18 October 2023, Africa: Africa is expected to be one of the water-stressed regions in the world by the year 2025, with the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that half of the world’s population will be affected. UNICEF also reports that up to four billion people globally experience severe water scarcity for at least one month a year. While up to two billion people live in countries with inadequate water supply.
The World Bank reported that an estimated 226 million people did not have access to basic water services, and up to 381 million did not have basic sanitation in Eastern and Southern Africa. Rural areas in Mozambique, Kenya, Angola, Madagascar, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo were mostly affected, with 80 percent of the population being underserved.
Quality water is key to food systems
Dr Olufunke Cofie, the West Africa Representative for the International Water Management Institute, emphasized water’s important role in the food production systems. Stating that taking care of the water quality starts with educating the public on handling water to avoid contamination.
“Water is essential for all food production systems, whether rain-fed or irrigated crop production, livestock production or fisheries or agriculture, any form of food system, water is important. Water has an important role when we want to use soil,” he said. “So contaminated water can introduce pathogens, chemical compounds into the food chain, and the quality of water for irrigation, for example, has to do with public health,” she said.
Contracting diseases like cholera
If not addressed, UNICEF estimates that 700 million people could be displaced by water scarcity by 2030, and one in four children will live in extremely water-stressed areas by 2040. Poor access to clean water affects the health of 1.8 billion people who drink contaminated water and end up with diarrhea (which results in 502,000 deaths yearly), cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio.
Water scarcity also threatens food security as it impacts agricultural productivity. The African Union Development Agency states that 95 percent of water used for agricultural purposes comes from cultivated rainwater. But, with sporadic and irregular rainfall that the continent has been experiencing over the past few years, farmers have been seeing a decrease in crop yields, which drives up food prices. The Global Report on Food Crises of 2022 reported that an estimated 140 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity. The report further stated that one in five Africans goes to bed hungry.
Collaborations for sustainability
With this background, the African Global Health (AGH) gathered with ministers, researchers, business leaders, and specialists from at least 80 countries to discuss health harm reduction with a special focus on water, environment, and food security in Marrakech, Morocco. At the three-day conference from September 27 to 29, 2023, the impact of climate change on Africa’s water resources, environment, and food systems and how this ripple effect on public health systems on the continent came under the spotlight as industry leaders looked for solutions. It is envisioned that with South-South collaboration, the Global South will be able to foster partnerships that will help achieve universal health coverage through innovation and shared expertise.
Expressing his support for the AGH, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s Director General, said the conference was important and in line with the One Health project from the WHO, which is an integrated approach that focuses on sectors like water, air, and agriculture to balance and optimize the health of people, animals, and the ecosystem. “We live in a fragile world with the threats of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Whose systems contribute to and are affected by the stress, but they can also be a solution. Sustainable systems can support healthy lives and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, promote biodiversity and increase climate resilience,” said Dr Tedros. “At the same time, we must put in place climate, fertility, water, and sanitation services for the more than two billion people without prices. The impact of water and food insecurity, environmental emergency, and climate change are challenges that no country or sector can face alone.”
Policies and regulations
Professor Mohammed Sadiki, the Moroccan Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Rural Development, Water and Forests, said that while climate change has resulted in extreme events like drought and floods that have led to inadequate water infrastructure, countries were already coming up with measures to protect and preserve existing water resources. Some of these measures include having legislation that regulates water use and pricing. The Minister also said that they were investing in new water-saving technologies that would be used efficiently. He said that Morocco was already using the drip irrigation system for the agricultural sector to ensure no water loss.
“Our goal is by 2030 to have 1 million hectares irrigated with drip irrigation, 1 million hectares out of the 1.6 million hectares. And we have agreements with 30 African countries for the modernization of the irrigation systems,” Prof Sadiki said, adding that more attention needs to be given to food prices for consumers.
Lack of health information
Dr Cofie said that regular water quality testing was one solution to ensuring that water standards are met. She also suggested having good agricultural production practices on farms and climate-resilient agricultural practices that will foster the introduction of new crops for production. “And, of course, having innovative systems around the relying on data to have agro-climatic information systems. Some of those agro-climatic information systems are there in many countries. They lack health information. I think it’s important that we begin to integrate health and registry into those things this time,” Dr Cofie said.
Investment in research and innovation through the application of data machine learning and tools that would allow forecasting and system balance would help address harm reduction. “Robust coverage monitoring that uses a combination of historical coverage and climate information to track and reduce the spread of water and food pollutants. These are things that I think are very, very important that we need to consider,” Dr Cofie added.
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