in the management of a country’s water resources. The existence of explicit principles, whether as policy guidelines, constitutional rights, or in the language of regional and international agreements, provides two important resources for those who struggle for access to water. First, a vision of a more just allocation of this fundamental resource and, second, an articulation of common benchmarks to which states and governments might be held to account.

Author Heinz Klug

Africa’s Living Rivers: Managing for Sustainability

Africa’s human population is growing rapidly and is set to account for 40 percent of global numbers by 2100. Further development of its inland waters, to enhance water and energy security, is inevitable. Will it follow the development pathway of industrialized countries, often destructive of ecosystems, biodiversity, and river-dependent social structures, or can it chart a new way into the future based on global lessons of equity and sustainability? This essay tracks the global and African growth of the benefits and costs of water resource developments, explores the reasons for the costs, and offers insights on new scientific thinking that can help guide Africa to a more sustainable future.

Climate & Water in a Changing Africa: Uncertainty, Adaptation & the Social Construction of Fragile Environments

Discussions of climate change and water security in Africa are often simplistic and indeed deterministic. They overlook not only ecological complexities but also the multitude of ways in which various population groups across the continent approach climatological variability, thereby challenging positivist modeling and external adaptation agendas. The current state of affairs for many often-silenced citizens is already one of hunger, uncertainty, and marginalization; the self-appointed lead actors on climate adaptation–states, markets, NGOs–have, from their vantage point, deeply troubling track records of dealing with people and their environments. For plenty of communities around Africa, it might therefore not so much be only the worsening climate that is increasingly exposing people to disease, displacement, and water insecurity, but the very policies adopted in the name of preparing for, and living with, worsening weather. This essay explores how understanding climate adaptation as a fundamentally social and political process points to possibilities for imagining and working toward futures with greater emancipatory potential. There is no scenario in which African societies adapt successfully to climatic change and do not simultaneously radically reimagine both their relationship with the outside world and with each other, including institutions of control and mechanisms of exclusion at home.