Dry throats beckon for Botswana as dams dry up; water becomes big politics in Africa


For some governments in Africa today, water is becoming the biggest issue in dealings with neighbours.

ENVIRONMENTALISTS used to warn that future wars in Africa and the rest of the world would be fought over water, conjuring up images from movies such as Mad Max; Fury Road.

The wars are not here yet, but the water crisis seems to have arrived sooner than predicted and in a sign of the dry times, it is now becoming a big issue in bilateral dealings between nations.

It is probably fitting that the female star of Mad Max: Fury Road is South African award-winning actress Charlize Theron - the country and Botswana will meet on October 1 to discuss cutting water from the dwindling Molatedi Dam, a move that would have a “severe” impact, a spokesman for Botswana’s Water Utilities Corp. said.

The dam, in South Africa’s North West province, normally provides 500,000 consumers in and around Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, with 16% of daily requirements. It is now 8% full and under an agreement signed in 1988, supply is halved when the dam falls below 26%.

Southeastern Botswana is in the grips of an acute water shortage after the Gaborone Dam, which supplied more than half the capital’s water, ran dry in March. Cuts were implemented in August and are currently in force at least four days a week.

READ: 15 Southern African leaders gather in Botswana as nearly 25m in region risk going to bed hungry

Botswana’s Department of Meteorogical Services expects the southeast to record its poorest rains in 34 years this season, crushing hopes of replenishing the Gaborone Dam.

“There is a strong El Nino present and there is a greater than 90% chance that El Nino will continue through the Southern Hemisphere summer in 2015-16,” the department said earlier this month.

Botswana President Ian Khama in June declared a drought year and forecast national cereal production would be 7,382 metric tonnes against a national annual requirement of 300,000 tonnes.

In August, South Africa, granted approval for the release of water from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to boost supplies to dams in its Free State province, where dam levels in the province are very low due to below- normal rainfall.

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is between the two governments and comprises a system of dams and tunnels throughout their territory. It is said to be Africa’s largest water transfer project and has major economic benefit to the kingdom of Lesotho, which is entirely surrounded by South Africa.

It also informs why political instability tends to leave its neighbour on edge, with South Africa dependent on its water to supply the industrial hub of Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria. 

The Kariba dam, on a water basin shared by Zambia and Zimbabwe, has also fallen on patched times. The world’s biggest man-made reservoir, water levels have fallen due to an erratic wet season that ended in April and reduced generation of electricity from the dam, further hurting the economies of both countries.   

The crippling power deficit is already being felt in Zambia’s capital, which is experiencing a shortage of water as the country heads into the hottest months of the year. Lusaka’s demand is already twice as high as supplies that are constrained by a falling water table and power rationing, according to the Lusaka Water and Sewerage Co., which provides water to the city of about 2.2 million people.

Ethiopia’s 6,000MW Grand Renaissance dam has also been at the centre of international politics, with controversy over its construction at times drawing in scores of countries that fall along the Nile River basin.

Last year, the US government added water to its list of threats to national security, with its National Intelligence Strategy adding the impact of climate change as having potential to heighten tensions among states.

Africa may not be there yet, but it would be wary of the potential for social unrest over basic needs. And the stable governments of the future on the continent, will be those that are smart about water - and can negotiate the best deals on it from neighbours.

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