A future Armageddon where mankind, animals and plants die from water scarcity following years of global warming has been dismissed as alarmist. They shouldn’t. We are facing a catastrophe of biblical proportions unless we act now.
It has been said that the next big war will be waged over resources, mainly water. It’s one of those clichés that ought to be repeated, again and again, until the message sinks in that we must, as a matter of urgency, re-look at our natural resources afresh, figure out what we are doing wrong and halt the plunge into the unknown.
Today, a billion people do not have access to clean and reliable drinking water. This is an unacceptable figure. Two million people, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), die every year from avoidable waterborne diseases. The majority of those affected are children below five years. It need not be like this.
Even though Africa contributes an insignificant amount to global warming, the continent has borne the brunt of climate change. According to the United Nations Fact Sheet on Climate Change, the continent contributes a mere two to three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industrial sources.
Yet, the continent has been buffeted by the effects of climate change to no end.
One of these side effects of global warming is uncertain climatic conditions. For a continent that largely relies on rain-fed agriculture, this has had a catastrophic effect on Africa’s food security.
Despite having numerous sources of water, Africa faces shortages that threaten entire communities. It is a paradox that requires us to dig into history for answers.
At the moment, we are seeing severe flooding in the Horn of Africa. In a few months, like clockwork, drought will kick in. And the cycle will continue. This predictable pattern provides clues as to what actions we need to take to break this cycle. Though policymakers sometimes appear helpless to deal with this cataclysmic scenario, we have no choice than to take immediate action.
There are a couple of low hanging fruits that we must seize immediately. First, we must learn to harvest and store water for those inevitable days when rains fail us.
Even though rain patterns have changed dramatically over the past couple of years, we still have wet weather in most parts of the continent that can be more or less predicted. What we have not done is invest in rainwater harvesting, be it from water pans, tanks or dams.
We have seen communities that have taken steps to tap water using very simple but effective technologies.
In Chile, a groundbreaking experiment has shown that it is possible to tap water trapped in the fog in one of the driest deserts in the world. Fishermen who had lost their livelihoods due to depleted stocks of fish are now engaged in experimental commercial farming using the water that has been harvested using this method.
We must move a step further and learn to recycle water more. Too much water goes to waste simply because we do not have the wherewithal to take action. With technological advances, it is possible to recycle much more water than we are currently doing.
In the business we are in – beer manufacturing – we previously used about four hectoliters of water to produce a hectoliter of beer. With the help of technology and a little ingenuity, we have reduced this to three hectoliters of water per hectoliter of beer.
Thirdly, and most critically, we must protect the water sources that ensure that this resource – which was at one time thought to be infinite but which is now globally regarded as finite – does not literally dry up. In East Africa, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that 6 million hectares of forest were decimated between 2000 and 2012. If the trend continues, another 12 million hectares that forms the region’s water tower will be lost by 2030. We must stem this tide of needless destruction.
Energy conservation is another area that we can use to make a huge impact in slowing global warming. Global energy requirements are barreling at an alarming level, far outstripping supply. There is therefore an urgent need for not only using our energy responsibly but also exploring new clean energy resources.
The writer is MD of Kenya Breweries.