Africa Water issues

August 27, 2004

Sub-Saharan Africa Lags in Water Cleanup


JOHANNESBURG, Aug. 26 – Sub-Saharan Africa is lagging far behind the rest of the developing world in access to clean water, with more than 4 out of 10 people still relying on rivers, ponds or other unsafe sources of drinking water, according to a United Nations report issued Thursday.

Although about 130 million more of the region’s residents have gained access to clean water since 1990, the report states, governments are not moving quickly enough to meet the United Nations’ goal of providing three-fourths of the population with safe drinking water by 2015. Only 58 percent of the 684 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have clean water, compared with an average of 79 percent for the entire developing world.

The report attributes Africa’s slow progress to conflict, political instability, population growth and the low priority that is given to water and sanitation by regional leaders. At least 30 percent of the region’s water systems are inoperable because of age or disrepair, according to officials from Unicef, which issued the report with the World Health Organization.

The rest of the world is mostly on track to meet the United Nations’ targets for clean water, the report said. About 1.1 billion more people have clean water now than in 1990. Another 1.1 billion still lack it, most of them in Asia, home to more than half the world’s population.

The report credits India with a huge effort. Eighty-six percent of Indian citizens now have clean water – an increase of 18 percentage points since in 1990. By contrast, the percentage of sub-Saharan Africans who gained access to clean water rose by only 9 percentage points.

The world has done less well in improving sanitation, according to the report. The latest figures showed that 2.6 billion people – half of the developing world and more than one-third of the world’s population – remained without basic sanitation, defined as a latrine with a concrete slab that can be washed down.

But that was better than in 1990, when nearly half the world’s people used a pit, a bucket or an open field. But the rate of progress is not nearly fast enough to meet the United Nations’ goal of sanitation for three-fourths of the world’s population by 2015, according to the report. Sub-Saharan Africa again brings up the rear, providing acceptable sanitation for only 36 percent of the population.

The W.H.O. estimates that 3,900 children die each day because of dirty water or poor hygiene. Diseases transmitted through water or human excrement are the second-leading cause of death among children worldwide, after respiratory diseases, Vanessa Tobin, chief of sanitation for Unicef, said. An additional 400 million children are infested with round worms or whip worms because of poor hygiene.

Using 1990 as a benchmark, the world’s governments agreed in 2000 on a plan to increase by 50 percent the share of people with access to clean water and sanitation by 2015.

The United Nations hopes not only to reduce the rates of death and disease, but to spare the poor the difficult effort now often required to obtain a basic necessity like water. In nearly half the households in rural Africa, statistics indicate, women and girls devote a half hour or more a day to fetching a bucket of water.

Officials also argue that fewer girls would drop out of school at adolescence if more schools were equipped with latrines.

Household latrines would spare women’s often dangerous hikes to fields, roadsides or railroad tracks at night, the officials said.

Ms. Tobin of Unicef said African leaders were paying more attention to the critical need for boreholes, wells and standpipes, or community water for more than four-fifths of people in sub-Saharan Africa who live in homes without piped water. “The big question is: Are there sufficient resources?” she said in a telephone interview.

Improving sanitation is a less costly proposition, she said. In countries too poor to build sewage or septic tanks systems, simple latrines can suffice. “It is not so much a question of resources,” she said. “It is a question of giving it the priority it needs.”

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


November 26, 2003 (Wall Street Journal)

Ravaged by Famine, Ethiopia Finally Gets Help From the Nile

For Generations, Politics Kept Tributaries Flowing By, Bringing Their Bounty to Egypt




MERAWI, Ethiopia — A barefoot farmer named Takele Tarekegn emerged from his cornfields one day this summer and encountered engineers and bankers stumbling through the dense bush in front of his mud-brick shack.


The interlopers, wielding compasses and blueprints, were blazing a trail to the nearby Koga River. They were also charting what could be a historic turn in the turbulent water politics of the Nile River, which have kept millions of Ethiopians on the ragged edge of starvation.


A small dam is to be built on the Koga, Mr. Tarekegn’s visitors told him, and a network of canals, too — the first irrigation project for peasant farmers ever constructed in the area. “If we can finally use our water, we’ll be able to feed our families all year long,” says the 46-year-old farmer. “I have been waiting for this all my life.”


For now, he watches water that could be his salvation rush away to another man’s fields in another country.


Just a half-hour walk from Mr. Tarekegn’s parched two acres of corn and wheat, which are dying of thirst after the rains stopped too early this year, the Koga picks up speed. It is one of the source rivers of the mighty Blue Nile, which tumbles through deep gorges as it carves a 560-mile arc through Ethiopia before entering Sudan. There, the Blue Nile merges with the White Nile to form the Nile, which surges into Egypt.


In all, rivers originating in Ethiopia’s highlands contribute 85% of the Nile water flowing through Egypt — where a vast web of dams and canals first commissioned by the Pharaohs turn millions of desert acres into fertile fields. But in Ethiopia, regularly stalked by drought and famine, precious few drops of the Blue Nile and its tributaries are dammed to irrigate crops.


