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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2011

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Decentralizing Solutions For Rural Water Supply Under Climate Impacts In Sub-Saharan Africa

African demand and supply chains for fresh water are changing exponentially, and in opposite trajectories under different drivers. Water crises in Africa are expected to multiply as climate change unfolds, often with increasingly unpredictable stochastic events.1 Shortages in supply, uncertain changes in replenishment rates for surface water and groundwater, and deterioration of quality that reduces both usability and health safety issues are expected to soar.2,3 This is likely to constrict economic growth and hamper measures for the timely delivery of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG). In addition, as consumption increases under burgeoning population, the insecurity of water will directly affect livelihoods and socioeconomic development and threaten peaceful coexistence.4 The break in regular water supply, for example, is costing families on average three hours per day spent on the collection of water for a family of six in rural Africa.5 As an activity predominantly carried out by women and children, long-distance search for water deprives women of other activities, including school attendance for children. Incidence of cholera has also been shown to increase with increasing distance away from water points, which reduces access to both safe water and sanitation.6 In this continent largely dependent on its natural resource bases, the water crisis will affect both the structure and functioning of other ecosystems and their abilities to provide the multiple goods and services driving household livelihoods and national development.

Addressing water needs for a warming continent will require a smart approach that integrates the risks surrounding current supplies with long-term needs and future risks in providing place-based solutions that reduces development risks from climate impacts.7 This allows for the management of long-term risks using lessons learned from managing current risks in a way that maintains the same traction in development programs in countries. In this context, adaptation investments should thus be put into actions capable of simultaneously internalizing the risks and uncertainty of climate change on water and boosting the biological productivity of ecosystems and the services they provide. This will include adjusting the policy, capacity, and institutional arrangements that govern water supply and demand management, as well as capitalizing on tested means of water harvesting that also decentralize the solution and management to the people.

Caption: African girl with cup of clean water.

Finding Solutions From Old Practices

Water harvesting constitutes an age-old strategy widely used in addressing immediate needs or periods of shortages, or stocking nearby supplies. The practice easily fits pro-poor approaches for increasing access to water and sanitation on a small scale and with low investment cost for implementation.8 The nature of the practice varies, however, and the scope of implementation remains limited and uncoordinated in Sub-Saharan Africa, thereby neglecting an important source for a water security solution, especially in rural and peri-urban areas that mostly depend on small tributaries and catchments fed by seasonal supplies. The “Water for the Poor Act” report to the Congress of the United States refers to rehabilitation of rural water systems as a way in expanding access to safe water and sanitation in West Africa.9 Using techniques that conserve water is listed as the second most important of the solutions recommended by experts in addressing global water issues.10 However, public and policy incentivization are necessary in reverting to the old knowledge base and options for water harvesting (Figure 1), in harnessing the enormous potential to address the water needs of the continent. Using lessons learned in small-scale, swift, and flexible actions can provide just the right incentives and preparedness for undertaking bigger actions. The potentials of various rainwater harvesting techniques in internalizing climate change risks on water supply across temporal and spatial scales.

Caption: Figure 1. Measures to address water transition risks

In supporting the implementation of adaptation priorities, as identified in Togo's National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPA), the rehabilitation of two small dams serving local communities with their water supplies was undertaken in Togo by the Department of Rural Water Supply using funds and technical backstopping provided by the Climate Change Adaptation and Development (CC DARE) Programme jointly implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for Sub-Saharan Africa. The aims of the CC DARE Programme are to improve countries' abilities of to remove barriers and to create opportunities for integrating climate change into national development agendas. Serving as a pilot case, the project activity in Togo developed a cost estimate for financing infrastructure improvement of small-scale rural water supplies as pro-poor rural investment actions. This also included the identification of local materials and their sources, with landscaping and restoration of vegetation cover, in order to guide nationwide implementation schemes championed by rural communities using affordable technologies and materials locally available.

Caption: Local house in the Taberma Valley in Togo. The whole area is deignated a UNESCO Heritage site.

Building on Small-Scale Solutions

On the basis of lessons learned from the ongoing UN-supported government-owned and -led initiatives on adaptation, there are potential values in small dam rehabilitation to manage climate-induced water stress in a cost-effective way. The CC DARE Programme has demonstrated in Togo that using small-scale replenishment schemes through small dam rehabilitation for rainwater harvesting can provide the urgently needed water security for the rural population who make up the majority in Sub-Saharan Africa. Togo, for example, has a rural population of 3,744000,11 representing 58 percent of the total population. Between 1990 and 2006, there has been only a 4 percent increase (from 36 to 40 percent) in the proportion of rural population with access to improved water source, and the increase was 7 percent (from 79 to 86 percent) in urban areas. The capacities of the two small dams as pilot projects were expanded by more than twofold, stretching seasonal availability to year-round supply of water. Each of the dams serves an average of 13 villages of 1,000 to 1,500 persons each, as well as their livelihood activities. There are currently more than 174 similar-size dams across the country in highly degraded states, which demonstrates the expanded access to water and sanitation that could be achieved through dam rehabilitation programs. The potential for small dams' services extends not just to rural communities but also to the rapidly growing peri- urban areas.

