Between a rock and a hard place

The Sahel: Africa’s Great Green Wall

The African Union’s ambitious plans to revitalise the Sahel region face daunting challenges, including financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic

Acacia trees planted in Senegal’s Louga region, as part of the Great Green Wall Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP

It is a project that doesn’t lack ambition. The African Union’s Great Green Wall Initiative (GGWI) aims to create a new living world wonder, an 8,000 km tree line across the 21 countries in the Sahel region of Africa. A project this size needs the funding to match and so far, more than $8 billion has been pledged. But conflicts, capacity, direction and ensuring capital remain huge challenges standing in the way of the GGWI. This has led the initiative to refocus away from merely planting trees to developing climate-resilient communities that will be protected from droughts, famine, conflict and migration, restoring degraded land to provide food, jobs and other products that people can use to make a living.

“Planting trees just to restore the land is not the right methodology and this is why we’re looking at income generation as a key aspect,” said Camilla Nordheim-Larsen, programme coordinator at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). “The communities need to have a reason to take care of these trees, whether it’s to use or sell products coming from  the trees or an agro-forestry project, or being able to sell carbon credits, for example,” she says, explaining the GGWI’s new direction.

The project’s aims, however, are vast in terms of land restoration, carbon offsetting, beneficiaries, and the number of trees planted by the end of this decade, with progress on many targets stalled and hovering around the 15 to 18% mark. Completion within the decade is ambitious, but Nordheim-Larsen remains confident the initiative can achieve its  goals  on time, which under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is 2030.

Nordheim-Larsen’s optimism is based on her belief that a significant increase in investment, from a variety of different sources, both public and private, could make a drastic difference to the funding gap and help to upscale projects. However, Elvis Tangem, coordinator for the GGWI at the African Union Commission, is less optimistic about that date, which he sees as a UN rather than African Union (AU) target.

“Most of the programmes of the UN are based on the SDGs [for 2030], but for the African Union we have Agenda 2063,” Tangem says. “As far as achieving it by 2030, it’s very, very unlikely. We did an extrapolation and we looked at the possibility of attaining that objective by 2030, but we had to be restoring almost 2.5 million hectares of land a year, which is not possible… with the financial and resources situation [as it is] we cannot say it can be achieved in the next 10 years. When you look at Agenda 2063 it’s more realistic, as we’re talking about restoring less than one million hectares of land a year.”

The GGWI is led by the AU, with the World Bank, UN, European Union and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) as its main funders. Another revenue stream UNCCD is trying to tap is private funders and it supports projects that make the GGWI self-funding by producing products that can be sold on international markets such as oil from the moringa tree, baobab and superfoods type of products, and shea butter. Tangem claims there are as many as 27 products and commodities that could be sold on international markets in the GGWI to benefit communities, in addition to eco-tourism.

Although exploitation of such commodities and eco-tourism, along with addressing climate change, are all issues that may seem to be more of a focus of the western or developed world rather than the countries of the Sahel, Nordheim-Larsen is keen to emphasise the initiative is not being donor-led but was started in the region; the project ultimately builds on the vision of late Burkina Faso President Tomas Sankara.

A 3D movie about the Great Green Wall at the Chad stand at the COP21 UN conference on climate change in Paris, 2015 Photo: Eric Feferberg / AFP

“It started with African leaders and was adopted by African leaders in 2007 [after the idea was conceived in 2005] with no push from donors. We’ve come much later to try and support the initiative,” she says. Now, though, the main concern facing the GGWI is funding and searching for different revenue streams, the most significant of which would be carbon offsetting. “The potential carbon sequestration that this project could generate would have global benefits,” adds Nordheim-Larsen.

“There’s been interest from many companies in terms of offsetting projects in the region. At the moment there’s not a lot, but there’s some with the potential to be upscaled, both agroforestry and in the renewable energy sector.” Those companies include carbon polluting giants such as BP and Shell, who are believed to be very interested in offsetting through the GGWI, which could offset up to 500 gigatonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, says Tangem. But private financial interest is not limited to the globe’s big polluters.

“During UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ climate change summit in September [2019], we had serious engagement with companies like Timberland, who were ready to invest a good chunk of their corporate social responsibility funds in the Great Green Wall,” he adds. The recent coronavirus pandemic, though, has already begun to have an impact on this funding of the GGWI, as Tangem explains: “We successfully raised €1 million for the locust issue in the Horn of Africa, but because of Covid that money was diverted into supporting these countries to buy facemasks and sanitisers.”

