The idea of economics being a social science is no novelty and even though the notion dates back as far as the era of Adam Smith and the other fathers of economics, it still holds true today. It would seem that every being, society or entity is forever in the pursuit of that elusive – or to put it in economic terms, scarce – something. For some select countries like the United States, that elusive or increasingly scarce thing is oil. For most of the world however, and particularly the impoverished world, that commodity is oil’s arch-rival, water.
Nothing lasts forever and that applies especially to natural resources that tend to be used up with no thought of their replenishment. The world literally goes crazy because of this commodity oil. All things being equal (ceteris paribus), when global oil prices drop, everyone – with the possible exception of suppliers – rejoices. When the prices rise – as they seem to do more frequently given their increasing scarcity – everyone’s a-panicking. Except maybe the suppliers, again. For countries like Senegal where there’s a frighteningly high dependence on the earth’s black gold for keeping the economy afloat, fluctuations in oil prices wreck havoc on more than just electrical appliances. At the very least however, Senegal is in a pretty okay state when it comes to oil’s main competitor: water.
While some parts of the capital Dakar might not have running water for the full 24 hours a day, there’s a pretty good indication on what time of day to place a bucket under a tap in order to capture that precious first drop. In countries like Ghana however, it’s an entirely different story. At best, one could expect to have one full day of flowing taps per week. And even then, you’ve got to time it down to the tee, like the rooster does the first rays of sunlight. True, it makes for a booming “polytank” plastic and water storage container industry, but when Ghana is littered with rivers and other water bodies left, right and center, you can’t deny that there’s something seriously wrong with the picture.
Changing Dynamics : The Looming Threat of Climate Change
In July this year, the U.N. declared water and sanitation a human right in order to address the water crisis plaguing numerous parts of the globe. While that’s a great step in the right direction, in itself it will by no means slows down what many analysts agree could soon be the harsh reality for millions, particularly developing country inhabitants: wars over water. Add the growing influence of climate change and that gloomy prediction could be closer than we anticipate. Neglect for our environment and climactic systems is literally throwing everything out of balance. Life as we know it is gradually becoming a confluence of extremities.
This summer alone there have been numerous accounts of extreme flooding and consequent deaths in places like Ghana, Pakistan, Senegal and Nigeria – with most being labeled the worst in decades. On the other hand, places like Sudan and Ethiopia are experiencing their worst droughts ever, further aggravating the global food crisis and throwing millions further into hunger. It might seem unfathomable that things could possibly get any worse, but at this rate, the potential of water wars is at its highest point. An NPR article forwarded on to me by one of my tweeps, 1stworldmusic, paints a scary picture of what is already happening in Egypt and what could become widespread. One would think that more attention would be paid to the issue of water access, considering the fact that water IS life. Yet unfortunately, many African governments are turning their eyepiece away from the issue, preferring either to ignore it and focus on arch-rival oil or simply handing the situation over to private – and often foreign – investors whose sole aim is profit maximization.
Facing the Facts: Water Statistics (Culled From Blog Action Day Email)
An estimated 1 billion people lack access to clean water, leading to daily struggles, diseases and sometimes death.
– 40 Billion Hours: African women (and girls) walk over 40 billion hours each year carrying cisterns of up to 18kg to gather water, which is usually still not safe to drink. More info
– 38,000 Child Deaths Per Week: Every week, nearly 38,000 children under the age of 5 die from unsafe drinking water and unhygienic living conditions.
– Wars Over Water: Many scholars attribute the conflict in Darfur at least in part to lack of access to water. A report commissioned by the UN found that in the 21st century, water scarcity will become one of the leading causes of conflict in Africa. More info
The Water Wars: Beginning of the End?
At the beginning of the year, I did a review of the documentary/film Earth 2100 which predicts what Earth’s state of affairs could be like in 2100 if the necessary steps aren’t taken to curb climate change and the increasingly capitalist nature of our societies. I’d encourage you to watch the film if you can because it highlights some of the connections between water and conflict/disease/health/migration and so on that are sometimes overlooked. What I’d like to do now is present a case study of sorts of how a war over water could essentially play out in a relatively peaceful country like Ghana or Senegal. It might seem slightly exaggerated, but I hope you get the idea in the end.
The year is 2030, and as specialists predicted, Ghana’s oil reserves have run out. While some people still debate whether the country used the proceeds from its oil revenue in the best way possible, the monuments to those glory days lie all over the capital city Accra. Tall rise offices and apartments, numerous shopping complexes, state of the art roads, more schools and hospitals, the list is endless. Ghana has finally gotten a taste of the “development” it so craved since its youthful days. Aside the thick fog covering the city from factories burning oil in order to process goods and the carbon fumes from the cars that practically everyone now owns, everything’s perfectly fine.
