Influences in Africa - Part Four

By Bill Turnbull W.F.

Table of Africa's Water Resources

This is the fourth part of a series of articles entitled ‘Influences in Africa’. This section is a background to some of Africa’s water resources and how they are effected by the climate and various problems found within the continent. We have a global look at the present situation and take a glimpse of what the future may hold, in this respect, for the people of Africa.

The first time I went to Africa was as a White Father student just over twenty years ago, from 1974 to 1976, and I returned to the UK in the ‘drought’ of 1976. I certainly was surprised to see how parched the countryside was but I had become accustomed to a lack of rain. The contrast between the dry and rainy seasons in Malawi, and having to rely on a shallow bore hole as our main water supply, made me a little cynical about what was happening at home.

Once again we are in a similar situation. Since the summer of 1995 the UK has seen a repeat of a country-wide ‘drought’ and we are continually reminded to take care of our water resources. The lack of rain, and various problems with the water companies, has depleted our reserves. The last two years have been the driest for two hundred years and the ground water [see footnote] levels in some places are as low as they were in 1976. The situation is so severe in some areas that they are on a permanent ‘stand-by’ and one water company is even considering investing in desalination plants. At present some of our rivers are being bled almost dry to answer the increasing needs.

World Situation

At a quick glance the world would appear to have abundant water resources. The facts and figures which give a picture of the water situation are quite staggering, but they hide a basic truth which faces us all: our water resources are not limitless. There are about 1,400 million cubic kilometres of water on earth and all living things, including humans, share about 0.007% of it. Around 2.5% of this is fresh water, rather than salty, and 80% of it is frozen in glaciers and the polar ice caps. 95% of the remaining water is stored in various underground sources.

Our water resources are continually being replenished by rainfall. Overall each year enough rain falls to cover every country in the world to a depth of two and a half feet in water. This sounds marvellous and, in theory, should provide us with enough water for the needs of twice the world’s present population - but there are several catches. Of this annual rainfall two-thirds evaporates; two-thirds of what remains runs away in floods and, finally, not all of the rain falls where the people are and where it is needed.

When the above facts are put together with the use of water, which has increased six fold this century, especially in agriculture and industry, then it is obvious that water resources are a global problem. The United Nations (UN) estimate that over the last fifty years the amount of water available has dropped by two-thirds in Asia, and by three-quarters in Africa and South America. This means that about two billion people, in eighty countries, suffer from a serious water shortage.

Dirty Water

One of the greatest problems which the world faces is that about 20% of its population, 1.4 billion people, don’t have access to safe drinking water. The UN estimates that this figure rises to 40% of people in some cities. This means that they end up taking drinking water from polluted rivers and ponds. When there is a lack of clean water then there is often no basic sanitation - this affects about two billion people world wide - which can lead to a vicious circle of various types of waste getting into the water sources.

We have touched on the health problems associated with not having access to clean water in other articles - such as ‘Health at all costs!’, issue no. 314, Feb.-March, 1994. The UN estimates that dirty water causes 80% of diseases in developing countries and, indirectly, results in the deaths of ten million people each year. On a human and economic level it also means an annual loss of a tenth of an individual’s productive time.

The effects of bad water sources are probably worse among children. World wide dirty water causes the death of 25,000 children a day, each year about four million children, under-five years of age, die from simple diarrhoea. Water borne bacteria and viruses cause repeated stomach upsets which lead to children becoming malnourished and weakened and so susceptible to other illnesses. In some parts of rural Africa it is common for children to be ill in this way for 140 days of each year. Those who survive may be damaged and suffer from stunting of their mental and physical growth. An added problem for very young children is when they are fed on powdered milk mixed with dirty water.

Climate and Ecology

In many parts of the world our water resources are being depleted and are not being replaced at a sufficient rate. Demand for clean water is always on the increase and we have to find a way to allow everyone access to such a basic essential for daily life.

‘Global warming’ is playing its part in the lack of rainfall and it is expected to aggravate the crisis in coming years. There is a global change in climate which is caused by the pollution of the atmosphere. This adds to the ‘warming’ and causes temperatures to rise everywhere, which leads to countries becoming hotter and there being less water in the form of rainfall and surface water. As a result, what water there is tends to get dirty and germs build up causing diseases. Because there is less water the pollutants within it become more concentrated and therefore do more damage.