This has not been a one-off issue as following last September’s UN Climate Summit in New York, the Great Green Wall has made engagements with both the public and private sector in the pursuit of additional funding that Tangem claims were successful. “We had many other pledges from private-sector partners, big and small, but many of them have withdrawn because they need to take care of their workers and help their investors during this Covid time when everything is shut down. But we are very confident that between 12 and 15 months down the line we will come back and have the support because these engagements are there,” he says.

Besides the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the GGWI has faced several other problems, as can be expected with a project of this size, the most serious of which is security. Extremists, traffickers and terrorist organisations are all operating in various countries of the Sahel where the GGWI has been working, forcing them to retreat. “Burkina Faso, for instance, was one of our best and most successful practices, but we had to abandon about 60% [of our work] because of the security issues. We abandoned most of the areas that were being intervened in Mali, such as Timbuktu.

These are key areas but we had to abandon [them] because of security issues. In Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad as well,” says Tangem. These are all issues that simply weren’t there, certainly on this scale, in 2005 when the programme started. In addition, Somalia forms a large part  of the initiative’s strategy, but the GGWI is unable to operate there because of extremist organisation Al-Shabaab. Not only are these groups having a disastrous impact on the ground on the GGWI’s ability to carry out its programmes, but they have also discouraged funders, says Tangem, although he also points out that countries that are more secure have demonstrated more long-lasting results.

Ethiopia, for instance, has managed to restore 15 million hectares of degraded land. One other challenge facing the GGWI is a need to upscale domestic investment and unlock further finances from the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDFC), as it cannot rely solely on development aid, something about which both Tangem and Nordheim-Larsen agree. But, as Tangem points out, he accepts there is a domestic shortfall in funding, while many of the fund’s beneficiary countries are dealing with more pressing short-term issues than land restoration. The security issues detailed are the most pressing of these, though as Covid-19 continues to eat into the budgets of GGWI’s biggest funders, such as the World Bank and EU, it may well, at least in the short-term, fall to second behind financing.

Workers water the Widu tree nursery in Senegal’s Louga region, 2011 Photo: Seyllou Diallo / AFP


Joe Walsh is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. He primarily writes about the environment, energy and the green economy, as well as politics and society for British publications including Environmental Finance, the New Statesman and The New European.


Threatened to extinction

Cameroon: culture clash

Urbanisation and acculturation in Cameroon are eroding traditional conservation practices that helped maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem

Aerial view of the Mount Cameroon National Park in the south west region of Cameroon, 2019. The forest at the foot of the mountain plays host to African elephants traditionally conserved by the Bakweri people but are now under threat Photo: Muleng Timngum

Armand Boui has a problem. The 57-year-old native of Mongonam in the Kadey Division of Cameroon – part of the species-rich Congo Basin – is jobless. He wasn’t always unemployed, and he is not at peace with himself. Boui is an herbalist and intercessor between the community’s people and their ancestors. But about 10 years ago, he watched helplessly as wildlife poaching and a gold rush led to the desecration of a sacred forest – the source of his spiritual powers. “The forest was invaded by strangers, and even our own [people]. The traditional authorities of the village couldn’t help.

Subsequently, my potions and incarnations gradually became ineffective,” Boui said. People stopped patronising him and, suddenly, he was left without his social role – or a job. “The spirits were no longer finding favour in me. I guess they moved away due to the invasion. It is an unfortunate situation,” Boui told Africa in Fact. He sometimes wonders what his late father would think. His father, from whom he inherited the therapeutic and sacral role, had asked him to hand over the “special gift” to the next generation.

In Cameroon, many natural  sites and biodiversity hotspots play host to totems, especially in the form of animals, which are revered for their traditional sacredness. The totem animals, such as elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees, were formerly protected by traditional belief systems, but are now endangered species. In recent times a cocktail of factors, including acculturation and rapid urbanisation, has disrupted traditional conservation practices that helped maintain the equilibrium of the ecosystem.

Boui’s predicament is not unique. Studies carried out  in  different  parts  of Cameroon show that fast-eroding cultural norms and taboos are playing negatively against wildlife conservation. Fewer than 10 Bakweri (people of the Sawa ethnic group who speak the Mokpwe language) villages out of about 100 located near the Mount Cameroon National Park still have functional secret societies, according to a 2004 report by researcher Lyombe Eko. In general, the aim of traditional secret societies is to safeguard their communities from evil.

The secret societies he identified as still active in these villages were the Maale, whose totem is the African elephant, and the Nganya, with the warthog as their totem. Members of both groups claimed that their respective totem animals were present in the forest; they were protected and could not be killed for merely economic reasons. These traditional belief systems played an important role in wildlife conservation in the past, according to Chief Dr Ndome Samuel, traditional ruler of Kake II Bokoko in the South West region of Cameroon, in a pronouncement.

