Water security in Africa: New approaches needed for capacity building

Water security in Africa: New approaches needed for capacity building

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Story detail:
Date: 8th February 2021
Author: CDKN Global
Type: Feature
Country: Africa

Prof Chris Gordon of CDKN Ghana and the University of Ghana and Dr Jon Padgham of START International suggest that radically new approaches to building the capacity of water professionals and university students are needed to achieve water security for Africa. Their blog celebrates Africa Water Week, 8-12 February 2021.

Africa faces significant water supply challenges stemming from demographic, environmental and development drivers that are all amplified by climate stress such as warming surface water temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, and increased hydrologic variability. This constellation of factors has important ramifications on future development in Africa especially in the face of compounding stresses such as the current pandemic.

Addressing these water resource challenges are fundamental to realising progress towards meeting the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. However, in spite all efforts, just like with the Millennium Development Goals, Africa is already off the trajectory to meet SDG 6 Goal and the other water related SDG targets.

Lack of concerted political will, despite the leadership of the African Ministerial Council on Water (AMCOW), is obviously a major factor underpinning the situation, but the lack of actionable knowledge is also important. Creating actionable knowledge to address water security is not a simple task. The interconnected facets of water will require cross-sectoral integration of skill development, and knowledge mobilisation by local users, water researchers, water resource managers and the policy community if Africa is to achieve Water Security.

The decades-long effort to develop science capacities in Africa, while garnering some success, has underperformed relative to the scale of investment. These efforts often lack coherence and follow through to ensure that ‘built’ capacities are consolidated and sustained, and there has been inadequate incorporation of regional/local priorities and ownership, and relevant cultural contexts, in designing programs and ensuring strong post-program sustainability.

Effectively addressing water security requires moving beyond short-term one-off projects where capacity building is at best an afterthought, in favor of long-term processes that favor regional approaches to strengthening science capacities and advancing integrated learning. Co-engaged partnerships between academia, policy, and practice and a re-thinking of research designs and support structures are essential for instilling greater drive and ownership of capacity development within Africa.

We suggest that radically new approaches to capacity development are needed for Africa that provide current and emerging workforces of water professionals with the skills and knowledge to:

  • develop a common language around water security,
  • translate complex issues to relevant and actionable messages,
  • undertake system-based thinking on water security,
  • understand and utilise adaptive management approaches, and
  • engage effectively with local communities to identify appropriate technologies and co-create solutions that integrate scientific, tacit, and indigenous knowledges.

The challenge of rethinking capacity development extends to formal education as well: universities in Africa could play a stronger role in creating a critical mass of expertise in water security, which would include producing ‘pracademics’ (practice-oriented undergraduate and graduate tracts) alongside traditional academics.

However, African universities generally do not recognise the need to provide pragmatic, experiential and practical training towards the developmental needs of their countries. The predominance of traditional lecture-based pedagogy and the carryover of colonial legacies in classroom teaching hinder the ability of many African universities to apply a more problem-focused, active, and innovative pedagogy that integrates contemporary sustainability challenges and solutions into their courses.

We propose that a more comprehensive and transdisciplinary approach to capacity development be adopted that would span formal and informal education and create opportunities to bridge the two to ensure more scalable and meaningful results.

Water is life, some would say water access is a human right, others say water is a commodity, but no matter how you view water, you take it for granted at your own peril. The global Covid-19 pandemic has hand washing as one of its options to reduce spread especially in Less Developed Countries, but when there is no water or no water of potable quality, what options will the marginalised populations have? The current mantra is to ‘build back better’ but in many cases in Africa, there was no building at all.

The hope is that our decision makers will now have a greater appreciation of the need for water security – and the need to make water infrastructural choices based on evidence. That evidence can only come from a cadre of well-trained researchers and professionals. Let us use the pandemic as a ‘reset switch’ to effect change to how the next generations of water professionals and decision makers are trained.

The authors acknowledge the inputs from participants at the Meeting on Water Security and Capacity Building in Accra and discussions held at both the Side Event on Capacity Building in Africa and the High-Level meeting at the 2018 World Water Week with participants that included the IWA, UN Environment Freshwater Division and the Institute for Technology and Resource Management in the Tropics and Subtropics, Technical University of Cologne.


To contact the authors:

Prof Chris Gordon, CDKN Country Engagement Lead, Ghana; Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies, University of Ghana; cgordon@ug.edu.gh

Dr Jon Padgham, START International, Inc, https://start.org/  US;  jpadgham@start.org


Image (above, right): Drip irrigation in practice, Kenya (photo credit Ausaid)

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