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SADC and the Sustainable water future agenda: Missing the mark in plain sight?

SADC and the Sustainable water future agendaGiven its leadership role in Africa and its immediate Southern African sub-region, South Africa finds itself leading the developmental strategies in response to a range of issues affecting many African states. The formation of regional organisations like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is specifically aimed at coordinating development projects in the region and lessens pressure on South Africa as the economic giant in the region. Water insecurity has presented African countries with an opportunity to form beneficial relationships bound by interrelated concerns to addressing water shortage and water management. Furthermore, cooperation on sustainable water resource management and water provision will influence economic and agricultural growth for countries while enhancing regional integration. Plagued by water insecurities, the following article assesses whether SADC has missed the mark on driving consistent water governance and water resource management in the Southern African region.

As a shared SADC challenge, water insecurity has motivated the need for a regional strategy to the issue. Water is a unique and important natural resource, and the Southern African region is testimony to this as it has brought the countries together in many ways than one, ranging from shared water; agriculture; transforming water to power; water management, and driving the flag for peace. The SADC region has a number of water cooperation strategies aimed at advancing and influencing better water management including the Regional Water Policy, adopted in 2005; The Regional Water Strategy adopted in 2006 and Regional Strategic Action Plan on Integrated Water Resources and Development Management that was approved by the SADC summit in August 1998.

One of the key milestones for water security in the SADC region was the initial agreement and signing of the Lesotho Oxbow Highland Water Project in 1983 after it was first rejected by South Africa. The agreement would drive years of partnership between Lesotho and South Africa, and allow Lesotho to supply water to South Africa’s drought stricken areas, and thus receiving income for the supply of their rich resource. Another important partnership in the area of water security is The Cahora Bassa in Mozambique which is a main source of hydroelectric power for Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. As one of the biggest dams in Africa, the construction and management of the Cahora Bassa dam shows how a resource as significant as water brings countries together and permits co-operation.

The SADC region has had to deal with prevalent problems of corruption, poor leadership and inconsistency in maintenance of crucial infrastructure. For instance, in the Lesotho Water Project going as early as 1994. Focusing on the two major water partnerships in Southern Africa, Oxbow Water Project in Lesotho and Cahora Bassa in Mozambique we see a trend that is continuously affecting the SADC countries from hitting the mark in terms of water governance and water resource management. The Lesotho Highland Water project which was established to supply water to South Africa has been struck with delays; with climate change, corruption and misuse of funds leading Phase 2 of the project to be pushed back to 2025. The first part of phase 2 of the Highland water project was to have started in 2018 but has been delayed until 2025, painting an uneasy picture of under-preparedness in the enactment of water policies. The Cahora Bassa, a key supplier of hydroelectricity, has experienced problems of its own due to climate change resulting in decreased water inflows and failed infrastructure, significantly reducing electricity supply to countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe. The issue of climate change underscores the need for improved water management in SADC and other African regions. Engineering is a key factor as the infrastructure must be developed and maintained to withstand the variance in water levels as a result of changing climatic patterns. The dam through the years has experienced over flows of water which has endangered the lives of Mozambicans living downstream the dam, and has also experienced power cuts due to drops in rainfall and faults of infrastructure.

The water security challenges faced by the SADC countries re-establish the importance of well implemented water management strategies. While Southern Africa demonstrates signs of improving the water crisis, it has still failed to make it a continuous and working mechanism. The first step in dealing with the challenge of water shortage for Africa should start from responding and dealing with the continuous trend of weak information flows, lack of awareness and education on the challenge at hand and corruption in African affairs. Partnerships around water security like the Cahora Bassa have brought the SADC countries together in collective action for water management. Africa is expected to take control of its natural resources to improve development, including the issue of water security by embracing sustainable management practices. Geopolitical trends from other countries that are aimed at resolving water insecurity have to play a part in informing African strategies to practices towards better management of its water. The question is which route we take and which international entities do we partner with for better water management?


Mr Simphiwe Mongwe holds a BA Hons in Politics and International Relations from University of Johannesburg and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

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