Water Security No Longer A ‘Future Threat’ For Sahelian Africa

Water Security No Longer A 'Future Threat' For Sahelian Africa
The Sahel region of Africa is one of the driest places on earth

AFRICANGLOBE – Anyone living in the Horn of Africa, along the Nile, or near Lake Chad knows that water-related issues are among the most severe and wide-reaching security threats in Africa, and have been for some time now.

International partners have, however, been slow to get on board, often grouping water with other ‘future’ or ’emerging’ challenges. Water-related security threats are only future threats in that, unlike with other types of threats, hard science can predict that water-related insecurity in Africa will inevitably become more severe, but this in no way detracts from the severity of the effects of water insecurity today.

The impending famine in the Horn, proxy conflicts over Nile watershed water usage, and insecurity surrounding the shrinking of Lake Chad urgently demand a reframing of our conceptualization of what water insecurity in Africa entails.

There have been a number of wake-up-calls in recent years which demonstrated how water insecurity underlies many other security threats in Africa. In 2010, the Horn of Africa experienced the driest conditions in 60 years, and combined with political, security, and market factors, resulted in a famine that cost 260,000 lives, half of which were children. The 2012 Sahel famine which threatened an estimated 17 million people and fed into the political crisis in Mali provides another recent example.

These water-related crises became forces for migration, human security catastrophes, economic crises, and radicalization. Reinforcing lessons from these wake-up calls, improvements in climate data collection and analysis are now better able to explain direct human and financial costs of water insecurity. These costs are dire and may call for a reprioritization of threats.

The following statistics represent just a few of the many facets of water insecurity. In terms of human suffering, 35 million people around the world die prematurely each year from water-related diseases and the Climate Variability Monitor estimates 400,000 lives are lost yearly due to climate change.

In economic terms, floods and drought-related disasters have cost $1.8 trillion in the past 14 years; the US budgeted for $1.8 billion for food aid in 2014, but the UN estimates humanitarian aid needs will rise 1600% over the next 20 years due to climate change. There is also readily available information on the costs to specific African countries.

To take a few examples, in 2010, 26,000 Nigerians died due to climate change related factors. In 2010, 107,000 lives were lost in Ethiopia due to the effects of carbon emissions, or to look at the crisis from an economic angle, Ethiopia forfeits one-third of its growth potential due to its limited ability to deal with climate disasters.

This emerging body of analysis is also better able to combine meteorological data with data from other disciplines, producing a better understanding of how water scarcity might impact different regions differently, such as studies that recognize that not only are Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea among Africa’s most water-insecure countries, they are also among the least able to adapt to this problem. This kind of analysis increasingly makes it into popular media and policymakers’ offices, but at least in terms of budget allocation, it has yet to prompt a major rethinking of traditional conceptions of security.

There are signs however, that this is starting to change. Scientists estimate that 90% of Lake Chad has been lost over the past four decades disrupting 30 million livelihoods. As income sources were lost, basin residents were forced to move to inhospitable surrounding environments, disrupting local governance and social institutions, and creating opportunity for illicit networks as well as large concentrations of traumatized and marginalized youth.

An estimated 45 million people live within the Lake Chad basin, including, notably, Boko Haram. Insecurity devolved to such levels that in March each of the Lake Chad Basin Commission member countries of the Multinational Joint Taskforce agreed to deploy a battalion to restore security in the region, several of which have been active in recent months.

International partners are supporting these efforts by sharing aerial surveillance and pledging over US $200 million funding to transfer water from the Congo Basin to Lake Chad. Although the long-term planning is laudable, these efforts will come too late to address the worsening 2014 drought in the Sahel.

Water Security No Longer A 'Future Threat' For Sahelian Africa
The Sahel region of Africa

Across the continent, al Shabaab has tried to cut off government-controlled cities from their water sources, making ‘water terrorism’ increasingly central in their strategy. AMISOM has responded with water-related interventions, such as providing drinking water to communities, and building water infrastructure. Warnings of ‘another 2011’ beg for these efforts to be stepped up. Early warning systems were accused of not doing their job in the lead up to the 2011 famine, but activists claim there were many alerts, and policymakers largely ignored them.

In the hope of preventing the same excuses, ADESO Executive Director Degan Ali has been keeping track of how many warnings have been issued on the developing famine. As of September 3, there were at least 10 early warning system alerts. People displaced or weakened, both economically and in terms of health, by the 2011 famine, have not yet fully recovered, making them all the more vulnerable to another drought. Already, 200,000 children under the age of five are acutely malnourished, and the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group estimates that 20.6 million people in the region are acute food shortages, up three million from just last month. Of these, IDPs are expected to fare the worst precisely at the same time that funding to IDPs in the Horn is diminishing.

2014 predictions for refugees and IDPs in Chad and the Horn stand out among African countries: almost half a million in Chad, 1.1 million in Somalia, 607,000 in Kenya, and 436,000 in Ethiopia. While a number of factors contribute to their displacement, it is noteworthy that Africa’s most water-insecure countries tend to produce high levels of displaced populations.

The Globe and Mail found a gender gap among the displaced “climate refugees”, noting that “anyone who could afford to leave”, generally men, were leaving areas affected by desertification in search of new livelihoods, meaning that 80% of the people staying behind to face increased insecurity are women and children. The Feinstein International Center also found a correlation with socio-political delineations, causing increased marginalization of historically disempowered groups.

Al Shabaab has effectively exploited drought-related disasters as opportunity to appeal to the grievances of these displaced and disenfranchised communities. Some of Al Shabaab’s most effective ‘hearts and minds’ activities have provided water services supporting farmers and pastoralists. Al Shabaab has also been a major obstacle in allowing humanitarian aid from reaching those affected most by famine. The group failed to foresee the extent of the 2011 famine, and therefore was limited in how it made use of the crisis for its own purposes.

Institutions concerned with recognizing and mitigating African security threats need to revisit their goals in the Lake Chad Basin and the Horn and weigh how water insecurity is affecting those objectives now and in the future. Whether those goals focus on combating poverty, radicalization, illicit networks, pastoralist conflict, political violence, or many other issues, water security, or the lack thereof, will in large part determine whether these goals are met.

Once policymakers realize the scope and urgency of the problem, they also need to make a more concerted effort to support and understand research on the subject. Scientists across climate and security-related disciplines should continue to try to present cross-cutting analysis of current and future implications of water insecurity. There is no justification for postponing responses to this ‘future threat’ any longer.


By: Devon Knudsen

Mr. Knudson is a Horn of Africa specialist at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies