While the South African city of Cape Town drew international attention when it warned it could run out of water this year, an international charity focused on global water supplies says “slow burning” droughts have wreaked even worse devastation in other parts of Africa.
Jonathan Farr leads work on water security for Water Aid, an organization that works to bring clean water to some of the world’s poorest communities, including in southern Africa.
“We should remember that there are already 844 million people in the world who lack basic access to water,” he said. “More than 8 million of those live in South Africa.”
The El Nino weather pattern has triggered water crises across southern Africa since 2015, causing the region’s worst drought in 35 years, Farr said.
“By the beginning of last year, it affected about 41 million people in countries including Mozambique, Madagascar, Malawi, Zambia and, of course, South Africa,” he said.
And some of those places are in worse shape than Cape Town.
In 2016, Madagascar’s government declared a state of emergency in the country’s south, “with almost a million people facing alarming levels of hunger,” Farr said. Last April, Malawi’s president also declared a state of national disaster, “with 25 out of 28 parts of the country having severe food shortages” related to the drought, Farr added.
In February, Mozambique reduced the water supply by more than half for consumers in its capital city, Maputo, although that order was lifted in April.
Threats across Africa
But water security is threatened across Africa, and not just because of hotter, drier weather.
“Lots of people are moving from rural communities to cities. The cities aren’t ready for this huge influx of people, and so that’s increasing demand for water, but in a very small area,” he said. “So, it does mean there’s huge pressures on particular water basins. The authorities, even those who are reacting well, are dealing with a very serious problem.”
In many southern Africa nations, water is lost through poor infrastructure, lax maintenance and illegal users. And, Farr said, many governments aren’t effectively collecting usage fees, so they lack the money to maintain and expand water systems.
Farr’s organization cooperates with governments, engineers and architects to assess threats to water supplies — everything from leaking infrastructure to improved water quality.
It also helps to build feasible infrastructure: In Maputo, it’s helping Mozambicans tap into unused water basins near the city.
But if droughts are so much more serious in other parts of southern Africa, why are they largely out of the public eye? Why all the attention on Cape Town?
Farr said there are a few reasons for the international community focusing heavily on the city at the southern tip of Africa.
“You’ve got the deadline of Day Zero and that’s dramatic; it captures headlines, and it’s got this looming threat.”
Day Zero is the point at which authorities will be forced to cut water to most homes, so that people will need to line up at distribution points for daily rations. City officials said it would come when water levels in the city’s reservoirs fell to 13.5 percent of capacity.
People in queue for water, VOAEarlier this year, Cape Town officials warned that Day Zero would happen by this month, then recalculated to July. Successful conservation efforts and the onset of the annual rainy season have postponed it indefinitely. However, dam levels remain very low, and stringent water restrictions — eased to 87 liters daily per person from 50 earlier this year — remain in place.Cape Town’s situation also captured the attention of the developed world because the city of 4 million is much more developed than other drought-stricken areas in Africa, with industry and scientific research in the area.
Moreover, it’s a popular international tourist destination.
“So, the potential economic costs there of running out of water are absolutely gigantic,” Farr said. “This is a message that resonates around the world because if Cape Town’s running out of water, there’s lots of cities that also have to look at their own [water] situations and say, ‘Well, maybe this could be us in the not-too-distant future.'”
Cape Town’s conservation efforts, and its plans to invest in alternative water sources, such as groundwater extraction, instead of reservoirs, should be an international example, Farr said.
“It’s not about, ‘Can we spend billions on new infrastructure,'” he said. “It’s not about, ‘Oh, let’s hope for the weather to improve.’ It’s about looking at what are the threats to water, where water comes from and what it’s been used for and can we make sure that’s been done better. And as Cape Town has demonstrated, when you do do it better, you can find significant water resources fairly easily.” (VOA)
Kenyan farmer Abel Mutie Mathoka thought it must be a joke when he was told he could irrigate his drought-hit crops more cheaply, cleanly and efficiently using a pump fueled by cotton waste.
“Who could believe it’s possible to make a fuel better than diesel from cotton seeds? I didn’t!” laughed Mathoka, crouching down to inspect the watermelons on his 10-acre (four-hectare) shared plot in Ituri village in Kenya’s southeast Kitui county.
“But it works,” he said, walking over to a nearby tree and plucking a large green pawpaw. “Irrigation with this biodiesel water pump has helped me get higher yields, especially during drought periods.”
Mathoka said his earnings had doubled in the two years he has been pumping water using biodiesel, which is both more efficient and 20 shillings ($0.20) per liter cheaper than regular diesel.
