‘Nature’ has useful lessons on water security

On Thursday, March 22, 2018 the global community again celebrated World Water Day – this time under an interesting theme, ‘Nature for Water’. This theme explores how we can collectively use nature to overcome the water challenges of the 21st century.

Though a well-thought out theme, I wonder how we in Africa can bring back ‘nature’ into the water debate, given our insatiable exploitation of the environment for private gain. The exploitation of the environment is driven by globalisation and the craze for natural resources to fuel industrial growth in the west and Asia.

And Africa has been the centre of attraction since the historical and pre-industrial revolution days, when economic development revolved around industrialisation. Of course, the destruction of Africa’s natural environment stems from our current lack of respect for nature and its conservation, compared to the attitude of our ancestors.

Ancient instincts and water

Since pre-historic days, there’s always been a heightened sense of fear about failing to get access to water – because water was and remains essential for life. For this reason, our ancestors used all their technology and ancient instincts at their disposal to preserve nature and the environment. The basic uses of water have essentially remained the same. Like us, our ancestors needed water to drink, for washing, bathing, and relaxing. But the difference between us and them was their respect for nature, knowing well that their very survival depended on a vibrant nature. In fact, water has no substitute – but our generation is behaving as if we no longer need it to survive.

In a recent book entitled ‘The Improbable Primate, How Water Shaped Human Evolution’, Clive Finlayson analyses the European ancestors’ relationship with water before they left Africa. Finlayson believes that homo-sapiens selected environments that fell in an intermediate range of rainfall regimes. He speculates that our ancestors’ favorite landscape had trees, open spaces, and water. The water sources were often highly dispersed, seasonal, and ephemeral.

Other scholars have also speculated about our relationship to water. In her book the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, Elaine Morgan argues that our ancestors must have spent a long period of evolutionary history in or near water.  Our ancestors must have had a strong desire to understand the natural environment, including climate and the hydrological cycle.

They were probably great storytellers, and their stories and myths must have reflected this interest in water and climate. Today, very little, if any, of the stories our ancestors left about nature and water conservation have not disappeared. That relationship with nature is no more the case; our current generation is destroying the beauty of the environment and its water resources without thinking of the future.

Ghana in particular has witnessed an upsurge in the pollution of water-bodies in recent years, thanks to activities of small-scale gold miners who use water for cleaning and retrieving gold from dust. Their activities have become uncontrollable, to the point of threatening the right of every Ghanaian to have clean drinking water.

Nature-based solutions

According to the United Nations, environmental damage – together with climate change, is driving the water-related crises around the world. Floods, drought and water-pollution are all made worse by degraded vegetation, soil, rivers and lakes.

Perhaps, this is why nature-based solutions have been described as having the potential to solve many of our water challenges. “We need to do so much more with ‘green’ infrastructure and harmonise it with ‘grey’ infrastructure wherever possible. Planting new forests, reconnecting rivers to floodplains, and restoring wetlands will rebalance the water cycle and improve human health and livelihoods,” says a statement by the organisers of World Water Day.

This year’s celebration earmarked wetlands as vital for human survival. Wetlands are believed to be among the world’s most productive environments; cradles of biological diversity that provide the water and productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival.

Sadly, 64% of wetlands have been degraded since the 1900’s, and degradation continues at an alarming rate. In Ghana, virtually all wetlands have lost their value, due to the activities of loggers and rapid urbanisation.

In fact, Ghana’s only designated Sakumono Ramsar Site, near the industrial city of Tema, is being devastated by real estate developers. Houses are springing up day and night around the site, and no one is bothered. The devaluation of the Site should be of concern to all Ghanaians, because wetlands are essential and important for life.

Benefits of wetlands

In celebration of the World Water Day, the Ramsar Convention released a list of seven benefits of wetlands. Below is the list:

  • Wetlands ensure fresh water for all of us. Wetlands provide us with drinking water. Only 0,75% of the world’s fresh water is accessible for direct human uses. The UN estimates that 2 billion people will not have access to safe drinking water by 2025.
  • Wetlands filter harmful waste from water – 80% of wastewater is discharged into the natural environment without any form of treatment; the abundant plant life in wetlands absorbs waste, which helps purify water.
  • Wetlands store carbon – Peatlands alone hold 30% of all carbon stored on land. This is twice the amount stored in the world’s forests, providing resilience against climate change.
  • Wetlands are nature’s shock absorbers – Wetlands are a natural buffer during extreme weather. They store heavy rainfall during storms, which reduces flooding and delays the onset of droughts.
  • Wetlands are critical for biodiversity – Wetlands are home to more than 100,000 fresh-water species. They are essential for many amphibians, reptiles and migratory birds.
  • Wetlands guarantee our food supply – Wetlands provide important food products like fish and rice (20% of the world’s nutritional intake).
  • Wetlands sustain livelihoods – Wetlands support 61.8 million people that earn their living directly from fishing and aqua-culture.

