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Water Crisis is Increasing in Cape Town, Red Alert For 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.

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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.
Women caring water from far away in Africa, VOA

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.

"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.
Drought has spread in Cape Town and severe conditions are expected in future in entire Africa, VOA

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.

Dramatic deadline

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.

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.

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.'”

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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)

Next Story

More Science Careers: African School Of Physics on Mission To Educate New African Generation Through Traveling Program

"Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement," she wrote in an email. She noted "increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce."

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Ketevi Assamagan, a particle physicist at the U.S.-based Brookhaven National Laboratory, co-founded the African School of Physics, a training program for graduate students in math and sciences. (Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory) VOA

Africa-born particle physicist Ketevi Assamagan is a man on a mission. His goal is to bring science education to a new generation of young Africans through a traveling program known as the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications, or ASP.

“Sometimes, people just need some help to be able to find the right resources,” said Assamagan, an ASP founder who works at the U.S. Energy Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory here on Long Island. “So, together with some colleagues, we decided to create this school.”

Born in Guinea, Assamagan grew up in Togo and earned a doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1995. Gratitude to past mentors fueled his desire to start the ASP, he said.

Positive elements

The ASP program runs for three weeks every two years in a different African country. The first was in 2010 in South Africa, with subsequent gatherings in Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and Namibia. The next is planned for July 2020 in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Each workshop brings together up to 80 students, who are treated to intensive lectures and training by top-flight physicists.

Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)
Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)

“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.”

The students’ expenses are covered by roughly 20 international sponsors, including the Brookhaven lab; the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; the South African Department of Science and Technology; and Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

Another sponsor has been the European Center for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva. Assamagan worked on CERN’s particle accelerator for several years while conducting research on the elusive Higgs boson subatomic particle. He left in 2001 to join Brookhaven.

Sustained support

After the program, participants are paired with senior mentors who offer advice on additional education, teaching and research opportunities, both in Africa and abroad.

For Zimbabwe native Last Feremenga, participation in the 2010 ASP workshop served as a springboard to a doctorate in physics from the University of Texas. Now he’s a data scientist with Digital Reasoning, an artificial intelligence firm headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I sift through large datasets of written text in search of rare forms of conversations/language. These rare conversations are useful for our clients from health care to finance,” the 32-year-old told VOA in an email. He added that he’s using “similar tactics” to those he learned at ASP.

Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international affairs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says training programs such as ASP are especially important in developing countries.

“Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement,” she wrote in an email. She noted “increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce.”

“A potential impact of graduate training is exposure to new ideas and people,” MacKenzie added. “Any time graduate students can come together, it’s likely that new friendships will form, and those relationships can provide support through inevitable challenges and spawn new collaborations.”

application learning
“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.” Pixabay
Hands-on learning

Assamagan says that when he was in high school in Togo, science was taught from second-hand textbooks from abroad. There was no experimentation.

“Direct involvement … in terms of playing with things and getting mental challenge to try to figure it out was not really there,” he said. “We want to resolve that” through ASP.

The 70 or so science teachers at the workshop last year in Namibia learned hands-on experiments that could be replicated with scant equipment and resources.

For example, using only a small plastic box with an aluminum plate, tin foil, Styrofoam, pure alcohol and dry ice, high school students could build a tabletop “cloud chamber” to simulate the detection of cosmic particles from outer space. Another experiment taught physics to elementary school children by way of art. The children could drip paint on a canvas tilted at various angles, then observe the patterns the paint made as it descended.

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“You can then start introducing the idea of gravity,” Assamagan said. “And then relating things falling down to the Earth going around the sun as being driven by the same force.”

Assamagan predicts a bright future for physics research in Africa. He says he sees talent and commitment, but that more digital libraries, along with continent-wide access to high-speed internet connections and the political will to provide them, are needed. (VOA)