But European missionaries – including Baptists, Catholics and Presbyterians – dissuaded the locals from the practices, promising hell for adherents who didn’t repent. Many abandoned the culture. Religion and colonisation – related factors of acculturation – have had a devastating impact on traditional ecological governance systems, says Nnah Ndobe Samuel, a Yaounde-based socio- economist. He argues that irreversible damage to Cameroon’s rich and abundant ecosystems, related biodiversity, cultures and traditions could occur if their influence is not checked.

Skinned porcupines at a local game market in Bertoua, 2016. Photo: Amindeh Blaise Atabong

“Approaches by corporate conservation organisations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, Wildlife Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London, the African Wildlife Foundation, etc,  are too scientific and colonial. They do not take into consideration the specificities of local people,” Ndobe told Africa in Fact. He noted that most of their approach often results in a hunting market, to the advantage of hunters from the West.

Colonialism turned many things upside down, according to Ndobe. Its influence touched everything. French colonialists in Cameroon, for example, forced traditional rulers to wear uniforms, abandoning their rainforest design attire and amulets. Urbanisation has also taken its toll on traditional best practices related to conservation. Cameroon has an urbanisation rate of 56% per cent, according to United Nations (UN) data; making it one of the most urbanised countries on the continent by sub- Saharan standards.

In absolute terms, more than half of the country’s 25 million people now live in urban areas, with the UN forecasting 70% by 2050. This rising rate of urbanisation involves significant challenges for humans. But the future for animals is bleak. As pressure increases on land for construction, agriculture and other economics activities, their natural habitats are destroyed. Also, over the years, state legislation intended to protect and manage wildlife has often failed to recognise and provide for local communities.

These influences are difficult to counter, says Ndobe, who does much of his work in the Kupe Muanenguba area. As an example, he cites the efforts of the Baka pygmies in the east of Cameroon to resist acculturation through voluntary isolation. “The modern conservation system doesn’t consider them. [The] pygmies are chased out of their natural habitats when government creates reserves or grants logging concessions,” Ndobe says. About 20 years ago, the government started  granting  logging concessions to mostly Chinese and European companies.

Many of Cameroon’s 75,000 hunter-gatherer pygmies were forced to leave the forests and found themselves living sedentary lifestyles by roadsides. The Baka pygmies in particular have protested against their eviction from ancestral forests, where they traditionally harvested wild fruits and hunted game for subsistence. Their survival, and the destruction of their culture, are at stake. In 2017, Survival International, a group campaigning for the rights of indigenous people, accused the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) of violating international guidelines in Cameroon by backing the creation of three national parks on Baka land without their consent.

The group said that the WWF had funded eco-guards who allegedly tortured and killed Baka pygmies with impunity in anti-poaching operations. The WWF, which has its headquarters in Switzerland, has denied the accusations, but the Swiss government has said it will look into the issue. Experts highlight other factors that hamper the survival of traditional conservation systems. These include paradigm shifts in lifestyles and attitudes, poor transmission of cultural knowledge to younger generations, the decline of traditional institutions and the rise of individualism, among others.

Dead pythons on display at a local game market in Bertoua, 2016. The snakes are harvested from protected areas across the forest east region of Cameroon, part of the species-rich Congo Basin Photo: Amindeh Blaise Atabong

Yet experts and civil society activists agree that integrating cultural norms and taboo – which are rooted in traditional belief systems – into forestry and wildlife laws and conservation programmes could help to galvanise locals into conserving natural resources, thereby contributing to resourceful nation building. With regard to conservation, traditional belief systems ought to be incorporated into law enforcement mechanisms, they say.

“If this is done, it will encourage the spirit of stakeholders (local people), recognise and promote a sense of ownership and belonging,” says Dr Nkwatoh A Fuashi, Senior Environment and Natural   Management Adviser for the Environment and Community Development Association (ECoDAs) and a lecturer in the Department of Environmental Science, University of Buea, an advocate of incorporating traditional belief systems in conservation laws in Africa. “This has been neglected by the international conventions that are the genesis of our present national laws on the conservation of resources.”

This may be particularly true of the Congo Basin, where some traditional practices do survive. In Nigeria’s Gashaka-Gunti National Park, primates are “naturally protected”, Fuashi says, because members of the local community view them as part of the human species, so that killing them would be similar to killing a human. Practices such as this should be incorporated into conservation mechanisms, he argues.

Though efforts have previously been made to get local communities involved in conservation programmes, they have largely been informed by economic motives, frequently under outsider direction. Moreover, Asian demand for certain species, such as pangolins and rhinoceros, facilitated by widespread corruption, has fuelled poaching. Communities take steps to prevent such species extinctions when they attach cultural significance to them, according to Dr Marius Talla, an expert in governance and anti-corruption at consultancy firm Cabinet Mamy Raboana.