Deforestation adds another angle to the problem, especially the ‘slash and burn’ method of farming which is practiced in many developing countries. When trees are gradually removed the whole ecosystem changes: rain is no longer attracted to the bare area; the trees are not there to trap water and allow it to trickle down to springs and underground sources; soil erosion sets in as the top soil is washed away. A vicious circle begins - deforestation means less rain, less rain means fewer trees and so on. Several examples of the acceleration of the process, such as in Malawi, Tanzania and Zaire, can be seen in areas which have had a sudden influx of refugees from Africa’s various conflicts. Such circumstances, on top of a usually fragile ecology, hasten the deforestation and the subsequent change in landscape, climate and rainfall. Once the indigenous foliage has been destroyed it is virtually impossible to replace it.

In a continent the size of Africa there are vast differences in climate and vegetation - see map. The problem of desertification has been debated for many years and some experts even question that there is such a problem in Africa. Despite that it has to be admitted that there are many areas of the continent, such as the Sahel region, which are more susceptible than others to the gradual encroaching desert. In general Africa’s climatic zones and vegetation are fairly uniform due to the continents position in the tropics, the oceans and the lack of mountain chains. The zones may be summarised as follows:

1 - Tropical rain forest zone: this is found in the middle of the continent and along the eastern coast of Madagascar. The average annual temperature is about 26.7° C (80° F), and the average annual rainfall is above 50 inches (ins.) (1,270 mm.). The vegetation is a floor covering of shrubs, ferns, and mosses, with a canopy of various types of evergreen and hardwood trees.

2 - Savanna zone: there are roughly three types of Savanna climate and vegetation zones around the central tropical one:

a - The Tropical Savanna climate zone, covering about a fifth of the continent, has a wet season in the summer months and a dry season during the winter. The total annual rainfall varies from 20 ins. (550 mm.) to more than 60 ins. (1,550 mm.).

b - The Savanna Woodland zone has an annual rainfall of 35 ins. (890 mm.) to 55 ins. (1,400 mm.). The vegetation consists of grass and shrubs amongst which grow deciduous and leguminous trees.

c - The Grassland Savanna zone has an annual rainfall of about 20 ins. (500 mm.) to 35 ins. (890 mm.) and is covered in low grasses, shrubs and small deciduous trees.

3 - Steppe/thornbush climate zone: further away from the equator the climate becomes drier with an average annual rainfall of between 10 ins. (250 mm.) and 20 ins. (500 mm.) which falls in a clearly defined rainy season. The vegetation is of a thinner grass covering with scattered succulent or semi-succulent trees.

4 - Semi-Arid/sub-desert scrub zone: has an annual rainfall of 5 ins. (130 mm.) to 12 ins. (300 mm.), is covered with grasses and low shrubs and runs into the desert areas of Africa.

5 - Arid/Desert climatic zone: these areas are found in the Sahara Desert, the Horn of Africa, the Kalahari Desert and Namib Desert - see the desert table. There is usually no vegetation in these areas.

6 - Mediterranean climate zones: these areas are on the northern coast of the continent and in the southwest. They have mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers.

7 - Mountain Forest climatic zone: these are found in the highlands of eastern Africa, and in mountainous and plateau parts of west and southern Africa. The rainfall is just less than that of the tropical rain forests and it is distributed throughout the year. The vegetation is made up of shrubs, hardwood trees, and conifers.

Africa’s Rivers and Lakes

As with the global picture, at first glance, it would appear that Africa has plenty of surface water except in the desert and Sahel areas. The continent is largely supplied and drained by a huge web of rivers and lakes but the apparent abundance of surface water is deceptive. Certainly the rivers and lakes are there and they cover vast areas compared to those of Western Europe, but they are not always full and their water is not always potable.