The situation in Ghana

Over the last two weeks I have followed two media reports on the quality of water, or the lack of it, in two communities: one, near Swedru in the Central region and the other near Atabebu in the Brong Ahafo Region. The acute shortage of water and the pollution of water in the two communities should not be happening in the 21st century.

At the community in the Brong Ahafo Region, I watched both humans and animals drinking from stagnant water – which is the only source of water. In the case of the community near Swedru, I saw the people queued-up to scoop water from a small hand-dug well, which is the only source of water. The scarcity of quality drinking water in the two communities is just a reflection of the lack of the water across many communities in Ghana.

This has an immediate impact on economic activity, as people of all ages – including children – waste several man-hours looking for water. In the case of the community in Brong Ahafo Region, they are the obvious victims of water-borne diseases and avoidable WASH-related deaths among children. The economic burden of WASH-related disease in Ghana is likely to remain high without additional investments in water and health-related infrastructure to reverse the acute shortage of water.

Water strategic plan

In 2014, the government of Ghana launched the Ghana Water Sector Strategic Plan under the theme ‘Sustainable Water and Basic Sanitation for All by 2025’.

The vision of the water sector is ‘sustainable water and basic sanitation for all by 2025’, which means ensuring that “all people living in Ghana have access to adequate, safe, affordable and reliable water services; and practice safe sanitation and hygiene”.

The goal of the sector is “to contribute to improvement in the living standards of Ghanaians through increased access to and use of safe water, sanitation and hygiene, and sustainable management of water resources”. The specific objectives of the sector include to:

 

  • Achieve universal coverage for water and sanitation services by 2025;

 

  • Increase the national water coverage rate from 59% in 2009 to 80% in 2015 and 100% in 2025;

 

  • Increase rural and small towns water coverage from 59% in 2009 to 76% in 2015 and 100% in 2025;

 

  • Increase urban water coverage from 59% in 2009 to 85% in 2015 and 100% in 2025;

 

  • Secure at least 5% of the water and sanitation sector investment financing from other sources, including private sector financing and internally generated funds for investments by 2020; and
  • Create a mechanism for financing capital maintenance expenditure (CapManEx) for rural and small-town systems by 2025;

 

  • Develop a framework for managing and protecting water resources for improved water security and enhanced resilience to climate change;
  • Strengthen water resource planning, decision-making and operational capacity through improved access to knowledge and expertise in integrated water resource management.

Unfortunately for us, 2025 is just seven years away – for which reason policymakers need to actualise the water strategy. Goal six of the Sustainable Development Goals mandates governments and other stakeholders to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.

Besides, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) points out that the human right to water is based on the understanding that safe water is needed to prevent death from dehydration, and to reduce the risk of water-related diseases by providing water for consumption, cooking, and personal and domestic hygiene. Hence, water facilities and services have to be physically and economically accessible to everyone without discrimination.

Both the World Bank and World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that about two billion people globally live without access to improved water supplies, and 2.5 billion live without adequate sanitation. As a result, diseases associated with poor water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) conditions comprise 20 percent of mortality in less-developed countries and remain one of the major contributors to the environmental burden of disease worldwide.

The right to water imposes on states several obligations. States have to take deliberate, concrete, targetted steps toward full realisation of the right to water – and must guarantee that the right is enjoyed without discrimination. Moreover, as with regard to other human rights, states also have specific obligations to respect, protect and fulfil the right to water.

Furthermore, states possess the obligation to fulfil the right to water – requiring them to take positive measures to assist individuals and communities in enjoying the right; to ensure that there is appropriate education concerning the use of water; and to provide access to the right when people are unable to realise the right themselves.

The CESCR has identified the insufficient expenditure or misallocation of public resources that results in non-enjoyment of the right to water by the vulnerable or marginalised as a failure on the part of the state. CESCR also insists that the state’s failure to effectively regulate and control water services providers is a violation of this obligation. Thus, the state must prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to water. On this score, government’s ‘water for all agenda’ is an obligation that must be honoured.

 

References

  1. Jeuland, M, A., Fuente, D. E., Ozdemir, S., Allaire, M. C., and Whittington, D. (2013) The Long-Term Dynamics of Mortality Benefits from Improved Water and Sanitation in Less Developed Countries. Cousera. Global Water Partnership
  2. Terracino, J.B. (2008) Corruption as a Violation of Human Rights. International Council on Human Rights Policy.
  3. Whittington D., and Thomas, D. (2017) “Introduction to Global water and sanitation”. Manchester Business School, Manchester, UK

 

(***The writer is a Communications and Development Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate. All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation. (Email: safoamos@gmail.com. Mobile: 0202642504/0243327586/0264327586)