“If [wildlife extinction] happened, their customs, and therefore their lives, would be over. We saw it with the pygmies of east Cameroon,” Talla says. Talla believes there will be better conservation results if traditional conservation best practices are made law and there is effective reduction of corruption in the chain of suppression of wildlife offences. “All other measures will only be complementary,” he says.

In 2015, custodians of traditions from six African countries, including Cameroon, jointly petitioned the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to give legal recognition to  sacred natural sites and territories and their associated customary governance systems. In their joint statement, they asked the Commission to encourage member countries to observe the ideals of  its  charter  –  “giving   precedence  to indigenous African culture and customary governance systems over the colonial systems that dominated the continent for so long.”

In practice, however, these processes must be negotiated at regional and country levels, and  can  therefore  take a long time, says Ndobe. Hope, and continued advocacy of the approach, are essential.


Amindeh Blaise Atabong is a Cameroonian print and multimedia journalist. His interests include gender, human rights, climate change, environment, tech, conflict, peace-building and global development. In 2019, he was a finalist in the inaugural True Story Award, and also won a prestigious Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism (local category). He works for independent regional and international outlets, including for Quartz, Thompson Reuters Foundation News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Jeune Afrique, Epoch Times, African Arguments and Equal Times.

Diverse situations requiring unique solutions

African conservation: a wake-up call

Fixed and polarised attitudes to African conservation remain a major impediment to robust, solution-seeking debate

Park rangers in Zimbabwe
Photo: Richard Maasdorp

A lifetime of wild experiences in the Zambezi Valley and a decade at the helm of The Zambezi Society – which practises a no-nonsense, hands on, practical approach to protecting this magnificent wilderness area – has given me many opportunities to reflect on the realities of conservation in Africa.

We are in danger of becoming bogged down in conventional and conservative thought. The current COVID-19 crisis brings this into sharp focus. Our worlds may have shrunk temporarily, and our activities, too, but we must not lose sight of the broader vision that gave birth to our commitment in the first place. I think it’s time we opened our eyes to reality. We need to stop thinking about Africa’s conservation problems in generic terms. Many opinion leaders, international conservation organisations and media tend to see Africa’s conservation challenges as generic.

This leads them to suggest  “one-size-fits-all” solutions that lack relevant local context. The results may produce inappropriate interventions, ill- advised lobbying and funding channelled into initiatives that, while they might work in one place, may be totally ineffective, even destructive, in others. From a platform of research, professionalism and transparency, Africa needs to continue to challenge the idea that international organisations or donors have solutions to the continent’s conservation problems that are in some way superior to our own.

That these internationals have political clout and financial resources does not mean they can solve our problems. Take elephants, for example: some African countries have either lost or are losing their elephant populations at an alarming rate. Others have stable populations. But the individual circumstances that led to the latter are not discussed. Botswana and Zimbabwe together are custodians of more than half the population of African elephant.

In East Africa, over decades, elephant populations declined dramatically due to illegal activity, habitat loss and human encroachment. The conservation voices of these countries demonised traditional elephant management techniques such as hunting (even in marginalised habitats), or wildlife population control and preached that photographic tourism, conservation outfits and government could provide all the solutions. Their generic message has become “gospel” for elephant conservation models across the world.

But in southern African countries – notably Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia – hunting and wildlife population control measures have, for decades, been incorporated into a range of conservation policies aimed at discouraging illegal activity, human encroachment and habitat loss. The elephant populations of these countries remain relatively healthy – a story not often told. Yet, international pressure for southern Africa to adopt the all- purpose “East African” conservation model is great.

Even within a country, the contexts are varied. In Zimbabwe, for instance, there are four distinct elephant sub-populations – each with a different problem requiring a customised management solution. With such varying situations, a buffet of management solutions is required. Each of these four separate areas in Zimbabwe now has their own customised Elephant Management Plan devised by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) and a group of stakeholders and is subject to regular review and update.

When I first entered the conservation arena in Zimbabwe, I was shocked by the bloodletting between the players, driven by egos and the perception that funding is a scarce resource. Even in my former life in the construction industry, we had a collaborative umbrella organisation to take care of the industry as a whole. This allowed for robust debate, and gave us a platform from which to  lobby for enlightened policies on which we could stand together against unfair or inappropriate practices emanating from new international players.

But Zimbabwe’s conservation “industry” has no such platform at a national level. A newly-developing collaborative effort in the Lower Zambezi Valley area is making some progress. But the future of the wildlife spaces that conservation bodies purport to protect is most often at the mercy of the loudest, most influential, monied or most connected voices. These are not necessarily the most constructive or sensible. My participation at the African Conservation Lab in 2017 in South Africa did little to reassure me that this problem is confined to my own country.