Africa is a continent which is controlled and sculptured by its various climates. Many of the rivers and lakes are seasonal and are only filled with the rains of the rainy season. More and more rains fail to fall and, especially, the smaller rivers and pools remain dry for years. As a result the surface water is not replenished and the underground aquifers and water table diminish. In deforested areas there is the added danger of rain water just running off and taking much of the top soil with it. This increases the soil erosion and deprives the local area of vital minerals and nutrients which are necessary for the fertility of the area and for the support of a river’s life. In many cases the water just rushes to the sea, or whatever outlet it goes, without benefiting any of the people where it falls.

The continent of Africa is drained by six major river networks all of which, except for that of the Lake Chad basin, find their way to the sea - see the maps and tables. The various networks are as follows:

1 - The first is the Nile River which is the world’s longest river and drains an area of 1,335,000 sq. mls. (3,458,000 sq. kms.) in the north-east of Africa and flows into the Mediterranean Sea. More than 2,000 miles (3,200 kms.) of the river are navigable. The complete length of the Nile is formed by the joining of the Blue Nile, 850 miles (1,370 kms.) in length, with its source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and the White Nile, which begins near Malakal, Sudan, and is about 500 miles (805 kms.) long - the name sometimes refers to the entire branch of the Nile that extends to the tributaries of Lake Victoria.

2 - The Congo/Zaire River drains most of the central part of Africa - which, with its tributaries, is an area of 1.6 million sq. mls. (4.1 million sq. kms.). It starts in Zambia, its main sources being the Lualaba and Luvua Rivers, and flows north, west, and south into the Atlantic Ocean where it discharges 1.2 million cu. ft. (34,000 cu. m.) of water a second at high water.

3 - The River Niger begins in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea and flows north and east, draining much of western Africa on its way, before entering the Gulf of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Niger Delta covers 14,000 sq. mls. (36,300 sq. kms.) and has an estuary coastline of 120 miles (190 kms.).

4 - The Zambezi River starts its journey in Zambia and flows south and east entering the Indian Ocean in southern Mozambique. It drains an area of 502,000 sq. mls. (1,300,000 sq. kms.). Its main tributaries include the Chobe, Kabompo, Kafue, Lungwebungu and Shire rivers. Along its course are the Victoria Falls, Kariba and Cabora Bassa dams and lakes.

5 - The Orange River drains southern Africa. It rises as the Vaal River in the Drakensberg Mountains and flows west into the Atlantic Ocean.

6 - Lake Chad has an average depth of about 4 ft. (1.2 m.) and is fed by the rivers in the area - see below.

There is also a series of lakes in the Great Rift Valley of eastern Africa. These lakes include the following: Lakes Tanganyika, Albert (Mobutu), Edward, Turkana (Rudolf), Kivu, Rukwa, Mweru, and Malawi (Nyasa).

Many of the rivers are fast flowing with rapids and high waterfalls, others are slow, wide and meandering. Together with their susceptibility to flooding and dependence on seasonal rainfall it makes it very difficult to harness them. It has been estimated that Africa has about 40% of the world’s total hydroelectric potential. So far little of this has been utilised and where it has it is in massive projects which have brought their own additional problems.

The inconsistency of some of Africa’s surface water is typified by Lake Chad, which is the fourth largest lake on the continent and is situated in west-central Africa. The Lake was probably an ancient sea which has divided into two basins, the northern and southern, that are separated by the ‘Great Barrier’ ridge. Because of this division the waters of each half do not circulate and the northern basin dries up completely on occasions. The level of the overall Lake also rises and falls according to the season. This means that its surface area can be as much as 10,000 sq. mls. (25,900 sq. kms.) in the rainy season, and as little as 4,000 sq. mls. (10,360 sq. kms.) in the dry season. The depth of the Lake also varies a great deal - from 13 ft. (4 m.) to 23 ft. (7 m.) deep in the northern basin and from 10 (3 m.) to 16 ft. (5 m.) deep in the southern basin.

Lake Chad is fed by several of West Africa’s rivers but the major tributaries are the Logone, Komadugu Yobe and the Shari (Chari) rivers. It has no outlet but loses its water through underground seepage and evaporation. The latter is so intense that experts have speculated that the Lake may eventually disappear completely. The shores and numerous islands of the eastern shore are inhabited and the people depend on the Lake flooding for cultivation.

