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With the recent publication of a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) report on climate-induced migration and its linkages to environmental and human security, the narrative around the water privatisation debate demands that African states address two important issues.(2) On the one hand, there is a need to redefine how Africa will approach climate change hazards and the issue of safe drinking water, considering that its population is projected to reach 2.7 billion by 2060;(3) and on the other hand, there is a need to assess whether or not the privatisation of water is an alternative solution for improving collapsing African water and sanitation infrastructures.
This CAI paper posits that while numerous water treaties and water management partnerships among African states have thus far prevented water conflicts from going beyond disputes or spats of violence, the ‘water wars’ of the future may come from another front – the privatisation of African waters to domestic and foreign companies. This discussion proposes that African states are ill-prepared for the long-term ramifications of water privatisation that may exacerbate the divide between those who have, and those who do not have the means to pay for their access to safe drinking water. While Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), specifically MDG 7C, stipulate that the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water should be halved by the 2015 deadline, the reality for Sub-Saharan Africa remains tenuous, with only 19 out of 47 countries in the region on track to meet the 2015 target.(4)
Water in Africa: Between conflict and cooperation
Looking at history, water and the protection thereof has been a source of disputes between people going back centuries.(5) As African states compete to address the rising demand for water resources, tensions may arise as a result of the competition with economic development. One example of this tension has been seen between Ethiopia and downstream states over the construction of the ‘Three Gorges’ Dam.(6) This specific case also illustrates how water-related violence tends to occur at the intrastate level or between local groups.(7) Water scarcity is one of many factors within a nexus of weak and unstable institutions that can contribute to instability or conflict at the intrastate level.(8) Highlighting this factor at the 2010 World Water Day, the United States (US) Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, declared that, “as water becomes increasingly scarce, it may become a potential catalyst for conflict among – and within – countries.”(9)
Africa is not excluded from such narratives of ‘water wars’, in which riparian countries bordering the same rivers have, over the course of their history, put in place several means of preventing disputes from escalating beyond skirmishes and/or political unrest into full-blown wars. In their vast majority, disputes over water (at the national, international and local levels) are centred on three key, interlinked issues: quantity, quality and timing.(10)
Quantity: The various and competing claims for what are often scarce quantities of water, may exacerbate tensions between parties. Given the current developments surrounding climate change and climate-induced migration, water availability may become a coveted interest for Governments and for populations in order to sustain their livelihoods.
Quality: A recurring problem in Africa is that of poor water quality. Water quality is compromised by human activities that directly impact adversely on not only water quality, but on subsequent potable water quantities. The causal factors are diverse and, in terms of anthropogenic considerations, may be the result of “discharge of industrial effluent, poor sanitation practices, release of untreated sewage, disposal of solid wastes, release of liquid from refuse dumps, and the discharge of food-processing waste.”(11) Furthermore, low water quality contributes to added stress on human and environmental health, which in turn impacts on a country’s ability to improve its gross domestic product (GDP). The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates the impact on GDP to be as high as a 5% loss due to lack of access to safe water and basic sanitation.(12)
Timing: This issue concerns a more technical approach to water management. Timing may become the ground for disputes between upstream and downstream states and their populations. It may concern water flow, such as the operational patterns of dams, which may become contested by upstream users. Similarly, the water flows “help maintain ecosystems that depend on seasonal flooding.”(13)
In the event that peaceful solutions cannot be found for any of these issues, the risks of the situation escalating into violence become more probable. A holistic approach to solving water disputes is important on a continent where a colonial legacy drew borders with “little respect in regards to watersheds and natural water boundaries.”(14) The result, for Africa, is a continent that “has more rivers shared by three or more countries than any other continent,” with the Congo basin shared by 11 countries.(15) This situation means that there are many shared opportunities for African states to improve partnerships and strengthen institutions in the form of water management collaboration through treaties. The figure below illustrates the number of transboundary water resources in relation to related international water treaties.
Figure 1 Transboundary basins and treaties (16)
Out of 145 international treaties which govern the world's international watersheds that were signed in the last century, 94 are found in Africa.(17) In such cases, collaboration becomes a quintessential tool for preventing conflict that may arise over water resources. However, many of the treaties and joint projects remain prone to systemic structural problems. Such problems include the lack of financing, the lack of technical know-how and political hurdles that hinder the ability of African states to deal with watersheds in a sustainable manner with long-term vision. Given the current state of attrition of African water infrastructures, the pertinent questions to be asked are: to what extent should domestic and foreign companies be involved in assuming the financing and operating costs of water systems in Africa? And, at what cost to the populations? Therein lies the dilemma of the ‘water wars’ hypothesis.
