Water crises: when risks become real

My country, Zambia, doesn’t make international news very often. But recently, from The New York Times, to Al Jazeera to Bloomberg, Zambia is in the headlines. Once the fastest growing economy in Africa, Zambia’s economic growth projections have now been halved. Businesses and communities are suffering, and the government has now reached out to the International Monetary Fund for help. What is behind Zambia’s current newsworthy struggle? The answer is simple: water.

Ninety percent of Zambia’s energy is generated from hydroelectric power. A prolonged drought last year has been worsened by an erratic rainy season, creating a countrywide power crisis. “No power means no business,” bartender Patrick Mbewe is quoted by Al Jazeera.

Itezhi-tezhi Dam, water flowing out of retention basin. Kafue National Park boundary, Zambia. © Sarah Black / WWF

The current crisis in Zambia serves as a stark reminder of water’s importance as a vital and threatened resource. We know people and wildlife depend on it, as do most economic activities and yet this knowledge is rarely translated into management plans that ensure freshwater ecosystems can sustainably meet the needs of people, wildlife and business.

At WWF we want to bridge the gap between “knowing” we should safeguard a resource we depend on and taking action to make it happen. Today we are launching Water in the Zambian Economy: Exploring shared risks and opportunities in the Kafue Flats. Our goal with the report was to quantify both the contributions of the Kafue Flats and our dependence on this ecosystem. As expected, the numbers are impressive.

We found the Kafue Flats provides 50 per cent of the country’s total hydropower output. Almost 1 million people directly depend on the Kafue Flats for their livelihoods. It provides 44 per cent of all freshwater for the capital, Lusaka; and supports almost 90 per cent of all sugar production, a key agricultural commodity. This demonstrates the crucial role of the Kafue Flats in Zambia’s growing economy, but also shows us the challenges. If freshwater resources in the Kafue Flats are not well managed, it doesn’t harm just one sector or species; it’s a problem for Zambia’s economy as a whole.

Sugar cane farms rely heavily on water from the Kafue River for irrigation, and effluent is often discharged back into the river. This causes plant growth that clogs up waterways, creating problems for people and suffocating fish. © Martin Harvey / WWF

We worked on this study with representatives from various sectors – hydropower, mining, agriculture, food and beverage – and with government representatives to ensure the data was matched with real perspectives and experience. What emerged was the conclusion that becoming more water-efficient alone is not going to solve the problems in the Kafue Flats. With so many competing demands, it is clear that meaningful and informed discussions about water allocations are required.

And there’s nothing like a crisis to get people to come to the table. As the current drought is proving, a discussion about water starts with ensuring there is something to allocate. This means prioritizing the healthy functioning of the river. Very costly lessons have been learned in Europe, North America and Asia, where they are removing dams and restoring river systems because it is the most effective strategy to support healthy rivers in the face of climate change. In Zambia, our river systems are still functioning, which gives us an opportunity to learn from those mistakes and make better choices.

Kafue Lechwe (Kobus leche kafuensis), two males on the water edge at sunset, Lochinvar National Park, Zambia. © Martin Harvey / WWF

The private sector, government, civil society organizations (including WWF-Zambia) and other local groups have come together to address the challenges in the Kafue Flats. This form of collective action is underpinned by an understanding of shared water challenges, shared responsibility, and shared benefits. No single sector holds the answers; the problems that pose a risk to businesses, society, governments and ecosystem will only be addressed through joint efforts.

Our report highlights the challenges and opportunities within the Kafue Flats; it also presents potential solutions. WWF applauds those stakeholders in the Kafue Flats who have clearly expressed the need for collective action, and we are ready to join you in securing water for people and nature.

Imakando Sinyama is Water Stewardship Manager for WWF-Zambia.