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<Sourcebook of Alternative Technologies for Freshwater Augumentation in Africa>



Freshwater is a finite and limited resource upon which health and development depend. Given its limited availability and importance, efficient and effective use of water resources is necessary for sustainable economic and social development. Such use should be predicated upon protecting and improving the environment to the maximum possible extent (DANIDA, 1991).

Increased international concern about water resources management has recognised two underlying principles; firstly, that water should be managed at the lowest appropriate level, and, secondly, that water should be considered as an economic good (UNDP, 1990; ICWE, 1992).

Notwithstanding the need for national policies on social and developmental priorities, it has been recognised that centralised and sectoral approaches to water resources development and management have often proved insufficient to address local water management problems. Management at appropriate lower levels allows a greater opportunity to ensure sustainable development of resources; increase awareness, involvement and responsibility amongst users; and, recognise local interests and mobilise local resources, while allowing central government agencies to concentrate on essential national functions.

Access to water of adequate quality and quantity is a fundamental human need and recognised as a basic human right. However efficient allocation of water beyond these basic needs can only come from a full recognition of the costs and benefits associated with various alternative uses, taking into account future needs. This does not prevent or argue against the use of targeted government support to assist social and developmental priorities.

Water and water development are irretrievably connected with land use management, and urban and industrial development. The necessity to integrate water management with these sectors in ways which are in the best interests of a nation are most readily achieved by recognising the efficiency of management at the lowest appropriate level, and that water development decisions are best made in acknowledgement of the real value of the water.

Freshwater resources have been dwindling over the years, both in terms of quality and quantity, while the demand for high quality water has been steadily increasing. Studies carried out on a global basis indicate that only a small percentage of the available water is of good enough quality for human use. As an element of social and industrial development, water use has increased dramatically in importance. So, not only do we have increased water use due to population increases, but also an increased importance of water as a key determinant of development. In the fifty years, to 1990, the world's population doubled, as did the per capita water consumption rate (from about 400 m3/year to about 800 m3/year (Engelman and Le Roy, 1993).

Falkenmark, et al. (1990) have proposed a water scarcity index based on an approximate minimum level of water required per capita to maintain an adequate quality of life in a moderately developed country. One hundred litres per person per day is considered to be the minimum for basic household needs to maintain good health in this index. The experience of moderately developed and water efficient countries shows that roughly 5 to 20 times this amount tends to be needed to satisfy the requirements of agriculture, industry and energy production. On the basis of these premises, a country whose renewable freshwater resource availability on an annual per capita basis exceeds 1 700 m3 will suffer only occasional or local water shortages. When freshwater availability falls below 1 000 m3/person/year, countries will be likely to experience a chronic water scarcity in which the lack of water begins to hamper economic development and human health and well being. When renewable water supplies fall below 500 m3/person/year, countries will be likely to experience absolute scarcity. (Engelman and Le Roy, 1993), although there are arguments which suggest that there are many market adjustment mechanisms which would allow societies to cope below this level.

In Africa, 88% of stored water is consumed by agriculture, mainly in irrigation. Domestic water consumption is very small (30 to 40 litres/day), especially when compared to the 700 litres/day consumed in the United States. As Africa increasingly develops, however, it may be anticipated that development will be parallelled by an increasing demand for water, both for food production and for domestic use, as well as for industrial development. The proportion of water used in industry is often seen as an indicator of economic development.

The situation in African countries with regard to water scarcity is shown in the following table. Using Falkenmark's definition of water scarcity, six African countries were in a position of water scarcity or water stress in 1990. This will increase to 16 by 2025. South Africa will move into the category of water scarcity by 2025 and, depending on the population projections used, Zimbabwe and Tanzania may also do so by that time. Of 20 African countries that have faced food emergencies in recent years, half are either stressed by water shortages or are projected to fall into the stress category by 2025 (Engelman and Le Roy).