Good for farmer and planet
The biodiesel he is using is not just good news for him, it is also good news for the planet. Unlike most biofuels, which are derived from crops such as maize, sugarcane, soybean, rapeseed and jatropha, it is made from a byproduct of the cotton-making process. That means that as well as being cleaner and cheaper than regular fuel, it is more sustainable than other biofuels because no extra land is needed to produce it.
From Brazil to Indonesia, the rush to cultivate biofuel crops has driven forest communities off their land and pushed farmers to switch from crops-for-food to more profitable crops-for-fuel, exacerbating food shortages.
“Our biodiesel comes from crushing cotton seeds left over as waste after ginning — the process of separating the seeds from raw cotton,” said Taher Zavery, managing director of Zaynagro Industries Ltd, the Kitui-based company producing the biodiesel.
“We started producing and using it to power our cotton ginning factory in 2011. With increased production, we now use it for our trucks, sell it to the United Nations to run some of their buses, and also to local farmers for irrigation.”
More than 1,200 farmers in Kitui have so far invested in biodiesel pumps for irrigation as part of an initiative launched by Zaynagro in 2015, said Zavery.
Climate change is taking a toll across east Africa and increasingly erratic weather is becoming commonplace in countries such as Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and Ethiopia, resulting in lower rainfall. The recurring dry spells are destroying crops and pastures and are starving animals, pushing millions of people in the Horn of Africa to the brink of extreme hunger.
The number of Kenyans in need of food aid in March surged by almost 70% over a period of eight months to 1.1 million, largely because of poor rains, according to government figures. With almost half Kenya’s 47 counties declared to have a serious shortage of rain, humanitarian agencies are warning of increased hunger in the months ahead.
“Only light rainfall is forecast through June … and this is not expected to alleviate drought in affected areas of Kenya and Somalia,” said the Famine Early Warning Systems Network in its latest report. “Well-below-average crop production, poor livestock body conditions, and increased local food prices are anticipated, which will reduce poor households’ access to food.”
In Kitui’s Kyuso area, the signs are already evident. Rivers, water pans and dams are drying up as a result of the prolonged dry spell. Villagers complain of trekking longer distances, sometimes more than 10 km (6 miles), with their donkeys laden with empty jerry cans in search of water. Small-scale farmers, most of whom are dependent on rain-fed agriculture, discuss plans to sell their goats to make ends meet if the harvest is poor.
Battling drought with biodiesel
But not all Kitui’s farmers are worried. A small but growing number are shedding their burden of reliance on the weather and investing in irrigation systems powered by Zaynagro’s cotton seed biodiesel through a pay-as-you-go scheme launched more than three years ago.
Neighboring farmers band together to invest in the irrigation system, which includes the biodiesel pump, 12 meters of pipes and 10 liters of biodiesel, at costs starting from 32,000 shillings, depending on the size of the pump.
The farmers make an initial payment, then pay interest-free monthly installments until the total is paid off. They buy the biodiesel to run the pumps from Zaynagro at 80 shillings a liter.
Farmer Alex Babu Kitheka, 39, said the biodiesel pump allowed him to irrigate a larger portion of his 1-acre plot, where he grows a variety of vegetables including maize, tomatoes, spinach and sweet potatoes.
“With a diesel pump, maize yields were lower and I would get 15,000 shillings in three months. With the biodiesel pump, I can earn 45,000 shillings,” said Alex Babu Kitheka, standing near his plot in Ilangilo village, 40 km (25 miles) from Kitui town.
Other farmers point to the scheme as a major benefit in helping improve their output.
“The installment scheme is good. Most farmers don’t have the money and cannot easily get a loan to buy a pump like this,” said Maurice Kitheka Munyoki, 41, as he stood next to his blue biodiesel pump. “Having a scheme like this helps us a lot. Our yields are good, which means we can pay off the cost of the pump slowly in small amounts, and have money left over to pay the school fees.”
Zaynagro’s initiative is still in its early stages, with few farmers having repaid the full cost of the pumps. But such biofuel schemes are promising because they create a circular economy by turning waste to biofuel for profit, said Sanjoy Sanyal, senior associate for Clean Energy Finance at the World Resources Institute.
The simplicity of the model — easy-to-use, robust technology, assured supply of biodiesel combined with a pay-as-you-go scheme — could help electrify rural Africa, he said. “There is a mosaic of sustainable energy options in the world. The key issue is testing ideas and approaches in a collaborative fashion,” Sanyal said.
“Other cotton ginning factories in the region should try and learn from this experiment. Financial institutions should start experimenting with loans to groups of farmers. International donors and investors need to support experimentation.” (VOA)