Modern geopolitics have favored Egypt because of its strategic position in the Middle East. Major international lenders and development agencies have been loath to support anything upstream on the Nile that might disrupt the vital flow of water to Egypt and trigger instability there. Ethiopia, meanwhile, lacked funds to develop its own broad irrigation network. The result is one of Africa’s cruelest ironies: the land that feeds the Nile is unable to feed itself.


Now the hunger in Ethiopia has become so chronic and widespread that the politics of the Nile are starting to flow in Ethiopia’s direction. International lenders and donors fear that the number of hungry Ethiopians is increasing beyond the world’s ability to feed them. In the past year, about 13 million Ethiopians have been saved by 1.7 million tons of food aid, with more than $500 million of food coming from the U.S. alone. Urgent meetings among major donors this summer charted a shift away from reliance on emergency aid in favor of long-term investments, including irrigation and watershed management.


“There is no precedent for a country developing without harnessing its rivers and utilizing its water resources,” says David Grey, the World Bank’s senior water adviser.


The Nile basin, home to about 160 million people in 10 African countries, has some of the world’s worst poverty, hunger and land degradation. With its population expected to nearly double in 25 years, the scramble for water will be more intense. The area has long been one of the most contentious in Africa, convulsing with a series of wars and acts of terrorism.


Globally, hunger is on the rise. Tuesday, a report by the United Nations food agency said hunger around the world is increasing, after falling steadily during the first half of the 1990s. More than 840 million people are undernourished, most of them in Africa and Asia, the report said, and the number of undernourished people in the developing world is climbing at a rate of almost 5 million a year.


Ethiopia, an ancient land of 67 million people, has been particularly miserable. A war with Eritrea that ended in 2000 sapped money needed for economic development, leaving the country with an estimated per capita annual income of about $100, one of the lowest in the world. Life expectancy is 42 years, and nearly half the children under five are malnourished.


Since the epic famine of 1984, when nearly one million people died, Ethiopia has been hit by a series of droughts and food shortages with each one threatening more people. Families forced to sell off their cattle and other possessions to survive one drought are too weak to cope when the next one strikes. With the population growing more than 2% a year, the pressure to squeeze every bit of life out of the land has depleted the soil and left parts of the country looking like a barren moonscape. Even in a good harvest year, about five million Ethiopians still need to be fed by food aid, according to international aid agencies working in the country.


A more equitable sharing of the Nile, many believe, will help relieve such misery and tension in the region. The World Bank and the U.N. are spearheading the Nile Basin Initiative, started in the late 1990s to foster cooperation among the Nile countries. But the effort faces many obstacles, including centuries-old suspicions among those who depend on the Nile.


“This river has caused a hostile environment since the creation of humans,” says Belay Ejigu, Ethiopia’s agriculture minister.


Egypt has historically opposed efforts that could impede the flow of the Nile to its borders. But now Cairo sees the results of that stance may be working against Egypt, as an ever-more desperate Ethiopia has increased pressure to use the Blue Nile basin waters. Rather than just watch that happen, Egypt wants to have a hand in those projects, even offering to provide expertise and investment. Egyptians see some potential economic upside, including the possibility of joint hydroelectric ventures.


The Koga River project is being cast as a “confidence builder” to show that upstream uses don’t necessarily hurt downstream populations. Ethiopian engineers calculate the Koga irrigation would use less than one-tenth of 1% of the Nile flow reaching the Ethiopia-Sudan border.


Under the plan, some 15,000 acres will be irrigated, providing supplemental water for crops during the erratic rainy season and a steady supply of water for a previously unthinkable second crop during the long dry season. This year, for instance, with the annual rain starting late and stopping early, Mr. Tarekegn fears his harvest will shrink by half. “It’s the difference between eating well or just getting by,” he says. “Or worse.”


When the African Development Bank notified the Egyptians it was considering financing the $50 million Koga project, Cairo gave its support. “They are really suffering in Ethiopia,” says Abdel Fattah Metawie, the chairman of the Nile water sector in Egypt’s Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation. Without development in the Blue Nile basin, he says, “you have to expect a crisis in the area.”


For more than 4,000 miles, the Nile snakes through jungles, slashes through gorges and floats through deserts, offering some of the most graceful sights in Africa. Its waters have been deified as a God and bottled as a holy spirit.


But they have also been defiled by centuries of jealousy, covetousness and fear. From the time the Pharaohs built the pyramids along the Nile and first harnessed the river for irrigation, Egyptians have looked upon the Nile waters as their own. In the colonial era, European rulers engineered treaties that divvied up use of the lower Nile between Egypt and Sudan, to the exclusion of Ethiopia, which was never fully colonized.


During the Cold War, the Soviet Union helped Egypt build the vast Aswan High Dam to better manage the flow of the Nile. After Egypt shifted to the Western camp, it was showered with hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. and other allied countries to rehabilitate and manage its canal network. Ethiopia, which shifted its alliance from West to East, got mainly military equipment and food aid.