The cost of exploiting water resources for what ever purpose has been increasing over the years thereby pushing the unit cost of water beyond the means of the poor. Further, urbanization in a number of developing countries has resulted in the generation of large volumes of solid and liquid wastes which have contributed to an increase in the pollution of the limited available water resources. Also, in the last decade, the global weather patterns have changed, resulting in heavy floods or severe droughts throughout the continent. Africa has been plagued especially by periods of severe drought which have resulted in serious water shortages. Thus, the need for proper management of the scarce water resources of Africa, as well as elsewhere, has become critical.


Table 1

Traditionally, African communities have applied many methods to augment their water supplies. While these methods have changed and developed with time, relatively few attempts to learn about and share experiences between communities, countries and regions have been made. There are undoubted benefits to be gained from the transfer of technologies, especially since the relatively recent upsurge in appreciation of the importance of community inputs to the process of water resource development has resulted in an increased focus on the approaches that have been used in the past. Some of the reasons why traditional methods have either not been widely adopted to date and/or why they have failed in the past have been summarised in a recent review of water harvesting and soil and water conservation practises by Lee and Visscher (1990):

  • Conflict of objectives. Historically, colonial systems in Africa attempted to impose land management programmes, such as promotion of contouring for the purpose of erosion control, in a top-down manner. This resulted in a lack of understanding, and often of acceptance, of the programmes by the local people. Thus, whilst there may have been real concerns within governmental and other agencies about soil conservation, the people often were not aware of these concerns or they had other priorities, such as agricultural production. In many countries, this policy of top-down resource management continued after independence. Centrally-directed programmes, whether implemented by governmental agencies or by nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and external aid agencies, without the full involvement, and indeed control, of the community have almost invariably failed. Measures that were implemented through these programmes have been disregarded and have fallen into disuse and disrepair. Similar examples exist in domestic water supply.

  • Technology. Water augmentation systems introduced from outside the community have often used methods and machinery which the communities are unwilling or unable to maintain for various reasons, including the amount of labour required or the difficulties in maintaining and repairing machinery. Further, not enough attention has been given to indigenous irrigation and water conservation technologies. In fact, it is often difficult to identify and describe these technologies. Indigenous water harvesting systems and associated conservation methods are infinitely varied and often highly location specific. It is essential to take this into account when transferring freshwater augmentation technology from one area to another (Critchley, et al., 1992). For this reason, local people must be allowed to make their own decisions with regard to which technologies are appropriate, given that only techniques fitted or adapted to local social and environmental conditions are likely to succeed (UNSO, 1992).

  • Community contribution. The main concern of communities in the drier areas of Africa is harvesting enough water to ensure the production of a crop or enough grazing to sustain the communities. Thus, in order to succeed under these conditions, water conservation programmes must win the respect and cooperation of these local communities. Increasing pressures on the land are beginning to convince some communities of the need for land rehabilitation and soil conservation. Only through this awareness, and the resultant sense of personal benefit from improved access to water and consequent improvement in productivity and food security, will communities be convinced of the need to adopt new practices. Water conservation strategies introduced by agencies have rarely built on the experience and traditional practices of the people. Similarly, such strategies have rarely used the community organisational structures to prepare or manage the project.

  • Monitoring and Reporting. Of the many water augmentation projects carried out in Africa, few, if any, have they been properly monitored so as to be able to develop an assessment of the successes, failures and lessons to be learned. As a result, many of the mistakes made are destined to be repeated in other projects.

Given the issues identified above, and the increased need for improved water management in the light of decreased availability, it is clear that communities themselves need to be central to the planning and decision-making process with regard to development projects, including selection and implementation of freshwater augmentation technologies. Further, augmentation of freshwater resources should build on those practices already in use within the communities or neighbouring communities, and should employ those methods and technologies which the communities, themselves, consider to be sustainable. Contrary to popular belief, freshwater augmentation technologies are applicable in all areas of Africa regardless of the amount of rainfall. Application of the most appropriate technologies may assist communities to postpone investment of scarce financial resources in new development projects, rehabilitate degraded lands, improve water quality, and alleviate water shortages.

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