Water Conflicts

It has been said that lack of water is a problem which will spark off conflicts in many parts of the world in the next millennium - see the table opposite for the present situation. Possibly one of the first flash points will be the Middle East. The World Bank estimates that between 1960 and 2025 the supply per person will drop fivefold, eventually leading to a cause for conflict. This possible scenario is not fiction and it is not only something for the future, having already begun in to some degree in parts of Africa. It would appear that a common factor in most of these disputes is when one country wishes to harness a river’s potential, for example by building a dam, which causes knock on effects which are felt in neighbouring states.

This is the case in north east Africa where there is tension between the countries which share the River Nile and its tributaries. The Aswan High Dam was completed in 1968 and since then has been used to supply electricity and water for irrigation. In recent years Egypt has taken a strong line with its neighbours for drawing too much water from the Nile upstream and so depriving the Dam of it’s life blood. Seven countries share the Nile and its tributaries and also need the water. It is not easy to see how such a dispute can be resolved especially when some of the countries involved are a lot poorer than Egypt and cannot withstand the threats of military action - see ‘Crisis Over the Nile Waters’ [2].

A similar situation is arising in the opposite corner of the continent in a dispute between Angola, Botswana and Namibia over extracting water from the Okavango River system. Both Botswana and Namibia have been fighting over an island in the Chobe River, along the Caprivi Strip. Troops have been sent in and neighbouring heads of state have tried to mediate between the two while the problem has been put before the ICJ for adjudication over the right to draw water from the river.

Namibia’s water resources are very low and the country is continually threatened with drought due to the added lack of rainfall which has been below average for the last ten years. It badly needs to develop other sources of water. Namibia wants to pump twenty million cubic metres of water a year, 700 litres a second, from the Okavango River system and to carry it by pipeline to Windhoek where it is needed. The project is estimated to cost a billion Rand and already the Chinese, in return for offshore fishing rights, have pledged to finance and construct it. Other countries and banks have also shown an interest in the project.

Despite Namibia’s good record for recycling water in the mining industry the demand is still increasing due to urbanisation, industrial development and farming practices. At present about half of the country’s water is ground water and surface water is used for irrigation schemes and urban use. The central part of Namibia is the most economically productive area of the country and is the worst hit by the drought. The dams which supply Windhoek were only 9% full earlier this year.

There are already internationally agreed amounts of water which Namibia draws from the Cunene and Orange rivers, but it looks as if Namibia is going to act unilaterally without reference to others over the new plan. OKACOM is a body in which Botswana, Angola and Namibia can discuss and agree on their water rights in the area and even this is being ignored. Experts say only half of Namibia’s groundwater resources are being used at present and that there are reserves in the north of Tsumeb as an alternative source to the Okavango.

The Okavango Delta is in northern Botswana and is fed by the Okavango River. The river rises in southern Angola and runs along its border with Namibia down into Botswana. Here, in the Okavango Delta, the Kalahari Desert is turned into the world’s largest wetlands covering 18,000 sq. kms. It forms a major ecosystem which supports a vast range of animals and plants and a population of 100,000 people. The Delta and all its inhabitants cannot survive without the water and it is already drying up due to years of drought and the water tables are at their lowest level for forty-six years.

The outcome of this dispute is unsure. What is certain is that if the Namibian plan goes ahead the area could turn into a centre of armed conflict and an ecological disaster. An environmental study will now look at the impact of drawing such amounts of water from the rivers but it is feared that the Namibian Parliament may authorise construction to begin before it is completed.

Cross-Border Co-operation

Even when there is co-operation between neighbouring countries all sorts of problems can arise. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project began in 1986 and will take decades to complete. The original project was estimated to cost $8bn. and to be built in five phases - comprising of six large dams and two HEP plants to be completed by 2025. The basic idea behind the project is to produce electricity and also for Lesotho to sell three billion litres of water a day to South Africa for industrial use which would earn $55m. a year.

The Katse dam, the highest in Africa, and ‘phase 1a’ of the project have been completed but, despite this, the future whole venture is in the balance. The World Bank, who signed the original agreement with Lesotho and the former South African government, is threatening to pull out. It will decide if it will finance the second phase by October after seeing the completion of phases 1a and 1b. All other major funders have also not committed themselves beyond this point.

