Green News

Climate change is testing southern Africa water agrements

The Chicamba Dam in north-west Mozambique is critical to the water supply of three large cities.

Fed by the Muene River, it provides a livelihood for hundreds of fishermen as well as the small industries that support the local tourists that flock to the dam when it is full.

But the river and dam have become increasingly polluted, with locals pointing the finger at the source of the river: the Zimbabwean city of Mutare some 50 kilometres to the west.

A dumpsite in Mutare’s Nyakamete industrial area sits on the spot where the Muene starts. Waste from industries, clinics and homes in Mutare gets dumped at the site.

The up to 50C heat in that city helps break down and decompose the waste, so chemicals and other liquids seep into the river.

By the time it reaches Chicamba Dam, it is so polluted that locals blame it for cholera outbreaks and sudden deaths in the fish population.

Authorities in Mozambique’s Manica province, which contains the dam, set up a task force in 2009 to investigate the cause of the cholera and other water-related health problems. It concluded that Mutare’s dumpsite was to blame, and asked that city to fix the problem. Mutare’s city council said it didn’t have the money to find another way to dispose of the problem, so effectively ignored the complaints.

But the situation has intensified with the ongoing drought. Less water in the river means a higher concentration of pollutants. Low levels in the Chicamba Dam also mean that old concentrations of chemicals – which normally sink to the bottom of large water bodies – have mixed into the little water that is left.

That ongoing drought – the worst in southern Africa in 35 years – has created all sorts of similar conflicts. Mozambique has lodged complaints with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) about polluted water from South African mining killing crocodiles and fish. That water has also killed animals in South Africa’s iconic Kruger National Park, one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in the world.

This is a problem in a region where rivers form borders and care little for political considerations. The colonial divvying-up of the region in the late 1800s saw rivers become convenient borders. Twelve SADC states share 21 river basins, with most of these crossing more than two countries.

Cases such as that of the Muene River are often left unresolved. If bilateral discussions do not work, states lodge their complaints with the SADC secretariat. It then recommends that the offending party stop the offending activity. But there is nothing in the way of censure.
With a crippling drought wiping out crops and threatening its capital of Windhoek with shortages, Namibia has tried to get access to more water. But it has failed. In practice, South Africa uses its economic clout to keep the status quo.

But a similar crisis in 2015 signalled the changing nature of SADC water and regional politics. With a drought crippling the region and South African dams dropping to record lows, South Africa intervened politically to settle the dispute. One of the threats raised during the crisis by opposition parties in Lesotho was for a renegotiation of the price at which South Africa buys water from the highlands scheme. This threat died out with the settlement.

South Africa’s armed forces have used interventions like Lesotho to create scenarios that are specifically focused on securing water resources.
Climate projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and local bodies such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) warn that competition for this one resource will drive conflict in the future.

The current drought has seen this happen in isolated cases. Several instances in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique have seen people killing each other for access to scarce water resources. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says 40 million people are “acutely food insecure” in southern Africa.

The two to three-year drought is being heralded as a window on the near future. The IPCC predicts that temperatures in the region will be up to 3C hotter than pre-industrial levels by 2050. Rainfall will increasingly come in short and violent storms, evaporating or running off quickly rather than sinking into the ground.

History says that this will drive violent contestation of water resources. But an increasing maturity in water sharing agreements in southern Africa could ensure this future does not come to pass.