Water and the modern day Tragedy of the Commons: A continuing debate
The history of water privatisation in Africa records that during the 1990s “the level of private sector participation increased significantly in Africa … but was concentrated in countries with larger economies and populations and higher levels of urbanisation.”(18) The Dublin Principles, which emerged after the January 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment held in Dublin, Ireland, serve as the catalyst to the privatisation debate in Africa. The four-part Dublin Principles are a template to the revival of neoliberal influences in the African water sector. The last of these principles, which suggests nothing other than the commodification of water, states that:
Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognised as an economic good. Within this principle, it is vital to recognise first the basic right of all human beings to have access to clean water and sanitation at an affordable price. Past failure to recognise the economic value of water has led to wasteful and environmentally damaging uses of the resource. Managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use, and of encouraging conservation and protection of water resources.(19)
The Dublin Principles, through decentralisation schemes, are argued to have influenced the realignment of the position of many international organisations in the water sector.(20) Moreover, the World Bank came to play a central role in developing and promoting new approaches consistent with its interpretation of the Dublin Principles, in particular the treatment of water as an economic good.(21) In a 2010 report, the African Development Bank (AfDB) made it clear as to what the future of water in Africa entailed. It reported that water as an economic and social good “became mainstreamed when it emerged as the fourth guiding principle of the Dublin Statement on Water and Sustainable Development in 1992,” recognising that the problem of “adequate cost recovery is still one of the major obstacles to maintenance and expansion of drinking water supply in developing countries.”(22) On this matter, the AfDB is very cautious in employing the idea of ‘free’ water in its reports. According to the agency, “a key obstacle to cost recovery is political interference in setting user contributions, and unwillingness to charge for water services.”(23) Simply put, the AfDB means that there cannot be any free water if it is not met with some sort of cost recovery policies. Such cost recovery, if it does not come from the state, will have to come from the people. This is exactly what opponents to water privatisation are clamouring against.
The detractors to the privatisation debate contend that privatising water removes the rights of people to safe drinking water. The argument parallels the Dublin Principles in that opponents to privatisation see it as nothing more than a form of domestic and private foreign tyranny. These opponents are of the view that self-interested companies enter into bilateral development contracts with African states in a win-lose arrangement, in which the companies reap the rewards of their investments, while the African states suffer.
Another part of the anti-privatisation debate is that water is a commons that is essential for life - and therefore should be free to all. This view is supported by the United Nations (UN) Resolution A/RES/64/292, which declares that “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights.”(24) The Resolution was passed on 28 July 2010 with a surprisingly high number of abstentions from developed countries.
In June 2011, a UN media brief corrected the misconception of ‘free water and sanitation’, stating that “water and sanitation services need to be affordable for all. People are expected to contribute financially or otherwise to the extent that they can do so.”(25) The UN explanation does very little to further the understanding of the difference between (access to) water as a human right, and water as a commodity that is critical to human development and livelihood, essential to achieving the MDGs.
Privatisation and climate change
Looking at the connection between climate change and water privatisation, studies show that the three regions in which climate-induced migration will present the greatest geopolitical challenges are South Asia, Africa and Europe.(26) These challenges parallel the abovementioned discussion points relating to water quality, quantity and timing, which in and of themselves may impact the future of investments in water-related projects in Africa.
The World Bank estimates that 40% of all overseas development assistance and concessional finance in Africa “is sensitive to climate risk.”(27) The long-term impact of climate change on investment in water infrastructure adds another level of uncertainty to the management of water. Such examples can be found in large hydro-projects plans, such as dams, which are prone to the effects of climate change.(28) Similarly, having large agricultural projects in coastal areas that may be frequently flooded are variables that have received little attention and yet may impact the long-term prospect of investments and privatisation costs in Africa.(29) Furthermore, few studies have been done on the adverse and long-term effects of privatisation costs, and water shortages on human security. Rising costs may create tension among the poorer segments of the population “by exacerbating existing economic and social inequities.”(30)
The paragon of water rights advocacy is certainly Indian author and environmental activist Vandana Shiva, who authored ‘Water wars: Privatization, pollution, and profit’, wherein she lists the nine principles that constitute water democracy. Two of those nine principles relate directly to privatisation. Principle four states that “water must be free for sustenance needs. Since nature gives water to us free of cost, buying and selling it for profit violates our inherent right to nature's gift and denies the poor of their human rights.”(31) Point seven states that “water is a commons. Water is not a human invention. It cannot be bound and has no boundaries. It is by nature a commons. It cannot be owned as private property and sold as a commodity.”(32)
It is currently far from clear how the privatisation of the water sector, together with the effects of climate change, will impact on the long-term sustainability of water development in Africa. What is almost certain is that as populations affected by climate change show resilience and adaptation, so too will the companies that have a vested interest in providing water services to their client states. As competition for scarce resources increases, so will the question of how much longer international donors and companies will be willing to invest in water infrastructures that may not fit a long-term cost recovery framework.