Further complications have been caused by other factors: South Africa objects to many provisions in the original treaty and in 1996 there were strikes and six hundred men were laid off. Some of the workers even joined local villagers who had protested against the effects the dam’s construction will have on their land and livelihoods. A ‘Special Fund’, of £55m. was set up to help the 25,000 people, 1,750 dispossessed families, who have been unsettled - lost homes, land or grazing areas - but little of the funds have reached them so far.

South Africa certainly needs the water for present usage and for further industrial development. In fact it can use more water than all that would be provided by the five phases of the scheme. The demand of Greater Johannesburg alone is expected to double in the next thirty years. So far South Africa has contributed more than anyone else, almost half the cost, with other funds from the World Bank, the EU and Britain.

Even if all the five phases of the project are completed there will still be problems to sort out: Lesotho has to find a way of getting the royalties due for the water which have been agreed in previous contracts; the social and environmental conditions of the treaty have to be carried out. Lastly there is the exercise of counting the environmental and human cost of such a project: damage to the river systems; the loss of valuable farm land, mountain meadows and wetlands; the amount of water which will be diverted from Lesotho’s own needs.

The Future

The 1980s were designated as the ‘International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade’ and a deadline of 1990 was given to provide the entire world’s population with clean water. This goal was not attained and so it has been put back to the year 2000, and this too is not expected to be reached. Despite the failure it was not a complete waste of time. It made people more aware of the problems concerning safe water and sanitation and it did improve the situation for many people. Despite that, as we have seen, the future is probably even more insecure now than in the 1980s, not just for developing countries but for the whole world.

Vast amounts of money are being invested by the UK water companies in attempts to improve supplies for their customers. This has meant an increase in water rates since privatisation, but we have water and sanitation at our finger tips. The amount which we pay for this privilege, per household, is about twice the annual income of an African subsistence farmer. What future then for the development of similar facilities in Africa? The expense in setting up water projects or even of maintaining existing bore holes etc. is beyond the resources of most African governments. There is no possibility of private finance being forthcoming for these utilities, as in the West, as there is no profit to be had - especially in rural areas. Where investment may be possible, as we have seen, is in the larger water projects for industrial use or HEP. These, in some respects, may benefit the ordinary people but not to the extent that it is needed.

Despite that there have been some marvellous bi-laterally funded water projects in various parts of the continent. Work done by organisations such as WaterAid has also helped to improve the lives of people by locating and tapping local water sources. Even if a shallow well or a harnessed spring is all that is available in a village it cuts out the danger of water borne diseases and lessens the work load of girls and women - who sometimes walk four or five hours a day carrying 20kg. water containers.

When the dual problems of safe water and sanitation have been solved perhaps other water projects, such as irrigation, may be tackled. Hopefully this will be the case and Africa will not fall further behind the West in access to the necessary basics of safe drinking water at least.




Ground water usually begins life in the form of rain or snow and seeps below the surface of the earth to form natural subterranean reservoirs. These are found in places such as the spaces between layers of rock and are usually close to the surface. This water comes to the surface to supply wells, springs, lakes, streams and rivers. ‘Ground water is usually quite pure after having been filtered through porous rock, gravel, sand etc. In some cases it can become polluted by domestic and agricultural waste, such as sewage, rubbish, fertilisers and pesticides, and this gives rise to concern about the methods used to dispose of such items and to where landfill sites should be situated. It is a most important source of water for rural domestic use and is a preferred source of drinking water.

Ground water which is found at a greater depth may have been held in there for many thousands of years and so contain various minerals and may even be saline - as a result of sea water being trapped. Usually ground water does not flow as much as surface water and only does so when suitable aquifers are present and then it may travel great distances from its source. In many places it is common to extract the ground water by drilling bore holes down to the reservoirs.

An aquifer is any natural material, such as porous rocks or fractures in rock, that contains water which can be harnessed by drilling and sinking bore hoes and wells. An artesian well taps water in an aquifer and brings the ground water, under its own pressure, to the surface. The name is derived from Artois, France, where such wells were bored during the Middle Ages.

Surface water is made up of all the water which is found in rivers, streams, lakes, ponds etc. It can often be polluted by various chemicals and waste products. In general fresh water is water that contains a low concentration of dissolved mineral solids.