Fragmentation and rivalry in the conservation arena appears to be a common problem across other elephant range states. National conservation vision and strategy is not crafted by a collective of informed and pragmatic stakeholders (Zimbabwe’s Elephant Management Plans are laudable exceptions – with the Lower Zambezi Valley’s collaborative and dynamic one often now acknowledged as a game changer that works).

Individual activities that support wildlife spaces and are having a positive impact most often lack synergies and are missing out on optimisation possibilities. The embryonic Lower Zambezi Valley collaboration model is an exception (although even this has its mavericks), and has demonstrated that significant results can be achieved with effective collaboration. Donor organisations, with a few exceptions, also do not often collaborate with each other. Funds are committed to fragmented initiatives. Donors, often driven by their own priorities or their reading of country politics, tend to withhold funding or are skewed towards activities that may be inappropriate.

Elephants cannot vote. Local conservation organisations are often “muscled out” by international and regional entities or tourism operations that have the money and connections. In this way, a country becomes vulnerable to economic “recolonisation”. However, a collaborative approach that seeks genuine engagement with local stakeholders can harness latent potential that exists amongst a country’s citizens and its own biodiversity resources.

Similarly, without engaging local stakeholders to provide carefully channelled funding mechanisms, opportunities to build strong, long-term, impactful partnerships with the local regulatory authorities and other sectors (e.g. tourism, agriculture/tobacco-growing, hunting, communities, schools, etc) and to improve their effectiveness, are missed. Local conservation organisations are forced to march to the tune of international regulatory outfits such as CITES and larger international funders such as USFWS and GEF. These entities often have their own internationally-based lead managers who would do better if they collaborated with local stakeholders.

There are several “community myths” that are problematic, too. The first is that “Unless the buffer zone community is persuaded into conservation by reaping the benefits of it, we will lose the battle to protect these areas”. But we do not say… “Unless the neighbours to this bank/service station/commercial farm receive direct benefits from this business, it will fail”. Another myth is that tourism can help communities surrounding protected areas. The reality is that the margins in tourism are not great enough to save a community from poverty. It is also claimed that job creation in the buffer zones around wildlife spaces will alleviate the poaching problem.

In fact, young people in the main want jobs in the cities, not handouts or meagre pickings on offer in a marginal area. The reality is that we need an alternative means of tackling the “communities versus wildlife” issue; piecemeal inducements for conservation or handouts from a fickle tourism industry aren’t enough. Rural farmers will always see wild animals as a threat to their crops. Tourism revenue is unreliable and can cease altogether as a result of political unrest, natural disaster or pandemic. Meaningful jobs for rural people can be created. An example is the My Trees Project in the Zambezi Valley, which seeks to become a major employer of women in buffer- zone areas to replant and become guardians of indigenous forests by harnessing green climate funds or carbon credits.

But, frankly, this won’t satisfy the young. What the conservation industry really needs to do is pressure governments to put the cities to rights so that they can create and provide the jobs the rural young need. Better still, this industry should contribute to fixing the cities themselves (a 10 to 20 year journey if professional, public-private sector boards/ commissions collaborate to run them, not party-political councillors, as they often are in Africa).

Conservation is still tainted by a “greenie” image. It needs to become an industry in its own right (and be recognised as such), albeit with some philanthropic support towards not-for-profit outcomes, and become a tangible contributor to the economy, the service sector, and the manufacturing sector. It needs to become known for its job creation at a national level, as is the case in Kenya. I have been in the unique position of “working” between the bush and the boardroom. I spend days out on deployment with rangers and  understand their intrinsic value beyond their technical roles.

My most powerful insight has been that the conservation quest has been led, over the generations, by qualified conservationists (often pockets of ego-driven passion) and bureaucrats (regulatory personnel). What is lacking is holistic visioning, trans-sector thinking and commercial aptitude. A top-down management approach is out of place in the modern world. A level-one park ranger has valuable opinion! We need to move towards an enlightened leadership, vision-and-execution approach, so we can forge the links between the global desire to protect wilderness, the rangers on the ground and the wildlife under their stewardship.

Governments need to ensure that they place the value of wild land and its wildlife on their balance sheets – a value on par with the national power utility may result. This is particularly true in Zimbabwe, where a commendable 13% of

the country is legislated as wildlife estate (and a similar percentage under private custodianship), and would reinforce the bid for it to be managed accordingly.

In an increasingly developed world, the value of wilderness areas as places for spiritual and physical healing (for those who can afford it) is underestimated. But to expect African governments to fully fund these global wilderness gems shows a poverty of thought and understanding. Africa’s governments may never be able to prioritise conservation above health, education or military expenditure. Hence, there will always be a funding gap, which if not met (transparently) will result in globally important wild spaces eroded rapidly and irrevocably.

