Water, a crucial security issue in the Sahel

Water, a crucial security issue in the Sahel

Difficulty lies in lack of 'clear vision' by governments in terms of water use, says senior officer at UN food agency Valere Nzeyimana

By Alex Sinhan Bogmis

ANKARA (AA) - Water is a natural resource essential to life on earth. In many parts of the world, such as Africa and especially the Sahel, it has become a scarce and poorly distributed commodity.

Drought, land degradation and climate change have led to a decline in available water, exacerbating security problems in the region. Water availability is now a major issue in this part of the world, with significant implications for food sufficiency, health, economic and social development, and even security.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), nearly 40% of Africa's population does not have access to a safe water source. Sub-Saharan Africa is also the region of the world most affected by water scarcity, with more than 300 million people without access to an improved water source. 70% of the region's population lacks adequate sanitation. The situation is even more precarious in the Sahel, where people depend mainly on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods, making them vulnerable to climate change.

Valere Nzeyimana, senior water development and management officer at FAO Africa, told Anadolu that the difficulty lies in the lack of a "clear vision" by governments in terms of water use.

"We need policies and strategies for water use before we can even think about financing. With a clear vision, it is easy to formulate coherent and bankable projects. Then there is the problem of expertise. There is a real lack of engineers who can mobilise or formulate projects. For example, there are very few universities that teach water management. Worse, governments do not use the people who are trained," he said.

The Sahel region is a semi-arid zone that experiences recurrent droughts. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of droughts and exacerbating this situation. It is therefore an area that is vulnerable to climate change, affecting water availability, production and food security.

Local communities in the region are particularly affected by water scarcity. Women and children are often responsible for collecting water for their families, which limits their access to education and participation in economic and social life.

"It rains very little. But it rains anyway. It sounds ridiculous to talk about flooding in a country like Niger, but it is a reality. This water should not be stored above ground, but should be retained and sent underground, a process called artificial groundwater recharge. The advantage is that the water doesn't travel far. It's a reservoir that never fills up and the water doesn't go far. If countries had the infrastructure to send this flood water into the ground and the pumps to move it back, there wouldn't really be a problem. So the lack of infrastructure is causing the lack of water in the Sahel," added Nzeyimana.

The projects implemented are not "long-term achievements," according to Nzeyimana.

“There was a time when large irrigation schemes were developed because they were funded from elsewhere," he said.

"Especially in the Sahel, the people were not able to maintain these areas. During one-party rule, governments kept hundreds of thousands of acres. With the advent of multiparty system, government money did not go into these perimeters in any significant way, and their maintenance was abysmal. With these areas not functioning and others not being developed, the problem of impoverishment of the population has worsened," he added.

- Water as a security factor

Water scarcity has a direct impact on food security. In rural areas, farmers are forced to reduce their crops, change their farming practices and even leave their land to find water elsewhere. Pastoralists are forced to move their livestock in search of pasture, which can lead to conflict with local communities.

Water scarcity can also exacerbate tensions between different ethnic groups as they compete for limited water resources. In some areas, conflicts are so intense that they escalate into violence, with attacks on villages and massacres. Terrorist groups that thrive in the Sahel, such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda, also take advantage of the situation to recruit desperate young people in search of a livelihood.

In 2017, the African Union, with the support of the African Development Bank (AfDB), launched the Water for Africa Initiative, which aims to mobilize resources to improve access to safe water and sanitation.

"Developed countries have not limited themselves to the military or arms sector, they have also taken a great interest in the issue of water. Countries like the US, China and many others have stored a lot of water for their use and also for their security. Water security is just as important. Without it, development is difficult," the FAO expert said.

"Speaking of terrorism, most of the people who are recruited have no work, no food. They are desperate people. But if you develop water for agriculture, for livestock, you can create a lot of opportunities and jobs. That would make it harder for terrorism to spread. People with a future are not likely to be recruited by terrorist groups. To support the population, we need to think about developing agriculture, but this cannot be done without water,” added Nzeyimana.

According to Nzeyimana, there is no shortage of water in the Sahel region, contrary to what the situation might suggest.

"The subsoil of the Sahel is full of water. Niger, for example, has thousands of cubic meters of water underground, but it is not being mobilised. You need equipment, boreholes, pumps. Energy is not a problem either, because in the Sahel we're moving towards solar energy, which is all the energy there is in the region. But the countries have not developed the production of solar panels, which is a technology that everyone can use. So it is a matter of choice. With solar energy, it is possible to do water mobilization,” he said.

- Plastic pollution

Pollution, mainly plastic, is a serious problem in addition to the urbanization plans that governments need to design and enforce.

"Even developed waterways are blocked. Sometimes flooding is not caused by heavy rainfall, but by the fact that plastic has blocked the outlets that should allow the water to pass through. The water is then forced to leave its bed. There is also the problem of infrastructure maintenance. Even in agriculture, there are streams where the water is forced through and the banks break. We always pay attention when the water is already out. But you can see this before the water leaves its bed," said Nzeyimana.

International cooperation is needed to address the challenge of access to water in the Sahel. Developed countries can support developing countries in implementing solutions adapted to their needs by providing financial and technical assistance, sharing best practices and building local capacity.

There are concrete solutions to this problem, the FAO expert points out. Among them, the development of efficient technologies for water collection, storage and distribution, such as wells, reservoirs, irrigation systems and water treatment plants, can help meet people's water needs. The establishment of integrated water management policies involving all relevant stakeholders, including local communities, governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector, can also help to ensure the equitable and sustainable use of this resource.

"FAO works with governments. It is the Member States that determine exactly what FAO does. It has developed a number of tools to help governments have a better overview of their planning, strategies and master plans. FAO also works with other institutions to formulate bankable projects, particularly the Investment Centre, which works with financial institutions in this regard," he said.

"Cooperation between FAO and African governments is flowing. A regional workshop on national water roadmaps was recently held in Harare, Zimbabwe, with the participation of many countries. Currently, FAO is focusing on supporting small-scale producers and the use of renewable energy, such as solar power, for pumping. This is very efficient and cost-effective for the population. A tool, the Solar Power Irrigation System (SPIS), has been developed and is available online to design small-scale solar pump irrigation schemes," he added.

In conjunction with the celebration of World Water Day, the United Nations is hosting the Water Conference in New York from 22 to 24 March. At the conference, stakeholders will discuss ways to accelerate change to solve the world's water and sanitation crisis.

"African countries will be able to present their vision, interact with each other and with other partners on the sidelines of the conference. It will be useful for each country to benefit from the different experiences. This will be useful in the future because water roadmaps have not yet been developed at national level," said Nzeyimana.

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