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  NATURAL RESOURCES  -  Water management

With a population of 864 million, Africa is home to almost a sixth of the world’s population, but to just 9% of its water resources. The many African states share some 80 river basins and lakes, the importance of which is easy to understand. Various research projects are currently looking at ways of providing integrated management of this vital resource, with a special focus on the Okavango, southern Africa’s third largest river.

The Okavango, in Botswana, is drying up.
The Okavango, in Botswana, is drying up.
© CE/F.Jacobs
The Okavango has its source in Angola, crosses Namibia and never reaches the sea. In Botswana’s semi-arid Kalahari Desert it disappears into a huge delta of lakes, lagoons and islands. “It is a miracle of nature,” says Lars Ramberg, director of the Harry Openheimer Okavango Research Centre (HOORC, Botswana), as he describes the luxuriance of the marshlands that attract almost 650 species of birds. “But this extremely sensitive ecosystem could be upset by brutal intervention.” The Werrd (Water and ecosystem resources in regional development) research project, of which the HOORC is scientific coordinator, is seeking to preserve this ecological balance. Launched three years ago with EU support, scientists from Africa (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa) and Europe (Sweden, Netherlands, United Kingdom) are working together on this project that is the latest in a number of research programmes to win international support. This is because Okavango is a very coveted resource and its delta is still threatened despite a Commission (Okacom) set up jointly by Angola, Namibia and Botswana in 1994 to manage it.

Under threat
Suffering serious effects from drought, in 1996 Namibia considered diverting the Okavango to its capital, for example. Average annual rainfall in Namibia is no more than 250 mm, just 2% of which feeds its transient rivers. Fortunately, the return of the rains caused the authorities to reconsider. The idea nevertheless remains an option for the future, as does that of building a hydroelectric dam upstream of Botswana. At one time, Botswana itself planned to dam one of the arms of the delta – before abandoning the idea following a recommendation from the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). For its part, Angola has drawn up a number of plans for reservoirs.

All these initiatives pose a threat to the river flow and the extraordinary fauna of its delta, as well as to the existence of fishermen, livestock farmers and those whose livelihood is tourism. As Lars Ramberg (BE) explains, "we can only fear the scale of the consequences of projects of this kind”.

In most of Africa’s large towns fewer than 10% of houses are connected to the sewage system and only between 10% and 30% of homes benefit from a refuge collection service. The photograph shows Lagos in Nigeria. © CE/O.Lehner
In most of Africa’s large towns fewer than 10% of houses are connected to the sewage system and only between 10% and 30% of homes benefit from a refuge collection service. The photograph shows Lagos in Nigeria.
© CE/O.Lehner
Werrd has drawn up a number of scenarios for the possible effects on the delta of the various land use or upstream dam construction schemes. This has not only provided Okacom – which recently decided to set up a permanent secretariat – with a richer basis for its deliberations, but can also lend legitimacy to the many initiatives of villagers living in the river basin who also want their voices to be heard.

By strengthening contacts between the various players concerned by the future of the Okavango, Werrd has built up a body of knowledge on the river’s hydrology, the ecology of its delta and the socio-economic impact of the various possible or present management policies. The results can be consulted on an internet site on which comments can be posted. To alert public opinion and to ensure that information has a sound scientific basis, researchers have also distributed an explanatory poster, in English and Portuguese, to schools and tourist infrastructures. And a manual for teachers has been produced.

Better wetland management
Covering nearly 7 million hectares, today the wetlands of the Okavango are the largest site protected by the Ramsar Convention.(1) In Africa, as elsewhere, these zones were long seen as wastelands that needed to be drained before they could be put to good use. In another part of Africa, in Kenya and Tanzania, Lake Victoria provides a clear illustration of the issues at stake. A source of revenue, food and employment for 30 million people, it has lost much of its biological diversity. It is now the subject of research by the Ecotools project pursued by European (Italy, Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands) and African partners (Uganda and Kenya). “We are studying the vital functions of wetlands, in terms of nutrient recycling, carbon storage, and as areas for the development of fish stocks and reed growing, etc.,” explains Claudio Rossi of Sienna University, the Ecotools coordinator.

During a previous EU-backed project on wetlands in Argentina, pilot projects carried out by his team alerted public opinion and policy-makers – especially in the field of agriculture and forestry – to the need to take into account all components of an ecosystem if its integrity is to be conserved. Ecotools hopes to achieve the same results in Uganda and Kenya by involving government institutions. By modelling the impact of pressure on the life of the lake – including that of a build-up of urban waste – and on its fish stocks in particular, the project has revealed the existence of regional as well as local effects. These are all factors that pose a threat to wetlands.

(1) Adopted in 1971, in the Iranian town to which it owes its name, the Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that provides a framework for national and international actions for the conservation and rational use of wetlands. 

  Public health  
Mastomys natalensis, the rat that carries diseases including plague, leptospirosis and toxoplasmosis.
Mastomys natalensis, the rat that carries diseases including plague, leptospirosis and toxoplasmosis.
In sub-Saharan Africa, with its crucial lack of sanitary installations, water is a frequent carrier of disease. In most of the large towns, fewer than 10% of houses are connected to the sewers and only between 10% and 30% of inhabitants are served by a refuge collection system. The fear is that plague, which has already made an appearance in a number of rural areas (in Mozambique and Tanzania in particular), could spread to urban areas.

This is the question that interests researchers on the Ratzooman project. With €1 450 000 in EU funding, the project includes four African partners (Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, South Africa) and four European partners (United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark).

“Many Africans are totally ignorant of the many diseases transmitted by rats. We want to alert them to the risks and inform them about how to avoid them,” explains Steven Belmain of the Natural Resources Institute (UK), the project coordinator.

The scientists’ first task was to take blood samples in the field from humans, rodents and pets to estimate the prevalence of three diseases of concern: plague, leptospirosis and toxoplasmosis. They also assessed their socio-economic impact and identified the ecological (water management, land use), sociological (behaviour, hygiene standards) and epidemiological factors that increase risk of transmission. Finally, they set up a risk forecasting model that should enable the local authorities to take adequate measures. As an incentive, a congress will be held in South Africa to present the Ratzooman results some time before project completion, in 2005 or 2006.     


  Conserving water quality  
  "Even when someone goes to fetch clean water at a supply point, it can be contaminated very quickly due to the way it is transported and stocked,” points out Stephen Gundry, a researcher at Bristol University (UK), coordinator of the Aquapol project. With three partners in Europe (United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy) and five in Africa (Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa), this project receives around €900 000 in EU assistance. 

Researchers first made an inventory of present water-related policies in the three African countries in question. They then selected 120 rural lodgings in each of them. To allow for seasonal changes, the microbiological water quality was measured on two occasions at various points from the source to the home, with details of storage, hygiene measures and sanitary installations also recorded. “The population was very much involved in the project,” continues Stephen Gundry, “We asked mothers, for example, to keep a record of their family’s health, especially of any outbreaks of dysentery.”

In South Africa and Zimbabwe researchers tested ceramic filters that were fitted to the water tanks in about 60 homes. This very simple practice made it possible to reduce intestinal complaints in young children by between 70 and 80%. 


  Werrd project
Participants : Sweden (University of Linköping/coordinator) - Botswana, Namibia, Netherlands, United Kingdom, South Africa

Aquapol project
Participants : United Kingdom (Bristol University), Kenya, Zimbabwe, Ireland, Italy

Ecotools project
Participants: Italy (University of Sienna/coordinator), Uganda, Kenya, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ireland