Food security in Africa depends on rethinking outdated water law

6 days 21 hours ago
A farmer weeding his maize crop south of Harare, Zimbabwe. EPA/ Aaron Ufumeli

A new study has found that outdated, colonial-era water permit systems across Africa are unintentionally criminalising millions of small farmers who can’t obtain permits. This undermines efforts to boost farming production and meet economic growth goals.

The study examined water permit systems in five African countries: Malawi, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The permit system was introduced by colonial powers in the 1920s. They were designed to regulate water use in the interests of the colonial project by granting permits only to white settlers.

These systems established minority ownership of a natural resource that was vital for economies dependent on agriculture. African customary water arrangements were ignored and over-ridden.

These colonial style permit systems are still in use across the countries that were examined, and elsewhere in Africa. As a result, legal access to water through permits remains biased towards a few large users, such as large-scale irrigated farms, mines and industries, who are able to navigate the complicated and expensive process of permit application.

At the same time, customary regimes are expanding in informal rural economies, where millions of small and micro-scale water users invest in water infrastructure for self-supply and water sharing. Farmer-led irrigation development is the backbone of food security.

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Crisis proofing South Africa's water security

1 week 4 days ago
Reliable water supply is essential for South Africa's development. Shutterstock

South Africa is often referred to as the 30th driest country in the world, a claim that’s based on its average annual rainfall of 500mm compared to the world average of 860mm. National rainfall averages have a purpose. They do, however, have limited value where regional and local rainfall distribution varies considerably and when water security is threatened by recurring droughts, or when water use is poorly regulated and managed. Average rainfall data is meaningless when water demand exceeds supply.

This is true in South Africa. Since 2013 nearly every region in South Africa has experienced some form of drought and water shortages resulting in water restrictions in urban areas and in the agriculture sector.

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Agreements that favour Egypt's rights to Nile waters are an anachronism

2 weeks 2 days ago
The Nile River during sunset in Luxor, Egypt. EPA-EFE/Khaled Elfiqi

Egypt has historically adopted an aggressive approach to the flow of the River Nile. Cairo considers the Nile a national security matter and statements continue to include threats of military action against Ethiopia should it interfere with the flow as set out in agreements signed in 1929 and another in 1959.

The first agreement was made between Great Britain, as the colonial power in eastern African, and Egypt. Cairo was favoured over other riparian countries as an important agricultural asset. In addition, the Egyptian-run Suez Canal was vital for British imperial ambitions.

The British riparian colonies – Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) – as well as Ethiopia had no say.

Under the terms, Egypt would receive 48 billion cubic metres water annually and Sudan 4 billion cubic metres. Egypt would not need the consent of upstream states to undertake water projects in its own territories but could veto projects on any tributaries of the Nile in the upstream countries, including the 43,130 square kilometre Lake Victoria. The world’s second largest fresh water lake is fed by direct precipitation and by thousands of streams from Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda and Kenya, all located in the central east of Africa.

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