Sea level is basicly where the ocean meets a landmass. This level is continually changing with the tides and because of the advance and retreat of glaciers - eustatic changes.

The water table is the level in the ground below which the spaces in the soil or rock are saturated with water. It is also known as the ground water table or the waterline.

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Main Sources: ‘The Gala Peace Atlas’, Pan Books, 1988; ‘Collins Atlas of the World’, 1991; Encyclopedic Atlas of the World’, New Burlington Books, 1991; ‘The Times Atlas of the World’, BCA, 1992; ‘World Reference Atlas, Dorling Kindersley, 1994; ‘Philip’s Great World Atlas’, George Philip Ltd., 1992; ‘The 1995 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia’; ‘Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia’; ‘Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia’; ‘The Independent’, ‘The Guardian’, ‘West Africa’; ‘New African’.



Crisis Over the Nile Waters

by Lammii Guddaa

This article appeared in Issue 13, April 1997, of 'AfricaNews'. It adds to the main article and shows how complex water issues are.

The mighty River Nile is the source of water for millions of Africans through whose country it passes. How to share out the Nile's water was among the themes discussed at a recent conference in Addis Ababa.

The 5th Nile 2002 Conference in Addis Ababa and attended by 10 states that share the waters of the River Nile. Its theme was: Comprehensive Water Resources Development of the Nile Basin - Basis for Co-operation.

Most of Nile Valley countries feel the existing utilisation of the Nile waters is grossly unjust and want a new legal framework to guide its use. Egypt and the Sudan, which benefit most from the River Nile waters don't share this view and indicated as much during the conference.

Other states want the annulment of the bilateral treaties governing the use of Nile waters that have been signed over the years. They particularly want the 1959 Nile Water agreement that gave Egypt and the Sudan acquiring rights over the Nile's water resources and their utilisation. They also want the Jonglei Canal Agreement of 1974 which were made without inviting other Nile basin states.

The Conference heard that reclamation works were going on in the lower basin without the knowledge of the other states. An editorial commentary in a government-owned newspaper, 'The Ethiopian Herald', recently warned that such a trend would eventually degenerate into crisis.

It made clear the position of the Ethiopian government on the issue. Though Ethiopia contributes more than 85 percent of the total Nile flow, it presently uses only a small proportion of that water. Ethiopia will have to tap its water resources for its development needs and ensure food security for its population.

Egypt and the Sudan contribute very little to the Nile flow but utilise almost all the flow and Ethiopia says that this is unfair. Teshome Worke, a consultant at Ethiopia's Department of Civil and Water Resources says that Egypt constructed the Aswan Dam between 1959 and 1971 with a storage capacity of 16.4 billion cubic metres of water. The Sudan has built various dams on the Nile and consumes around 7.14 billion cubic metres of Nile waters.

Analysts say the demand for water from the Nile is outstripping supply due to population increase, frequent droughts, inefficient use of water for irrigation, participants heard. Almost all the Nile basin states are faced with recurrent drought, rapid desertification compounded by abject poverty.

A wide gap exists between the upstream and downstream states. Observers are worried that a crisis is building unless a thoroughgoing framework for sharing the Nile's waters is worked out.

"The Nile is not a case of active conflict but rather a latent one. The more the problems are faced openly, the better the chances of solving them," the executive director of the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development, Dr Kinfe Abraham, said.

A US-based researcher said unilateral decisions on the use of the Nile's waters by Egypt complicated the case for the negotiations on the river waters. Egypt inaugurated the Tochkan Canal last November and there are on-going works for Zayed canal. Some participants said the Egyptian action was a bad precedent because other basin states may take similar unilateral decisions.

But Dr Abu Zeid, the chairman of the Egyptian National Water Centre defended the projects saying they don't use water beyond his country's quota of 55.5 billion cubic metres.

"I think downstream unilateral action is just as dangerous as upstream action", Professor Dabe Whittington of the University of North Carolina said.

'AfricaNews', Koinonia Media Centre, P.O. Box 8034, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel./Fax: 254.2.560385
email: and Web Site

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 These articles appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters" (UK),
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