Social anthropologist Tobias Haller.

Tradition key to better water use

Keys to securing Africa’s future need for water and food are hidden in its past. Local traditions provide sustainable systems for water use, researchers say at a NAI workshop.

Most droughts in Africa are local, explains Terje Oestigaard, researcher at NAI and organizer of the recent workshop “Water and Food – Africa in a Global Context”.

“There may be drought in one village and plenty of rain in a village 20 kilometers away. In rural lives, sharing is fundamental. A community may lend food to kins and neighbours in the next village in times of plenty, to be reclaimed in times of drought. Thus they invest in their own food security”, Oestigaard says and continues:

“This system is the result of long traditions and is still around today. Why? Because it works”.

Sustainability not the goal
The original aim of local communities was not long-term sustainability but survival, social anthropologist Tobias Haller showed in his work from Zambia and Cameroon. The result, however, proved to be sustainable.

Haller is questioning the repeated calls for private ownership and market orientation by African governments:

“Collective ownership and open access is seen as hindrance for development and “efficiency”. However, these institutions have been there for a long time and they have important functions”, he says.

Great reserve under ground
Across Africa more than 300 million people are said not to have access to safe drinking water. A number which may increase as a result of climate change.

There is one water source, however, which is unaffected by variations in the climate: ground water reserves.

Geologist Fridtjov Ruden points at the huge potential hidden under ground. For example it is estimated that water equalling 5 percent of the world’s total volume of fresh water is located under the Sahara desert.

The question is whether this source will be made available for those who need it most.

“Deep and safe drilling is costly. The techniques used by gas and oil companies are generally considered too expensive when it comes to water”, says Ruden.

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