Concluding remarks: ‘Water’ for thought
Access to safe drinking water is an endemic problem around the world, and in Africa in particular. It is a problem that comes at a cost that many African Governments, for various reasons, cannot or do not want to bear, thus leaving the road open for the privatisation of water. There is hope that privatisation, with the consultation of states, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and grassroots movements, will follow suit to the long history of cooperation that has characterised the water disputes in Africa. However, one must remain vigilant that the opening-up of Africa’s market to an often ‘nefarious’ water industry, whose main goal is to generate a profit, may turn African waters into a new source of disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
The current narrative between climate change and climate-induced migration is becoming so intertwined that the debate between water availability, access to safe drinking water, water as a human right and water privatisation are bound to become intricate parts of either future collaboration or conflict over water. More importantly, the power remains with citizens to address practices that impact such finite resources. The history of corporations working in the exploitation of Africa’s resources is well known, and so are the associated effects. We may thus wonder why water would be treated any differently. For now, the concept of water as a human right versus that of water as a commodity continues to fuel these debates, and the question of whether or not this dichotomy hides the future ‘water wars’ remains to be seen.
Written by Sébastien Jadot (1)
(1) Contact Sébastien Jadot through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Enviro Africa Unit ( firstname.lastname@example.org).
(2) Tamer, A., et al., ‘Climate change, vulnerability and human mobility: Perspectives of refugees from the east and horn of Africa’, UNHCR Report mo. 1. June 2012, http://www.unhcr.org.
(3) ‘Africa’s population expected to increase’, SABC News, 30 August 2012, http://www.sabc.co.za.
(4) ‘Progress on drinking water and sanitation: 2012 update’, UNICEF and World Health Organization, http://www.unicef.org.
(5) Gehrig, J. and Rogers, M., 2009. Water and conflict: Incorporating peacebuilding into water development. Catholic Relief Services: Baltimore.
(6) Further information on the Gibe III Dam can be found at: ‘Ethiopia's Gibe III Dam: Sowing hunger and conflict’, International Rivers, 2011, http://www.internationalrivers.org.
(7) Gizelis, T. and Wooden, A., 2010. Water resources, institutions, & intrastate conflict. Political Geography, 29(9), pp. 444-453.
(8) Fearon, J. and Laitin, D., 2003. Ethnicity, insurgency and civil war. American Political Science Review, 97(1), pp.75-90.
(9) ‘World Water Day’, U.S. Department of State, 22 March 2010, http://www.state.gov. .
(10) Wolf, T., et al., 2005. “Managing water conflict and cooperation”, in Starke, L., (eds.). State of the world 2005: Redefining global security (1st edition). W.W. Norton & Company: New York.
(11) Africa water atlas, 2010. Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP: Nairobi, Kenya.
(12) ‘Water in a changing world’, World Water Assessment Programme, 2009, http://www.unesco.org.
(13) Wolf, T., et al., 2005. “Managing water conflict and cooperation”, in Starke, L., (eds.). State of the world 2005: Redefining global security (1st edition). W.W. Norton & Company: New York.
(14) Sadoff, C., et al., 2002. Africa’s international rivers: An economic perspective. World Bank Publications: Washington.
(16) Africa water atlas, 2010. Division of Early Warning and Assessment (DEWA) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP: Nairobi, Kenya.
(17) Wolf, A., 1998. Conflict and cooperation along international waterways. Water Policy, 1(2), pp.251-265.
(18) Budds, J. and McGranahan, G., 2003. Are the debates on water privatization missing the point? Experiences from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Environment and Urbanization, 15(2), pp.87-113.
(19) ‘International conference on water and the environment: Development issues for the 21st Century: The Dublin statement and report of the conference’, World Meteorological Organization, 1992, http://www.wmo.int.
(20) Budds, J. and McGranahan, G., 2003. Are the debates on water privatization missing the point? Experiences from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Environment and Urbanization, 15(2), pp.87-113.
(22) ‘Guidelines for user fees and cost recovery for rural, non-networked, water and sanitation delivery’, African Development Bank, October 2010, http://www.afdb.org.
(24) ‘The human right to water and sanitation’, A/RES/64/292, United Nations General Assembly, 3 August 2010, http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org.
(25) ‘The human right to water and sanitation’, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), 2011, http://www.un.org.
(26) Podesta, J. and Ogden, P., 2007. The security implications of climate change. The Washington Quarterly, 31(1), pp.115-138.
(27) ‘Clean energy and development: Towards an investment framework’, DC2006-002 Annex K, World Bank, 5 April 2006, http://siteresources.worldbank.org.
(28) Fakir, S., ‘The G20’s energy infrastructure plans for Africa: What is missing?’, Heinrich Böll Foundation, June 2012, http://www.ke.boell.org.
(29) ‘Clean energy and development: Towards an investment framework’, DC2006-002 Annex K, World Bank, 5 April 2006,http://siteresources.worldbank.org.
(30) Podesta, J. and Ogden, P., 2007. The security implications of climate change. The Washington Quarterly, 31(1), pp.115-138.
(31) Shiva, V., 2002. Water wars: Privatization, pollution and profit. South End Press: Cambridge.