The disparity of fortunes is stark. Egypt has eight million acres of land irrigated by thousands of miles of Nile canals, while Ethiopia has less than 500,000 acres of irrigated land. Although Ethiopia’s highlands boast vast stretches of arable land, they must rely on the erratic rains for, at best, one crop each year. Because of its irrigation supply, Egyptian farmers can annually produce two or three harvest seasons.


Egypt exports power. Ethiopia produces less than 500 megawatts from a few hydropower dams, providing electricity to less than 10% of the population. Ethiopia’s Ministry of Water Resources estimates its rivers, chiefly the Blue Nile, have the potential to produce more than 15,000 megawatts of power and irrigate nearly nine million acres — if it gets the cooperation and investment.


“The international community has to understand this, rather than just give us food handouts,” says Shiferaw Jarso, Ethiopia’s minister of water resources. “This year, the U.S. gives us $500 million in food aid and it’s gone within one year. People get the food, but it never brings additional value for the country. If this money goes to a power project or irrigation, it can keep on helping every year.”


According to the region’s new math, what helps Ethiopia can also help Egypt. The countries are studying a plan for four hydropower dams on the Blue Nile. These dams could produce enough energy not only to supply Ethiopia’s domestic demand but also to feed into Egypt’s extensive power grid for sale to users all the way up to Europe.


The dams would also serve as sediment traps for the topsoil that washes down from Ethiopia’s denuded hillsides. Currently, the silt from the Blue Nile is building up in Egypt’s Aswan Dam and a couple of smaller dams in Sudan. Over time, if the runoff isn’t controlled, the silting could cripple the dams.


Engineers from both countries agree that dams in the cool and moist Ethiopian highlands, storing water in deep natural gorges, would lose far less water to evaporation than the Aswan Dam in the hot, dry Egyptian desert. They calculate the savings on evaporation could compensate for the amount of water Ethiopia proposes to use for irrigation.


“There’s enough water — it is a matter of managing it,” says Egypt’s Mr. Metawie. “To look at the Nile from a selfish point of view won’t help anyone.”


Still, plenty of people remain wary, particularly Egyptian farmers. Despite the calculations of their experts, many farmers, such as Samir Hamed, fear that any use of Nile water upstream would mean that less is available to them.


Mr. Hamed, 45, tends about 200 acres on the far edge of the Nile Delta. His is the last farm before the desert. But thanks to the network of canals and pumping stations, his land is alive with apples, grapes, apricots, cucumbers, pepper, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cherry tomatoes and eggplant, plus 600 head of cattle. Through a U.S.-sponsored program called AgLink, he has refined his farm management, even learning how to use a shower system to cool off his water buffalo calves. That, too, is Nile water.


What if Ethiopian farmers would tap the Nile like he does? “I’m sure it would effect the amount of water we can use,” Mr. Hamed says. “Without the Nile water, I can’t plant or raise cattle.”


That is something too ghastly for Mohamed Abd-Elsalam, another Egyptian farmer, to contemplate. “The Nile is my soul. And without a soul a man is dead,” he says. A narrow V-shaped concrete canal delivers the Nile waters to his one-acre plot, where wheat, garlic, seed oil and alfalfa grow year-round. If anything slows the flow of the river to his land, he says, “I’ll go to Ethiopia and farm. I’ll follow the water.”


Overcoming these life-and-death concerns is a major part of the Nile Basin Initiative. In the past two years, the Ethiopians have given Blue Nile tours to Egyptians who shape public opinion on water use — officials in the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, parliamentarians and journalists. Some of them have been the harshest critics of Ethiopia’s motives, accusing Ethiopia of clandestine dam-building projects supported by Israel and the U.S. to block the Nile waters and starve Egypt.


The tours have included helicopter rides over the Blue Nile basin to prove that such dam projects don’t exist. The Egyptians also visited some of the most impoverished and hungry regions of the country, and those that are the most denuded, where rivulets thick with soil run down the hills into the Blue Nile and eventually into Egypt.


“The Egyptians were really surprised. There weren’t even any trees,” says Yacob Wondimkun, the commissioner for sustainable agriculture and environmental rehabilitation in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. The conclusion, he says, was clear: “Unless we have watershed management in Ethiopia, the whole system will be hurt.”


Abbas Al Tarabeely, editor of the Egyptian newspaper Al Wafd, took his suspicions on one of the trips. He returned to Cairo with ideas. “Why not create water-storage areas for irrigation, like small dams? They would help relieve suffering while also not placing too much burden on the Nile,” he says. “It is important to let Egyptians know that the Ethiopians are going through enough without making matters worse by focusing on conspiracy theories.”


That may ease the frustration of people such as Tesfahun Belachew, an Ethiopian farmer, whose land is near the Ribb River, another of the Blue Nile’s tributaries. For the past nine months, as the mercurial weather has ruined his crops, his family has survived on food aid from abroad. His one-acre field floods when the rains are good and the river rampages. When the rains fail, his crops wither while the river meanders by. There are no dams to regulate the flow, no canals or pumps to drain the fields during flooding or release the water during drought.

“The water is right here,” he says, “but we can’t get it out.”

Updated November 26, 2003

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