Busani Bafana,   May 05, 2020

Many African countries are not managing water resources well to boost development and economic growth because they lack readily useable water information to make informed decisions, researchers say.

Africa generally has abundant water resources boasting of 17 rivers with water catchment areas of more than 100 000km2. However, the sustainability of these water resources is threatened by climate change, contamination, poor governance and institutional arrangements to manage water.

Harnessing big data for water security

An Africa wide project is seeking to improve the water management situation through the use of remote sensing and improved data management technologies to avail usable information on water in Africa.

A $3 million project, launched by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), partnership with Digital Earth Africa (DEA), is to facilitate fast access of analysis-ready data. This will enable African governments, communities, and companies to better manage their water.

Actionable information on water is essential for charting Africa’s pathway to a sustainable and prosperous future. Photo by Busani Bafana

“There is a very significant scarcity of water-related data on the continent that countries, businesses, and communities would ideally have to manage their water, said William Rex, Senior Advisor, at IWMI, noting that hydrological and meteorological data is under-supplied in Africa.

“There is an old adage that you cannot manage what you cannot measure, and this is really true for water resources in Africa,” William said in an interview. “If there is water scarcity – whether this is at the community, or hydropower plant, or national level – one has to make trade-offs, and if you are not able to accurately measure how much water you have and how it is being used, it becomes difficult to make sensible trade-offs.”

The three-year project, funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, is part of IWMI’s Waste Secure Africa Initiative (WASA) to harness big data to strengthen water security.

IWMI says water management is vital to Africa’s future, but limited water data makes it challenging. Earth observation satellites collect vast amounts of data over Africa every day, some of which can be used to measure and monitor water.

Actionable information on water is essential for charting Africa’s pathway to a sustainable and prosperous future says Claudia Sadoff, Director General, IWMI, adding that Africa today is one of the most data-poor regions of the world.

Through WASA, IWMI working the DEA Programme will develop applications for the Open Data Cube (ODC), a global initiative to increase the use and value of satellite data. The open and free use applications will generate timely and quality information to better understand water use and availability, water risks, water quality, and water values and efficiency.

The first of these applications will be water accounting enabling countries to stock of available water resources to make informed water management decisions. A second application will be for flood and drought mapping and early warning systems.

The applications will be tested with some governments within 18 months. Tests of the applications will be piloted in Zambia, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Ethiopia.

While many of these applications are already proving their value in parts of Africa, they do not provide the scale required, said Lisa-Maria Rebelo, Principal Researcher – Earth Observation for Sustainable Development. She said Open Data Cube represented an opportunity to scale-up and reduce costs of the applications.

William said resources are needed to install, operate, and maintain hydro-meteorological instruments that measure water, soil moisture, and weather, which in many cases, African governments do not readily have. Hydromet relates to weather, climate, and hydrological information. It is the science that deals with atmospheric, weather, water, and climate phenomena.

Hydromet services provide real-time weather, water, early warning, and climate information and data critically needed for growth and sustainable, climate-resilient development in Africa, According to the World Bank which is collaborating with several development partners to modernise hydromet services across Africa.

Weather and climate-related disasters are reversing development gains in Africa where these risks affect more than 10 million people annually where hydromet services are not equipped to meet the needs, World Bank says.

“In fact Africa has the least developed weather, climate, and hydrology observation network with only 1/8 of the required density and less than 300 weather stations that meet the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) observation standards,” the Bank said.

The United Nations says global climate change is altering the water cycle, making water availability less predictable, affecting water quality, worsening water scarcity, and threatening sustainable development.

Today an estimated 3.6 billion people globally live in areas that are potentially water-scarce areas at least once a month per year, the UN said, warning that this is projected to reach up to 5.7 billion people by 2050, creating a huge competition among water users and across political boundaries.

The FAO together with partners of the Global Framework on Water Scarcity in Agriculture (WASAG) is supporting countries to cope with climate-induced pressures on water resources in agriculture. 

The FAO says increasing rural communities’ resilience to water stress provides them with alternatives to forced migration. Furthermore the FAO stresses that farmers living in water-scarce areas urgently need access to innovative financing mechanisms to boost investments in order to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and enhance their resilience.

Water Journalists Africa

Water Journalists Africa (WJA) is the largest network of journalists reporting on water in the African continent. It brings together some 700 journalists from 50 African countries. It was established in...

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