In October the world population passed the 7 billion mark. Africa’s population too hit one billion in mid-2011.
Thinking of this from Africa, a continent that has known some horrific famines in recent decades, perhaps the first question is how will all these people be fed?
In my native Uganda, for example, the National Environmental Authority estimates that at the present rate of deforestation, the country is likely to be importing fuelwood by 2020 (80% of Ugandans depend on firewood for fuel and 6% on charcoal)!
So even if the food was to be found in the years to come, in many African countries ravaged by environmental degradation, the difficulty might be the energy to cook it.
Not surprisingly then that people will tell you that if there is a single challenge facing Africa it has to be this – a broken environment. Nearly every other problem; corruption, electoral fraud, war, famine, disease, the indignity women still face in many African societies, expanding slums, and the high cost of living in towns and cities, are linked to this somehow.
We know the numbers. The UN estimates that there could be as many as 50 million “environmental refugees” in the world by 2020 – large chunk of them in Africa.
Lakes, like Lake Chad, have all but dried out. Many cities in Africa already have no water running in the taps for an average of two days a week.
Sanitation-related diseases, most of which have something to do with the quality and availability of water, account for 88 percent of childhood diarrhoea in Africa. They kill 600,000 African children each year, and result into children in Sub-Sahara Africa losing 1,700,000 school days a year!
In a 2009 report, The East African Community secretariat, which is based in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, estimated that if Africa had universal access to sanitation and safe water, it would save the continent $23.5bn from illnesses, premature death, low productivity, water collection burden, and damage to tourism.
Many of these problems can be fixed by enlightened national governments, and some with support from the international community. Food can be imported. So can energy.
So while water is way up there as the big issue for the continent, my sense that its availability cannot be a solution without something that might seem relatively minor. So what is it?
My mind went back some years ago when I visited a relative in a hospital in the eastern Uganda town of Tororo. On that day many sickly motherly mothers had brought their sickly children to the hospital.
They formed a very long line. They all had a common frail look. It was a distressing sight, and I still encounter it in rural Uganda, as indeed in almost all up-country hospitals I have dropped in around Africa.
I asked a nurse I knew what the problem was. She looked over her shoulder, and whispered: “Most of these people shouldn’t be here, because they are really not ‘sick’ as such. They are hungry. The children are malnourished”. In other words the cure to their illness was in their gardens, not medicine. But medicine was what was being dispensed, because there was a structure to deliver that.
Likewise, one of my most memorable reporting assignments was along the Nile River. The Nile River used to be extremely fish rich. On that day I had gone to the site of a future dam, and to write about how the local communities were coping with a development that was set to radically change their way of life.
As my team and I passed through one of the compounds near the riverbank, we saw a very frail child with a swollen stomach, probably malnourished.
We asked the father, a fisherman, what was wrong with the little boy? He said he had been “possessed by evil spirits”. It was too much for one of the team members, and she said with quite some irritation:
“No, that is not true. He just needs to eat well. The fish you catch, if you feed him on it for a few weeks, it has proteins that could make him better”.
The fisherman looked a little confused, and said: “But I can’t do that, the fish that I catch, I have to sell to the market to get other things, including medicine, for the family”.
Part of the problem seemed to be that he was too poor to afford to eat the fish he caught. But like the case at the Tororo hospital, my sense is that the companion mega problem for Africa’s growing population is a very prosaic one – KNOWLEDGE. And, particularly, knowing what to do, or being able to do something creative, with it.
You might say Africa can buy the knowledge it needs, but the one thing it can’t import, is the ability to do great things with it.
I had an experience of the possibilities and challenges we face, totally by accident a few months ago. The eastern part of Uganda where I come used to be the most densely region of the country. The land has paid the price of carrying the burden. In many parts, it is tired – well, actually, dead. And the people have fled to become environmental refugees in other parts of Uganda, which will probably soon suffer the same fate.
Unlike the cattle-keeping western part of Uganda where farmers were forced to learn how to tap and save rain water, in most of the rest of Uganda they don’t.
I decided to do a small experimental environmental project, which needed quite a bit of water, in my ancestral home. I decided to dig a dam to trap rainwater.
The sight of the work was quite unusual, and the folks in the area had not seen anything like it. Several of them went to see my old man, and suggested that his son “had gone mad in Nairobi”. Some opined that the dig and big holes risked bringing misfortune to the village!
Even before the dam was done, the skies opened up. It rained for days. The two dams filled up. Months later, when it was quite dry again, the dams – even though we stopped work and they are nowhere near the scale I want them to be -were easily the largest holding of water in the sub-county.
The area is malaria-prone, and to avoid making things worse, chemicals are thrown in the dams to prevent mosquitoes breeding. We also built a thorn fence around so that children, and the villagers’ goats and cows, could not fall in and drown.
One morning my Nairobi phone rang. There was an agitated relative on the other side. There was a “crisis” with the dam, he told me. Villagers were breaking through the fence and drawing the potentially poisonous water, which they would then boil and use to mix a popular millet beer in Uganda called “ajono”.
Whatever additional security measures were thrown around the dams, they would be breached at night, he told me.
When we got off the phone, I jumped and yelled in delight. It was a problem alright, but that was a wonderful one to have. I imagined the villagers would no longer think I was crazy. And it was clear to them that the dams wouldn’t bring an ill wind to the community.
The last I heard, some villagers had started digging their own little dams. I used to fear that the societies in my and the neighbouring communities could collapse in my lifetime, largely because of a water crisis. Now I am no longer so afraid.
Months later, the work on the dam cannot continue because there is still a lot of water in them. Even I didn’t think they would work so well, for so long.
I thought to myself, most of the millions of dollars spent in Uganda and, indeed, the rest of Africa spent on water and food security, was probably wasted.
All it needs is to dig just one hole in the ground.