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Here's why African cities could lead in water innovation

The urgency of the continent's crisis is inspiring a bold new network of organizations, called AfriAlliance, working on new approaches to conservation and recycling.

For sub-Saharan Africa, water long has been something of a paradox.

On the one hand, it is the source of some of the continent’s worst PR. Water in Africa rarely appears on the global stage except when there isn’t enough of it — as in the case of the devastating droughts sweeping the Horn of Africa — or when there is too much, as was the case when deadly floods swept across Mozambique last month.

These water disasters also have become foreboding precursors to crises in Africa’s cities, which often find themselves choked by rising food prices and creaking under the weight of refugees fleeing disaster zones.

However, many experts say that water, properly managed, also could be the ticket to Africa’s future development — the resource with the single greatest power to drive industrialization, health and even gender equality. (It’s women, after all, who often literally shoulder the burden of carrying home heavy water containers from supply points.)

So when a collection of African mayors, academics and policy makers descended on the Johannesburg area in late March to talk about how Africa’s cities are managing their water in the face of a changing climate, the gathering was far from an academic exercise. The Local Climate Solutions For Africa conference stressed solutions over problems and offered a platform for urban practitioners to showcase innovative local water projects.

Poor Africans "are going to be the people hit the hardest by climate change — in fact, [they are the people] who are already being hit the hardest," said Barbara Schreiner, executive director of the Pegasys Institute, a South Africa-based nonprofit focused on development in Africa. "This isn’t the future. It’s already upon us."

Many projects on display at a conference last month focused on the simple but vexing puzzle of how to make water cleaner in communities where water-borne diseases are a leading cause of mortality.

Indeed, although Africans have done the least of any group of people on earth to create climate change — contributing just 2 to 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions as of 2006 (PDF) — the continent is also the world’s poorest and is particularly ecologically fragile, making it likely to bear a disproportionate burden of a changing climate in coming decades. Already, the instance of natural disasters is rising sharply here, and super-charged droughts, floods and typhoons are only likely to accelerate, experts say. Meanwhile, temperatures in parts of Africa are rising more than twice as fast as the global average.

But the urgency of Africa’s water crisis also affords it a unique opportunity — to become the world’s leader in water and climate change innovation, said Uta Wehn, associate professor of water innovation studies at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands. Wehn is also the newly minted director of AfriAlliance, a network of African and European organizations working on water and climate change in Africa launched here Wednesday.

"African cities," she said, "could perhaps even leapfrog to new solutions."

Sparking innovations

It is still early days for the Alliance, a project funded by the European Union that will spend five years linking European and African scientists, policy makers and other environmental wonks on projects designed to increase Africa’s muscle to withstand the buffeting effects of climate change.

Among those gathered in March were representatives from more than a dozen organizations that form part of the new alliance, which include research consortiums, NGOs, and professional training bodies. They used the conference to showcase a spectrum of projects bridging African and European water expertise and need — from a team of European and East African scientists designing a water filtration system for communities along Lake Victoria that will allow them to recycle wastewater for aquaculture and farming to the African arm of a global project to train governments in sustainable water management.

Many projects on display focused on the simple but vexing puzzle of how to make water cleaner — to drink, cook and farm with — in African communities where water-borne diseases are a leading cause of mortality.

For example, the water gurus behind Waterspoutt are working to scale up an almost impossibly simple method of making water safer to drink: leaving it out in the sun in plastic soda bottles until bacteria, viruses and parasites are zapped to death. Meanwhile, the people behind an emphatically named project called MADFORWATER, described plans to develop new methods to turn wastewater into water that can be used on farms in the parched northern African countries of Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt.

"Cities are hubs for development in sub-Saharan Africa and development needs water," said Louise Stafford of the Nature Conservancy, which is looking to expand the African reach of its "water fund" program. The program works on "ecological infrastructure" — such as wetland restoration and the clearing of silt or invasive species in waterways — to make water supplies safer for urban populations. "But with climate change we’re realizing we can’t keep going with business as usual," Stafford said. "We need new solutions."

And if Africa has the most to lose if business carries on as usual, it also stands to gain more than anywhere else if its local governments and donors can change direction on climate issues, said Schreiner.

That’s especially true for women.

At present, she noted, extreme weather impacts women disproportionately. Weather-related disasters often wipe out local sources of water or fuel — the gathering of which is generally a woman’s work. Meanwhile, when calories are scarce, they’re often afforded first to the men in a family. Climate change can even make women more susceptible to malaria — because rising temperatures often mean more mosquitoes, which are particularly drawn to pregnant women.

"But women can also be extremely powerful agents" in mitigating the effects of climate change, Schreiner said. Give them the knowledge and skills to plant drought-resistant crops, for instance, or to save earnings for times when extreme weather wipes out crops, and they’re more likely than men to invest their resources in the health and wellness of their families.

AfriAlliance "is about knowledge and that also makes it about power," Schreiner said. For the African half of the alliance to see the benefits, the continent must recognize that its own ingenuity is crucial to fighting climate change here, she said. "We need to take our own power."

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