WATER is to the 21st Century what oil was to the 20th Century: the commodity that determines the wealth and stability of nations.
When President Robert Mugabe first became President of Zimbabwe, he launched an ambitious development programme of the nation’s water supply and sanitation infrastructure. By 2000, the levels of service coverage were among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa.
The country was seen, within Africa and internationally, as a leader in innovation, policy reform, and service provision in the water sector; however, a decade ago, Western economic sanctions derailed this progress. Zimbabwe is now in need of a comprehensive water management revival strategy.
Nature has decreed that the supply of water is fixed; all the while, demand is rising as the nation’s population increases and enriches itself. By 2030, climate change, population growth, pollution and urbanisation will compound such that the demand for water in Zimbabwe is estimated to outstrip supply by 40%.
The importance of water management policies in Zimbabwe can be highlighted by briefly looking at the history of water.
Although over two-thirds of our planet is water, we face an acute shortage. This scarcity flies in the face of our natural assumptions. The problem is that 97% is salt water. Great for fish, not so good for humans. Of the world’s fresh water, only 1% is available for drinking, with the remaining 2% trapped in glaciers and ice.
Put differently: if all the water on earth was represented by an 11-litre jug, the freshwater would fill a single cup, and we can only access the last drop. Increasingly, for water to be useful, it needs to be mined, processed, packaged and transported, just like gold, coal, gas or oil. Unlike oil, there are no substitutes, alternatives or stopgaps for water.
There have been three waves of resource-driven imperialism in the modern era. A quest for gold fuelled the first wave.
Old-fashioned colonialists, regal and unembarrassed, rode in on horseback, brutally took control of American territories, sent in ostrich-plumed governors, minted coins with the Queen’s head on them, and gazed proudly over natives toiling away in perilous mine-shafts.
An unprecedented kidnapping of millions of Africans ensued, so as to replace the indigenous Americans that had initially been exterminated by their European conquerors. This coincided with white pioneers brutally conquering Southern Africa, also in search of gold.
The second wave of imperialism was driven by an unquenchable, post-industrial thirst for oil. Modern petro-imperialism, the key aspect of which is the US military’s transformation into a global oil-protection armed force, puts up a democratic facade, emphasises freedom of the seas (or pipeline routes), and seeks to secure, protect, drill and ship oil, not to administer everyday affairs.
Nevertheless, the means by which the US is centering its foreign policy around oil is hardly new in spirit, albeit unprecedented in scope.
The third wave of imperialist wars is currently being fought over nature’s most valuable commodity: water.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, CIA analysts reported on a prediction of a new theatre of war: hydrological warfare, “in which rivers, lakes and aquifers become national security assets to be fought over, or controlled”.
These predictions were realised in quick succession, beginning with the recent wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria. It is now clear that the age of hydro-imperialism is upon us.
On April 17 2003, in Iraq, the American company Bechtel received a no-bid reconstruction contract from the US Agency for International Development (USaid) for US$100 billion; thus, making it the largest Iraq reconstruction contract.
Therefore, the most lucrative Iraq reconstruction contract was not used to repair oil infrastructure, build schools and hospitals, or to repair bombarded infrastructure: it was used to source, process, and distribute water.
Since the turn of the century, Iraq was the first casualty of hydro-imperialism, and Muammar Gaddafi’s assassination marked the second. Libya sits atop a natural resource more valuable than oil: the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, which is a vast underground reserve of fresh water, estimated to be the largest in the world. Gaddafi had invested US$25 billion into the aquifer, which had the potential to turn a country that is 95% desert into an arable oasis.
As it now stands, France’s global mega-water companies: Suez, Ondeo and Saur, control almost half of the world’s US$400 billion water market. They are poised to rake in billions of dollars from Libya’s eighth wonder of the world.
The most recent case of hydro-imperialism is the war in Syria. Israel has been leading a Western campaign to support Syrian rebels; in part, because its leaders assert that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, poses an existential threat to Israel on the issue of water. Assad has vowed to reclaim the Golan Heights — a strip of land Israel captured from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967. The Golan Heights provides a staggering 40% of Israel’s fresh water.
“Syrian control of half of our water poses more of a threat than Iran with one bomb,” once remarked ex-Israeli intelligence head, Meir Dagan.
In Zimbabwe, water management is less about the avoidance of war and more about the maintenance of peace. Consequently, Zimbabwe must employ a comprehensive “Urban-Rural-Industrial (Uri) Water Strategy”.
The urban component of this strategy would be designed to benefit Zimbabweans on a local level. During the period of 1980 to 2000, Zimbabwe registered one of the highest rates of growth in the developing world for water supply and sanitation services. With 100% coverage for urban areas by 2000, Mugabe was a world leader in provision of urban water supply services.
This progress has been derailed, and in 2008, there were 100 000 cases of cholera, resulting from poor drinking water supplies. As taps ran dry, tempers reached their boiling points. Unrest festered as people registered a protest vote against the government, illustrating the dangers posed by poor water access to a nation’s security.
The Lake Chivero basin provides Harare with most of its water, but it is struggling to keep up with demand. Government must now fulfill its promise to complete the Gwayi-Shangani, Kunzvi and Munyati dams. Authorities must also increase funding for the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, so that it can solve sewage leakages and pollution in urban water sources.
The rural component of the proposed Uri Water Strategy aims to benefit Zimbabwe on a national level. During the first two decades of the Mugabe administration, 77% of the rural population had access to improved water supplies, compared with an average of 41% for sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, according to the World Bank only 5% of Zimbabweans had access to improved sanitation under Ian Smith’s Rhodesian regime, compared to 97% under Mugabe.
Today, agriculture employs 60% of Zimbabwe’s labour force, and water is the key agricultural input. By focusing on the establishment of new irrigation infrastructure, government can create thousands of jobs in line with ZimAsset, its five-year economic blueprint. The industrial component of the Uri Water Strategy would increase Zimbabwe’s international power.
Consistent water is a key input for industry and an immutable precondition for industrialisation. Unless Zimbabwe industrialises its economy, it will remain susceptible to financial warfare from hostile Western nations.
Water resource management is an issue not only of personal survival; it is also of national security.
In Zimbabwe, water is used to extract energy and mineral resources from the earth, refine chemicals, roll steel, mill paper, and produce uncounted other goods, including food and beverages that line the nation’s supermarket shelves.
Government must look East to attract private investment needed to rehabilitate existing water infrastructure, dams, water transport facilities and water treatment plants.
Harvard Kennedy School predicts that during this decade, Zimbabwe will be one of the fastest-growing economies globally. Proper water resource management will unquestionably turn Zimbabwe into the jewel of Africa.
Chengu is a scholar at Harvard University.