It is also risky to rely on tourism income to save wild places. Not all wildernesses are suitable for tourism. Indeed, some 70% of the impressive 13% of land area set aside for wildlife in Zimbabwe is too rugged and hostile for traditional tourism. But it is still in need of custodianship.

Even wild places popular for tourism are vulnerable to a crisis situation – as the current coronavirus outbreak demonstrates. It may take more than a decade for these destinations to recover from the setback. What future do wild spaces dependent on tourism now face? The world has a responsibility to assist the conservation of these wild spaces, with funding support and the provision of  appropriate expertise, relying on local accountability and capacity.

We need to bring the best minds and hearts to the conservation debate. Those with disguised motives should excuse themselves. We need robust discussion resulting in yet unimagined outcomes. We need to listen. Fixed and polarised attitudes remain a major impediment to robust, solution-seeking debate. The elephant issue is not about elephants across Africa or an individual elephant or its family (an unhelpful animal welfare narrative )); it is about finding the most suitable ways to conserve discrete populations in their distinct wilderness landscapes.

There is a global responsibility to fund, resource and upskill each of these wilderness landscapes. I encourage Africa’s conservation visionaries to use the mind space created by COVID-19 to shift out of the rut of present “looking- forward” dogma, and imagine beyond a 10-year horizon with a “future-looking- back” approach. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to conservation problems in Africa. Individuals, NGOs, governments and donors all need to understand this, and to respect that diverse situations require their own unique solutions.


Richard Maasdorp has a deep love for the people, the wildlife and the wild places of Zimbabwe, his country of birth. A retired civil engineer, he has a Masters in Business Leadership and a wealth of experience as head of several major construction companies, and chair of Zimbabwe’s power generation board. A patient and passionate observer of nature, he now leads The Zambezi Society, helping to conserve the Zambezi River’s magnificent wildlife and wildernesses.

Going to waste

Solar power: the dark side

Traded as environmentally sound, solar power leaves waste that could engulf Africa in the same way as plastic

Street lights powered by solar power in Oti province, northern Togo, February 2020. The Togolese government and private sector is installing mini solar power plants in different localities to enable rural communities access to subsidised electricity Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP

Daniel Wesonga, a resident of Moi Farm village in western Kenya, is a happy man since purchasing a small solar lamp the size of a medium cup, which also has a high frequency radio. He is now sure of light and entertainment, two things that are about to change his otherwise boring and dark village nights. The 47-year-old father of six has depended on a paraffin lamp, which he says is expensive, considering that he has spent an average of Sh30 ($0.30) of his daily wage of Sh150 ($1.50) as a bicycle repairer on kerosene to ensure his children do their homework for at least three hours every night.

”I bought this on hire purchase, after paying a deposit of Sh600 ($6),” Wesonga told Africa in Fact. “I now have a balance of a similar amount to be paid over the next six months to wholly own the gadget. Farewell to kerosene and messy soot!” Almost every household in the tiny village on the bank of the River Nzoia has a solar gadget, thanks to aggressive marketing by solar firms that have focused especially on rural Africa, where the majority of homesteads are yet to be connected to the power grid. Asked what he will do with the small solar gadget if becomes faulty, Wesonga rubs his thin pale palms on his bushy face. ”I’ll just throw it away, what else can I do?”

Wesonga, just like tens of millions of other people in Africa who have heeded the sustainability agenda and embraced solar power, is clueless on how to handle solar waste. Their governments, which have generously provided incentives to solar firms to ensure high uptake, are not helping either. For instance, Kenya lifted all Value Added Tax (VAT) charges on imported solar products in 2014, and zero-rated import duty on solar imports to motivate households to adopt the cheaper and environmentally friendly energy.

Yet the country has no waste policy to curb mass dumping of photovoltaic panels, which have short lifespans, just like any other electronic gadget. Renewable energy expert Jacob Ng’eno, of African Solar Designs based in Nairobi, says that while solar energy is traded as environmentally sustainable, growing mountains of broken or otherwise non-functioning panels that are likely to be disposed of in two or three decades will wreck the environment.

