Taking the regional view to build resilience and opportunity
Botswana is facing a second year of poor rainfall, resulting in a reduced crop yield and loss of livestock across the country.
The Turkana region in Kenya is facing a major drought, one of the worst in living memory, with over a million people in need of food aid.
In January and February, 20 000 people were displaced by flooding in the Chivi, Masvingo and Tsholotsho districts in Zimbabwe.
Is this the extreme weather predicted by climate change? Or is this simply the vagaries of weather in Southern Africa where climate variability is extremely high, and droughts and floods are a regular part of life?
While it is hard to pin any one particular flood or drought on climate change, there is no doubt that the weather patterns in Southern Africa are changing, and that climate change is taking its toll already, and that major impacts are being felt in the water sector. With the hydrological cycle being the primary pathway through which climate change impacts on other sectors, the water sector is one of the most vulnerable to a changing climate. This is particularly complex in the SADC region because of the vast number of shared river basins. The region is expected to experience more extreme floods and droughts as the climate changes, whether under a wetting or drying future. This is compounded by the need to manage these impacts in transboundary basins, in a context of relatively low institutional capacity.
But this is not the only challenge facing water resource managers in the region. Southern Africa is experiencing remarkable economic growth. While GDP growth rates are variable throughout the region, many countries such as Angola, the DRC, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia are witnessing rates of over 6.8 percent (see table below). Another three are over 4.0 percent.
The positive reflection of economic development shown in these figures also means, however, that there is increased, and increasing, pressure on water resources. This fundamentally changes how the region needs to address water issues, with basins that are not currently under stress likely to become more heavily utilised and contested.
Most of the economies in SADC are still dependent on primary economic activity, meaning much of their growth depends on resource use and extraction (agriculture, mining and gas). Increased production means an increased impact on and/or use of water resources, as well as increased energy requirements. Hydropower is a major source of energy in the northern SADC countries, and particularly those that are growing in excess of 5% per year.
In addition, economic growth typically contributes to urbanisation and affluence, which in turn increase per capita water use. The benefits of economic growth are undeniable, but without a change in how the region manages its water resources, the sustainability of the growth will be at risk.
Over the past decades, the region has seen a remarkable change in the management of transboundary basins where most of these basins now have a treaty in place and a functioning river basin organisation, and many of these basins are now developing basin management plans.
This development in the water sector is part of a larger movement towards regional integration within SADC and Sub-Saharan Africa. The challenge, as we move forward, is to extend the approach from national thinking within a regional context, to regional thinking in a regional context – to think across boundaries to see what water management and development options are of the greatest benefit to the region, not to just one particular country. A truly regional view of water management and water infrastructure development is a critical element of building a resilient region with sustainable economic development.