The Commodification of Water is the Answer to Scarcity Experts Argue, But What Are the Implications for Africa?

The Commodification of Water is the Answer to Scarcity Experts Argue, But What Are the Implications for Africa?

According to the United Nations, by 2050, two-thirds of the world will not have access to water. One in three people still do not have access to clean water and it is estimated that about 842,000 deaths per year is attributable to unsafe water supply, sanitation and hygiene, with 361,000 deaths of them occurring in children under age five, mostly in low-income countries. All these figures sum up to one bleak reality: the world is currently battling a water crisis that many aren’t even aware.

While humanity faces a drier future as a consequence of climate change, the water situation in Africa has been dire for years. In many parts of the continent, it is not unusual for people to queue in long lines for clean water or walk long distances to fetch water for use in their homes. In fact, the UN estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa, for most of the population (37% in rural areas and 14% in urban areas), one round trip to collect clean water is 33 minutes on average in rural areas and 25 minutes in urban areas.

In most cases, the governments of African nations control the supply of water in their regions either directly or indirectly through various non-profit utilities controlled by the state. Even in situations where these are private entities, they are still heavily regulated by government agencies. Water scarcity, at least in the cities, is often the result of the incompetence and corruption of the government, the utility companies or both. In response to this incompetence, Africans strive to provide their own water supply by digging in wells or drilling boreholes where possible.

The Commodification of Water is the Answer to Scarcity Experts Claim, But What Are the Implications for Africa?
Photo: Albert González Farran, UNAMID.

All these seem to support the argument for commodification because by all standards, on this continent, the government and “people” have failed to optimize water as a public resource. Put differently, seeing as the conversation on water commodification is already so advanced in many Western nations (Australia has been trading water rights for decades and water has just been listed in the California Water Index), “experts” will argue that monetizing an important resource is what is best for Africa.

The truth though is that when you combine the incompetence and corruption of the governments with the greed of people in these organizations, the result will be disastrous. The average GDP per capita in Africa is $1809. For some context, the world average is $10,300. Asia is $5,635 and Europe is $10,300. Many Africans are already struggling to make ends meet and adding the horrors of water commodification to that list will only make a bad situation worse. If people in advanced economies like Australia find it difficult to gain access to water when commodified, what will be the fate of Africans? 

Our fate as Africans will be far worse not just because more of us would not have access to clean water, but also because we would be plagued by the ripple effects of water scarcity. In Nigeria, for instance, the Boko Haram insurgency in the North Eastern part of the country has been going on for more than ten years and along with this, the herdsmen-farmers crisis has become a perennial issue. Experts relay that all these have much to do with the fact that in recent times, Lake Chad, responsible for providing freshwater water to both cattle and millions of people in Northeastern Nigeria has shrunk by some 90%.

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Collecting water in Africa
Barry Aliman rides her bicycle with her baby to collect water for her family near Boromo, Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR.

In Sudan, the Darfur crisis had been linked to the scarcity of water, grazing land and depleting water reserves. The crisis has displaced an estimated two million people and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Over in the north, tension has been building amongst Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over Ethiopia’s plan to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. The tensions boil down to water sharing between the two countries and as things keep escalating, military action looms on the horizon. Much of the sabre rattling has been from Egypt with the backing of the US with the latter threatening to reduce aid to Ethiopia if the country does not compromise on the project.

Now why would the US be interested in the River Nile and what happens with water in Africa? Could it have something to do with the fact that the average American uses 400 litres of water daily and as such, there are good chances that America will face a water crisis by the year 2050? Or the fact that the Nile produces 49 billion cubic meters of water annually? Or that 25% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater reserves lie in Africa’s Great Lakes Region? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

Speaking at a recent event, Vice President Kamala Harris shared that the wars of the future will be fought over water. As scary as this might sound, the reality grows more likely with each passing season of drought. What are the geopolitical ramifications of Africa if the continent has the freshwater that the West needs? A look at the water reserves of Africa will show that the United States is well positioned militarily to fight these water wars. Now this might be a huge coincidence, but I don’t think the US is much for coincidences when it comes to their interests. From Iraq to Libya, we have seen what happens to poorer countries when they possess resources wanted by the world’s super powers.

A woman digs for water from a dry riverbed near Kataboi village in remote Turkana in northern Kenya. Photo: Marisol Grandon/Department for International Development.

Even where the poor countries elect to share their resources amicably with the US, there are still private equity vultures to contend with. And this brings us back to water commodification. According to the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), one in 10 water entitlements is foreign-owned at 10.4%. Chinese and US investors each own 1.9% followed by the UK owning 1.1%. French billionaire businessman Bollore owns over 15 ports in West Africa. What happens when he decides he wants the rivers too? What do you think would happen when these wealthy companies, countries and private billionaires decide that they want to trade the water of the developing world?

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Africa and her resources has since been a battlefield for American and Chinese interests. Commodification of water will be an undeniable tool for neo-colonisation. Geographically, it might not seem reasonable that Western companies and nations will try to exploit water from Africa. It would seem that other methods such as desalination would be better solutions. However, as I have written before; a lot of times, profit and not solutions seem to be the driving force. Plus, if Western states could conquer this geographical challenge to build a thriving slave-business, I don’t doubt that they can do something similar when in need of clean water.

For sure, all these are nightmarish scenarios and if you dub me a fear monger, I sincerely would hope that you are right. Make of it what you will but I believe the expression ‘there is no smoke without fire’ applies here. If the United States and other Western nations are getting awfully worried about water, I am guessing that Africa should be too.

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Cover photo of people fetching water in Ethiopia by Isabelle Chauvel.

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