The Global E-waste Monitor (2017): regional e-waste

In 2016, Asia was the region that generated by far the largest amount of e-waste (18.2 Mt), followed by Europe (12.3 Mt), the Americas (11.3 Mt), Africa (2.2 Mt), and Oceania (0.7 Mt). While the smallest in terms of total e-waste generated, Oceania was the highest generator of e-waste per inhabitant (17.3 kg/inh), with only 6% of e-waste documented to be collected and recycled. Europe is the second largest generator of e-waste per inhabitant with an average of 16.6 kg/inh; however, Europe has the highest collection rate (35%). The Americas generate 11.6 kg/inh and collect only 17% of the e-waste generated in the countries, which is comparable to the collection rate in Asia (15%). However, Asia generates less e-waste per inhabitant (4,2 kg/inh). Africa generates only 1.9 kg/inh and little information is available on its collection rate. The report provides regional breakdowns for Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania.

Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna.

A call centre bearing solar panels on its rooftop supplies power in a village without electricity in Seguela, Côte d’Ivoire, 2013 Photo: Sia Kambou / AFP

A property developer who violates the rules risks a year in prison or a $10,000 (Sh1 million) fine or both. The standard lifespan of solar gadgets ranges from 20 to 30 years, which means that some of the panels installed in the early part of the current boom are not far from their expiry date. Yet, the country’s e-waste draft Bill 2013 continues to gather dust on parliamentary shelves seven years on. Nor is it a priority for the 12th parliament that will exit office in 2021. By then, every person in the world will have at least seven kg of e-waste to dispose of every day, up from 6.1 kg, as captured in the United Nations Global e-waste Monitor, 2017.”Solar waste will soon form a huge part of electronic waste,” Ng’eno said.

“And it’s not easy to recycle. Solar waste will outdo plastic waste, which has wrecked the world in past decades.” He urged African states to come up with urgent plans to deal with e-waste. The Kenyan government’s soft heart for solar traders has seen at least 20,000 additional families acquire solar gadgets. In 2017, Kenya enforced regulations compelling hotels, educational centres and residential buildings to install solar water heating systems, with the aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 15% by 2030.

According to that report, the photovoltaic panels associated with solar energy are classified as “large equipment”. The solar waste menace is likely to get ugly in Nigeria, which is a boom market for solar firms, occasioned by high population and extreme poverty. Like Kenya, the western African nation has attracted a significant amount of solar Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the past decade, especially in rural and home solar and photovoltaic (PV) electrification.

In Kenya, solar importers have to meet basic requirements – such as obtaining a class V2 licence from the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (EPRA), which entitles them to carry out the manufacture or import of solar PV systems or components. Nigeria’s market, meanwhile, is grossly unregulated. This has led to a market in sub-standard solar power products, which have much lower lifespans, and it will inevitably result in considerable e-waste. A recent study by the World Bank placed Nigeria among countries in the world with poor electricity penetration.

High levels of power outages (at least 32.8 in a month) have made the inhabitants of Africa’s most populous nation easy prey for unscrupulous solar vendors. Nigeria aims to install 30,000 megawatts of solar PV by 2030 as outlined in the country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) action plan dated December 2019. Most of this will be installed off-grid, while Nigeria aims to have about 40 million batteries, according to an Institute of Development Studies (IDS) publication of December 2016. But the typical lifetime of a battery is only about three years, compared to the 20-25 year average lifespan of PV panels.

A solar oven used for solar cooking in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 2009 Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP

So this means that over the lifetime of this project about 280 million batteries will have to be installed, replaced, recovered and recycled to achieve 30,000 MW solar PV capacity. Most of them will find their way into domestic garbage bins. A similar fate awaits other African countries with similar solar power targets in terms of the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) of 2015, which calls for the continent to install 300 GW of solar power by 2030. It is perhaps what motivated the Nigerian government to introduce taxes on solar products in February 2018. There’s now a 5% import duty on solar panels and 5% VAT, whereas in the past there were no tariffs on solar panels.

Nigeria also slapped a 20% import duty on solar batteries, to discourage mass imports. Rwanda is one of few countries in the region to have put in place tight regulations to combat the impending solar waste chaos. In July 2014, Rwanda introduced regulations to guide solar water heater dealers, to regulate the market and also to protect consumers from unscrupulous firms. The country’s solar water heating regulations are meant to support the government’s ambitious programme to install 12,000 quality solar water heaters countrywide – which should translate to a saving of 23,328 MHw on the national grid by the end of this year.

Tough penalties have also been set for suppliers and technicians who fail to meet the minimum standards, a move which protects against the dumping of substandard goods. “These regulations are intended to provide a licensing and regulatory framework for the design, installation, operation, repair, maintenance and upgrade of solar water heating systems in Rwanda,” according to the draft regulation issued by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (Rura). The regulation also sets minimum academic qualifications and professional requirements for technicians of solar water heaters in the country.