Improvement in the retention of water is achieved with the rehabilitation of small dams. The options and opportunities that are presented to communities in rural areas following the rehabilitation of small dams open up new windows for livelihood diversification and economic ventures, especially for women involved in market gardening, and are capable of lifting people out of poverty as expected in United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 1, as well as supporting national transition to resilient development. The rehabilitation of degraded watersheds directly contributes to environmental sustainability (MDG 7), which locally contributes to the certainty in water supply, with the potential of restoring other ecosystem goods and services, thereby expanding the natural capital for communities even under uncertainty in the climate system.

The co-benefits justify investing public and private resources to restore or protect the resilience of ecological systems that safeguard water. The “Water for the Poor Act” report indicated that “every $1 invested in safe water and sanitation yields an economic return of between $3 and $34.” The cost for the rehabilitation of small dams as rural reservoirs and the information generated in terms of local sources of materials including concrete adaptation interventions are useful in guiding nationwide implementation and follow-up interventions and management of the small dams in the future by the local communities. In terms of those directly responsible in the household for fetching water, saving child labor (especially for girls) by having water sources nearby can potentially lead to more regular school attendance by investing time saved from fetching water; this contributes to addressing the Millennium Development Goal (MDG 2) on achieving universal primary education.

Caption: Water dam at the Blyde River Canyon, Mpumalanga, South Africa.


The lessons learned here demonstrate that adaptation can be triggered by one socially valuable service, such as water, impacted by climate change; moreover, actions that address short-term and long-term needs and also offer cross-cutting solutions for other sectors should be pursued. Small dams rehabilitation offers great opportunities in addressing water needs for African rural communities and in providing local support for adaptation in other sectors such as agriculture, livestock, health, and energy.

Actions that boost the resilience of ecological systems are likely to support intragenerational and intergenerational equity for adaptation to climate change. The catalytic effects of investing in rehabilitation of small dams for adaptation to climate change will ripple over time and across sectors of national development. These small dams also provide a decentralized solution for water access to decentralized rural communities, as well as enabling them to decentralize their livelihood activities beyond agriculture.

Acknowledgements: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark provided the funds for this project. The government and people of Togo led the implementation of the project. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent their institutions or the funding agency.

1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

2. R. C. Calow, A. M. MacDonald, A. L. Nicol, and N. S. Robins, “Ground Water Security and Drought in Africa: Linking Availability, Access, and Demand,” Ground Water 48, no. 2 (2010): 246–56.

3. B. Mati, T. De Bock, M. Malesu, E. Khaka, A. Oduor, M. Nyabenge, and V. Oduor, Mapping the Potentials for Rainwater Harvesting Technologies in Africa: A GIS Overview on Development Domains for the Continent and Ten Selected Countries, Technical Manual no. 6 (Nairobi, Kenya: World Agroforestry Centre [ICRAF], Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2006).

4. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, World Water Assessment Programme (UNESCO-WWAP), Water, A Shared Responsibility, The United Nations World Water Development Report (Paris: UNESCO, 2006).

5. Pan Africa Chemistry Network (PACN), Africa's Water Quality—A Chemical Science Perspective (Cambridge, UK: RSC Advancing the Chemical Sciences, 2010).

6. D. le Blanc, R. Perez, “The relationship between rainfall and human density and its implications for future water stress in sub-Saharan Africa” Ecological Economics, 66 no. 2–3 (2008): 319–336

7. Someshwar, S, “Adaptation as climate-smart development”, Development 51 (2008): 366–374.

8. See note 3.

9. Senator Paul Simon, Water for the Poor Act (P.L. I09I–I2I) Report to Congress (Washington, DC: Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science, U.S. Department of State, 2009).

10. Circle of Blue Water, Experts Name Top 19 Solutions to the Global Freshwater Crisis (2010),

11. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), AQUASTAT, Global Information System on Water and Agriculture (Rome: FAO, 2010).

Bubu Jallow is a program manager, all at the Climate Change Adaptation and Development Programme (CC DARE), of the United Nations Development Programme and United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobim, Kenya.

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