Two decades into the 21st century, it is difficult to accept that on a planet where so many people suffer the health and other consequences of too much of everything, millions of Africans still struggle to access two of the most basic human needs: sufficient food and clean water.
The figures are stark. As Raphael Obonyo writes in this issue, Africa is facing unprecedented food insecurity, with more than 134 million people in 29 out of 54 countries facing acute shortages, according to the US Department of State Humanitarian Information Unit.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that about 257 million Africans are undernourished, making Africa the region with the highest prevalence of hunger globally. The statistics relating to access to clean water are also shameful; the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that nearly 40% of the African population lacks basic access to safe drinking water, leading to waterborne diseases and preventable deaths.
As this issue of Africa in Fact clearly illustrates, addressing food and water security in Africa is not only a moral imperative but also an urgent priority for policymakers.
The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is one instrument that governments could harness to improve both food and water security. Adio-Adet Dinika’s article explores how this would work, pointing out that AfCFTA offers immense potential to reduce Africa’s dependence on volatile global markets and costly agricultural imports. Given that Africa spends more than $35 billion annually importing staple cereals, oils, and other basic foods to meet demand, AfCFTA promises to be an important tool in developing more resilient, self-sufficient, and diversified food production and water systems.
At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the nexus between food and water insecurity and the effects of climate change, which are already damaging African livelihoods, especially for the poorest. Irregular rainfall patterns, prolonged droughts, and extreme weather events have become increasingly common, disrupting agricultural practices and water sources. But climate change is just one phenomenon that threatens the food security of millions of people who populate Africa’s coastlines.
As researcher Monique Bennett writes, “Africa’s fishing sector, which in 2011 contributed an estimated $24 billion annually to the region’s economy, faces serious long-term threats, not only from climate change but overfishing and poor management of the aquaculture system as well. Across sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 100 million citizens depend on fisheries as a primary or alternative livelihood activity, and rising populations and per capita income growth are expected to increase the demand for fish by 30% across the continent.”
Land degradation, often due to unsustainable farming practices and deforestation, is also a pervasive problem on the continent, leading to reduced agricultural productivity and water quality. Contributors Blame Ekoue and Mamah Djiman Hairith both write about innovative government programmes in West Africa (Benin and Togo) to improve crop yields for smallholder farmers and provide rural communities with potable water. Scaled up, these programmes will improve the lives of millions.
Speaking of millions, Good Governance Africa’s data journalist Mischka Moosa’s article takes a hard look at the statistics, according to this year’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report (SOFI). “Underlying Africa’s sluggish progress towards food security has been a combination of market disruptions and increased political volatility, especially in the Sahel and East African regions,” she notes. “The lingering economic effects of the pandemic and ongoing global market inflations, alongside Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has resulted in many countries placing restrictions on food exports to secure domestic supply. But this has still meant ongoing reduced access to key commodities for many countries on the continent.” In her article, the low cost of what constitutes the most “energy-sufficient” daily diet (globally $0.83 cents per day) that nevertheless remains beyond the means of millions of Africans makes for sober reading.
In her article, Anna Trapido points out that spatial models predicting the impact of climate change on agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa up until 2070 indicate that in regions where major staples of maize, rice, cassava, and yams are presently grown, 10% of these will alter so radically that none of these crops will be able to survive.
Of these, only yams are indigenous to Africa, which was not always the case. Making the case for the reintroduction and commercialisation of long-neglected indigenous food crops, Trapido says that historically, African agriculture had a wide range of indigenous and/or traditional cereals, leafy greens, pulses, roots, tubers, fruits, seeds and nuts that were once the basis for many and varied nutritious foods.
Regular contributor Michael Schmidt, meanwhile, partly drawing on his own on-the-ground experiences in Darfur, looks at how reforesting initiatives and the presence of under-exploited water resources are contributing to the regreening of swathes of the Sahel. “Great progress has been made towards re-greening the semi-arid 3.05 million km² Sahel belt to the south of the Sahara,” he writes. And beneath otherwise parched Darfur itself, he says, lies a huge, almost untapped, freshwater resource that underwrites the reliability of its remaining wells. This is the “world’s biggest groundwater aquifer, with a total volume estimated at 150,000km³, covering two-thirds of Egypt, a third each of Sudan and Libya, and a substantial part of Chad”.
Collectively, the articles in this issue of Africa in Fact make the case that addressing Africa’s food and water security requires a multifaceted approach that combines immediate relief with long-term resilience-building strategies. These include sustainable farming practices such as crop diversification, agroforestry, and efficient water use. The continent also desperately needs investment in water infrastructure, including dams, reservoirs, and irrigation systems, which can help store and distribute water more effectively, mitigating the effects of droughts. Education and capacity building that empower local communities with knowledge about water management, nutrition, and sustainable farming practices are also important in building resilience. Addressing poverty and income inequality is essential for ensuring that vulnerable populations can access food and clean water.
Finally, efforts to resolve conflicts and promote peace are vital in regions such as the Sahel, which are plagued by violence, because peaceful environments are more conducive to food production and water access.
It is with these challenges top of mind that Africa’s policymakers must recognise that without bold choices and investment in sustainable food and water security, economic development and social stability will remain elusive.
Susan Russell – Editor
Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.