One morning, as on any other day, you wake up, go into your bathroom and turn on the tap. Nothing comes out. No worries, that’s “normal”, you think to yourself. You head outside to the large polytank to fetch water into your bucket. Still nothing. Hmm, I guess we forgot to fill the tank since the taps have been flowing for some time now. Still, you’re not fazed. Let me head over to so-so and so’s house to buy a bucket or two of water. You get dressed, and step outside your house into utter madness. Buckets, cups, calabashes, basins- large and small – jerry cans, cars with hoses trailing behind them. People – young, old, male, female, rich, poor, everyone you could possibly think of really – is screaming and shouting, straining and shoving, groping and grabbing, all in an effort to reach the one man who used to sell water in the days of non-flowing taps. He steps out of his house with a forlorn and confused look on his face. “There’s no water,” he announces. Utter mayhem! “How am I supposed to shower and make this business meeting with so-so and so foreign investors heh?” “My child is burning with fever, I need to bathe her and feed her. Where am I going to get the water to cook for her?” “Ei, our clinic has a surgery scheduled for 10am, how are we going to scrub down in prep for it?” Everyone’s caught up thinking aloud. “Maybe, it’s just in this locality, let’s go to East Legon and check if there’s water there.” Response: “No need to. I’m on Twitter and East Legon, Airport Residential Area, Cantonments, even the Osu Castle are all reporting water shortages.” What to do?
Everyone decides to approach the government to help solve the situation, but alas, the government sold over its last shares in the water company to a private foreign firm a year ago, and used the money to purchase a fleet of aircraft for the president, ministers, and rumor has it, some “unofficial” benefactors. “Let’s go to the water company then!” Everyone trudges over to the head office of Aqua Incorporated, only to find a long queue. What’s going on? They’re selling a bucket of water for the equivalent of today’s $200! Upon hearing the price, 70% of the people you headed over with slink away, scratching their heads in wonder at the situation. Most of them end up going to receding rivers and lakes in order to get some water for boiling. The remaining 30% – the lucky few who have the money necessary – begin what soon becomes a case of selling water to the highest bidder. This situation goes on for a while, with Ghana’s neighboring countries gradually withdrawing support. “If Ghana of all countries is going through a national crisis as acute as this, then we should guard our water resources.”
The international community and organizations warn about an impending health crisis as waste and sanitation management literally go down the drain. Farmers start complaining – there’s no water for irrigation. It hasn’t rained in months and the crops are failing. Mothers, young girls, and now, even boys, walk endless hours in the burning sun, often on an empty stomach, in order to find water for cooking. The academic year is barely over, but school’s already out. Both teachers and students are busy water-searching. Eventually, the little water in the Akosombo Dam starts to diminish and the government issues a directive to the national electricity corporation, which it thankfully has control over, to start rationing electric power. In the midst of all of this, an exodus starts from the rural areas towards the cities. As always, everyone forgot about them. So, in typical rural-urban migration fashion, they head to Accra, Kumasi and Tema in search of water and a better life. The result: overcrowding and a galloping jump in communicable diseases in the slum areas. Soon enough, people become wary of one another.
That friend you always used to poke fun with, you can barely look him in the face for fear of contracting something from him. Your family accuses you of neglecting them – you with all your money who can afford to pay $200 for a bucket of water. Discontent breeds distrust which breeds hate. It takes one whisper, “Those rich people living in their fancy houses can use their money to import water all the way from Nigeria, yet they won’t even share a drop with us,” and all hell breaks loose. Weeks pass and Accra, Ghana is not even a shadow of its former self. There’s fighting everywhere, monies going to arms in order to fight over the little water left, women exchange sexual favors for food and coke – which is in surprising abundance – and disease is rampant everywhere. The government eventually succumbs to the pressure and crumbles. “Each man for himself and God for us all,” the president announces grimly in his final national speech. After that, absolute darkness. It would seem the world returned to its former state right before a drop of water differentiated earth from the then-nine other planets in the solar system. All because we paid no heed to the needs of our very own Mother Earth.
Water Solutions: Little Drops of Water…
Anyway, 2030 is a long way away and for now, there’s a lot we can each do to ensure that every man, woman and child has access to the water they are each entitled to. Some individuals – like FaceAfrica‘s Saran Kaba Jone and Sangu Delle of the African Development Initiative – are already taking steps to make the accessibility to water a reality in the lives of numerous of Africans. Organizations like the African Women’s Millennium Initiative (AWOMI) engage women and youth in tracking government accountability in areas including water access, and with the 2010 edition of it’s Young Women’s Knowledge and Leadership Institute (YOWLI), will be bringing the debate on climate change and economic empowerment in Africa to the fore.
There’s a lot that each of us can do to help turn this potential war ship around. Little drops of water, after all, do make a mighty ocean. Here are some resources from the Blog Action Day team to help you take that first step.
Building Wells: Organizations like Water.org and charity:Water are leading the charge in bringing fresh water to communities in the developing world.
Conversation Starts at Home: The average person uses 465 litres of water per day. Find out how much you use and challenge your family, friends etc to do the same.
Keeping Rivers Clean: We can all take small steps to help keep pollution out of our rivers and streams, like correctly disposing of household wastes. More info
Drop the Bottle: Communities around the world are taking steps to reduce water bottle waste by eliminating bottled water. More info
So there! I hope you’ve found this post helpful or at the very least, informative. Kindly forward on to interested parties, and don’t forget to check the Blog Action Day Website for other African blogs participating in the discussion. Water is LIFE and we’re all responsible for taking care of that delicate balance! Let’s keep the conversation going!
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.