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The world's water issue: An African analysis 

Water kills millions of people every year, says Paul Giraud, in the first of CRJ’s NextGen commentaries, which give a platform to voices from the future of resilience, emergency preparedness, crisis response and humanitarian action.

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Access to clean water is essential for children's health, education, security and the eventual development of the countries in which they live (photo from Best of Africa: A selection of favourite pictures from West African countries, including the Sahel and Coastal states, by various ECHO staff, copyright ©EC/ECHO)

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) said: “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”

The Earth has gargantuan water reserves – a total of 1.4 billion cubic metres in different forms: liquid, gaseous and solid. However, human beings can only use 0.025 per cent of the total amount of water on Earth; most is either inaccessible or too salty. Thus, every year humans have to share the same quantity of water as that contained in Lake Baikal in Russia.

The glaciers compose two thirds of the world’s total world fresh water, though it cannot be used in its solid form; and there is one hundred times more liquid potable water under the earth’s surface than above.

But like oil – the so-called ‘black gold’ – water, or ‘blue gold’, is not inexhaustible.

In July 2010, the United Nations recognised access to water as being a fundamental human right. However, one billion people, most of them in Africa, do not have access to the fresh water that they need.

Catarina de Albuquerque, the first UN Special Rapporteur, said on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation: “L’eau est un véhicule extraordinaire pour faire sortir des pays et des gens de la pauvreté” (“Water is an extraordinary vehicle to push countries and people out of poverty”).

Africa is seen as a developing continent that presents massive opportunities. Yet access to water is a prerequisite. How can we improve the future of African countries by supporting them and creating fair trade related to the access of water?

As Dr S Jasanoff mentioned in a lecture at Harvard University in 2013: “A disaster or a situation comes always from many factors.” Poverty in Africa arises from several issues and can be increased by corruption, political instability, extremist organisations, ethnic conflicts or climate change. And one of the most important causes stems from a lack of access to fresh water.

In Paris, France, a resident uses about 5,000 litres of water a day and this water is supplied from all around the world. If we employ the virtual water techniques developed by Professor John Anthony Allan in 1997, which is the amount of the total water required to produce the final product; production of one litre of mineral water requires three litres of water; it takes 40 litres of water to grow a salad; and 140 litres to produce a cup of coffee.

Every year, contaminated water kills more than 1.5 million children. The UN’s Declaration of the Right of the Child says they: “Have the special right to grow up and to develop physically and spiritually in a healthy and normal way, free and with dignity.”

However, one billion people in the world have no access to drinkable water; I have found moving testimonies from people declaring that they have never drunk potable water.

Water triggers conflict. Some farmers in Africa, particularly in Kenya, have to fight and kill in order to protect their water sources from other farmers. Water, and natural resources in general, are one of the main reasons of the conflicts in the Sahel.

Another conflict caused by the water issue is the “Canal Jonglei” project in Sudan. This canal between the North and the South of Sudan was supposed to bring water to both sides, but instead triggered a brutal and lengthy civil war.

Yet, according to experts, Africa has water reserves. However, these are located in a disparate way with some regions, such as the Sahara, having no water sources. Meanwhile others, such as the African Great Lakes, are able to supply other regions with water.

Experts admit education is the key to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and have called for educational systems for the poor to be established. Yet, more than half of African schools have no access to water – and this lack of water affects their health, impeding their ability to learn.

Africa offers many business opportunities. Even through the financial crises and conflicts the continent is facing, the economies of many of its countries are growing. Conversely, many of the continent’s inhabitants are still suffering form a lack of development, education and nutrition. And water plays a vital role in helping to remedy this. The best way to improve the situation in the long run is to incorporate Africans themselves into their futures.

The lack of water can reinforce gender inequality. It is often women – and sometimes children –who must walk for hours under the beating African sun to bring water back to their villages. When a child is ill, it is usually the oldest girl who assumes their care, because both parents have to work to sustain the family’s needs. So two children miss school instead of one.

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It often falls to women and children to make the long trek to get water supplies for their villages

One out of every five deaths of children under the age of five is related to water-borne disease. People have to use what they can find, no matter how contaminated the water might be; they must choose between being dehydrated and putting their own life in danger. How could this choice still remain in the 21st century?

Moving on to hunger and more sobering statistics. We need 185 litres of water to produce a kilo of tomatoes, 15,000 litres for a kilo of beef. Cooking requires water. So it is clear that the issues of water and hunger are intimately related – if the water issue were to be solved, this would make it easier to address the problem of hunger.

And this problem involves more than just fresh water. Nowadays, 800 million people live in slums and this number is expected to double by 2050. It is estimated that 2.5 million people have no access to adequate sanitation, exposing them to a plethora of water-borne diseases.

It is not just up to NGOs, idealists or philanthropists to change the world; it is also down to governments, entrepreneurs and citizens. It is vital that we unite to address the issues surrounding global water supplies and help to transform the lives of those who need it most.

Paul Giraud holds a MSc. in Logistics and Environment from Sorbonne University, and a certificate in English for Professional Purposes from Harvard University. He also has a certificate in Defence and Security from the IHEDN

Works Cited

  • Solidarités International July 2013;
  • DDP Unlimited and Solidarités International (March 18 2011, accessed July 2013): Water Ink
  • UN Water (accessed July 2013);
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Child; Resolution 1386 (XIV) of December 10, 1959 (accessed July 2013);
  • Walking the Religious Tightrope of the Tenth Parallel; Rachel Martin interview of Ms Griswold;(August 22, 2010, accessed July 2013),  NPR;
  • Conflicts in Sahel; Dr B Lugan; Lecture on March 6, 2013, at the School of War during a seminar at the Institute of National Defense (IHEDN) in Paris, France;
  • The Jonglei Canal Project: A Case Study on Water Security in Southern Sudan, Daniel, Doran (2009, accessed July 2013) Peace Operations Training Institute.
  • The Impact of the Jonglei Canal in the Sudan; Howell, P (Accessed July 2013); The Geographical Journal; Vol 149, No 3; p286; JSTOR;
  • College President Helps Minorities Excel in Science; Interview of Mr Freeman Hrabowski by Rachel Martin; September 15, 2010, accessed July 2013); NPR; 
  • The Water Project;
  • Le Soif du Monde, HOPE production (2012) Directed by Thierry Piantanida, Yann Arthus-Bertrand;
  • Conflicting Dreams (July 26, 2013) Dr Sheila Jasanoff; Harvard University Lecture;
  • Logistique et Insécurité en Afrique Circumsaharienne (English: Logistics and Insecurity in Northern Africa); Paul Giraud; Lecture June 2013, Sorbonne University, France. 
Paul Giraud, 21/01/2015
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