THE BLOG

For Africa, Water Is Life

05/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week marks World Water Day, and I am personally endorsing a report by African scientists that examines our continent's water resources and calls for our political leaders to work more closely with Africa's scientific community to develop answers to the challenges we face.

Water is essential for life. Safe, abundant water is vital to our ability to prosper and to fulfill our potential. Without it, we face a continual decline in our well-being, poverty and hunger, and increasing levels of conflict.

Across Africa, a third of us have no access to clean water, and almost two thirds no access to clean sanitation, causing widespread suffering from malaria, typhoid, dysentery and many other diseases. Apart from this effect upon our health, the loss of productivity that results from water-related illnesses holds back our progress.

The population in many African countries is growing rapidly each year, averaging 2.5% across sub-Saharan Africa, but the lack of safe water and sanitation reduces our economic growth at twice that rate. And a growing population must be properly fed.

We need to increase our food production by half in the next twenty years. How will we achieve this without reducing the amount and quality of the remaining water resources which we will need for drinking and sanitation? Clearly, the provision of sustainable, clean water for our people is of the highest priority.

The effects of climate change make the challenge of conserving our precious water resources even more difficult. The people of Africa that are responsible for less than 5% of the pollution which has changed the planet's atmosphere, will feel the worst of its impact in terms of increased flooding and drought. Climate change is a global problem, and it places the onus upon the global community to live up to their commitments to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Yet despite all the obstacles we face, I remain an optimist when it comes to Africa's agricultural development and to water sustainability.

The introduction of new forms of irrigation pioneered by African scientists and research institutions has the potential to transform the way staple foods are cultivated. Today, only 10% of Africa's cultivated land is irrigated. Imagine what we can do if this percentage is increased in a way which also does not overburden our water supplies.

We need to make more use of fertilizers to feed nutrient deficient soils, and of modern crop varieties and new farming techniques to improve yields. We can see already what can be achieved with determination, vision and partnership.

With the right policies and commitment, Africa has the chance to match, indeed better the Asian agricultural miracle of the last generation. Better because we can do so in an environmentally sustainable way, which takes fully into account the fact that 80% of Africans are dependent in some way on agriculture.

Sustainable supplies of water, as well as its better management and protection are the key to this success -- just as increased agricultural productivity holds the key to spreading prosperity and our other development goals.

The report being launched today by the Pan Africa Chemistry Network relies upon the collective knowledge of scientists from across Africa, detailing how we can improve our capacity to tackle these challenges by establishing new centers of scientific excellence and by bringing together the best minds in science with governments to ensure water sustainability.

The network, supported by Royal Society of Chemistry and Syngenta, is exactly the kind of collaborative approach which is so important for the future.

I have no doubt of the scale of the challenge, but I am also optimistic that with vision and will, we can encourage governments across Africa to adopt these solutions and put them into practice.