[Column] Bob Koigi: The economics of water in a thirsty 21st century world
This week marks the World Water week, an important journey as the world debate, compare notes and develop solutions to some of the most biting water related challenges of our time. The week comes even as age-old crises like access to clean water still remain the elephant in the room.
Consider for example millions of African women and children especially in rural areas who travel on average a distance of 3 kilometres in search of water, researchers say. And as we move on, this distance to a water source is becoming longer and the amount of water available is dwindling at unprecedented rates.
Infact a study commissioned in the beginning of this year by Water Consortium for East Africa, a water related think tank, revealed startling findings. Up to 60 per cent of water sources, springs, wells, rivers, have all dried up or have been over exploited. The scramble for water has hit fever pitch.
Even more worrying is the fact that the dip in supply comes at a time when demand is at unprecedented levels. A burgeoning population and the concomitant effect on food demand coupled with the vagaries of weather which have suppressed rainfall have put the country at the edge of a food security precipice.
Water is the lifeline of food production. Agriculture is the greatest consumer of water in Kenya thus facing inadequate water for sustainable food production.
Water is the breath that illuminates the life of young crops sprouting them into lush produce and ultimately yields. Yet that apex of food production is now more than ever the concern of everyone; from farmers to policy makers.
Over 80 percent of the land in most African countries like Kenya is classified as Arid and Semi-Arid Land (ASAL). This means it receives minimal or no rainfall at all. About 10 million people or 30 percent of Kenya’s population live in the ASALs and over half of these live below the poverty line.
Their source of livelihood is agriculture even though it has become a predictable vicious cycle of planting, waiting for rain, staring at barren land and eventually crying for food aid and relief.
With water needs not just limited to drinking, cooking and agriculture, there are also the huge energy needs and these competing needs could further put a strain on the water availability. Experts say what is needed is prudent use and exploitation of the water.
The key word they argue is sustainability. “Think about it in the same way the traditional water sources like boreholes have been over exploited. People failed to manage them well. And while they were supposed to serve them for even ten years, some never lived to see their fifth year. It is the irresponsible use of water sources. We have to be cognizant of the fact that water is no longer as abundant as it used to be in say two decades ago. It is now a limited resources. We have to utilize it prudently if it is to serve us for a longer time,” an engineer scouting for water in one of Kenya’s aquifers recently said.
One of the most sustainable ways to manage our water in agriculture is through irrigation. Numerous studies have showed impressive returns on investment for farmers who adopted irrigation both in yields and in water management. It is the same logic informing government’s obsession with irrigation.
At a time when climate change is set to hit us more than anyone else, we have to be fore armed with sustainable food production mechanisms if we are to shield our people from hunger.
Think about drip irrigation for example. Modern technologies like drip pipes that releases a drop of water for each crop ensuring each drop nourishes each crop to its maximum have gone along way in stemming water loss from the traditional bucket watering which is said to have caused up to 80 percent of losses.
Multiple award winning Kenyan journalist Bob Koigi is the Chief Editor of East Africa at Africa Business Communities