Those found violating the rules face cash penalties that range from Rwf10,000 – Rwf5 million ($10.50 to $5,300) depending on the offence. Despite these measures, solar firms continue to troop to Rwanda, thanks to the government’s tax policy, which imposes an almost zero rate on solar products, with the aim of reducing the country’s heavy dependency on thermal electricity. In addition to offering tax exemptions, the Rwandan government is meeting 25% of the cost of imported solar power water heaters. Each heater costs between Rwf800,000 and Rwf900,000 (about $900) on the open market in Kigali.

The country is now a significant importer of solar gadgets, which are fast becoming a dependable source of energy, especially in rural areas that are yet to be connected to the national power grid. Yet, as the number of imports into Africa increase each year, so does the solar waste pile, polluting rivers, soils and the air when burnt. In 2016, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned a multi-country study to research electronic waste in Africa’s off-grid renewable energy sector. The report concluded that the off-grid solar sector across 14 sub- Saharan African countries would produce 3,600 tonnes of electronic waste the following year.

While this represented a fractional percentage of total estimated electronic waste flows, it also put waste from off-grid solar products on a par with electronic waste from the mobile phone industry. Globally, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects solar waste to hit 78 million tonnes by 2050, most of it in Africa.

E-waste generation and collection per continent

Indicator Africa Americas Asia Europe Oceania
Countries in region 53 35 49 40 13
Population (millions) 1,174 977 4,364 738 39
Waste generation (kg/inh) 1.9 11.6 4.2 16.6 17.3
Indication WG (Mt) 2.2 11.3 18.2 12.3 0.7
Documented to be collected and recycled (Mt) 0.004 1.9 2.7 4.3 0.04
Collection rate 0% 17% 15% 35% 6%

Source: Baldé, C.P., Forti V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R., Stegmann,P. : The Global E-waste Monitor – 2017, United Nations University (UNU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Vienna


Victor Amadala is an award-winning journalist with hundreds of published works in local and international outlets. He is currently a senior business writer for the Star Newspaper, the third-leading paper in Kenya. A Thomson Reuters New Age Media Fellow, he is passionate about developmental journalism for positive change in Africa.

Shadows over Sunshine City

Harare: wetlands

Land invasions and illegal development threaten the source of water to Zimbabwe’s capital

Residents of Glen View township queue for water at a borehole as the city’s municipal water treatment facilities close in Harare, September 2019 Photo: AFP

Once referred to as the “Sunshine City” – not only because the sun shines on Harare most days of the year, but because of its cleanliness and orderliness – Zimbabwe’s capital city has over the years lost its glamour and beauty. The sun is still shining in Harare, but the beauty and orderliness have long disappeared. The days of uninterrupted water and electricity supplies have become a distant memory; streetlights have disappeared in most suburbs, the well-maintained treelined streets have been replaced with potholed roads, while  flowing  sewage  is now a common sight in most high- density suburbs.

Harare was a model city in  the 1980s and 1990s, with the once popular First Street being the epitome of the central business district’s beauty. The street boasted expensive boutiques and prominent departmental stores, as well as well-maintained pavements, water fountains, flowers and trees. Now it is a pale shadow of its former glorious self. Moreover, just as the city has lost its glitz and glamour, the expansive network of wetlands around the city is disappearing. Harare is built on a wetland and actually sits on its own catchment area.

Environmentalists, water rights activists and human rights campaigners believe the city’s future is under threat because of both the legal and illegal use of the wetlands. In recent years politically connected land barons have invaded and allocated land – including wetlands – to home seekers. City of Harare (CoH) officials have also allocated land, or approved development and the commercial abstraction of water from the wetlands, in violation of the law.

With Zimbabwe in economic turmoil and many people losing their jobs as companies fold, the invasion of wetlands for agricultural purposes has also become pronounced, threatening their existence. A report by a special committee chaired by Councillor Charles Joshua Nyatsuro on commercial land sales and leases in the City of Harare, dated 24 June 2019, prepared for the mayor of Harare, Hebert Gomba, and made available  to  Africa in Fact, highlighted the widespread development on wetlands, including protected sites:

“Harare is in and around the headwater wetlands of its catchment basin at the very beginning of the Manyame (Marimba, Mukuvisi and Gwebi Rivers) and the Mazowe River systems. Greater Harare  lies within  the source of its water,” the report reads. “Some of these wetlands are protected by the Ramsar Convention. The Government Gazette 380 of 2013 declares 26 wetlands in Harare as protected areas. The committee through field visits and in-depth interviews identified 32 areas designated as wetlands where illegal development is taking place. We find therefore that there is massive development on several sites.”

The committee, which also included residents’ association leaders, found that there “is no single activity or initiative in the last three years to protect wetlands in CoH”, adding “this is a serious concern and threatens the city’s water system.” On threats to wetlands, the committee concluded that: “By far the biggest threat to wetlands is unregulated developments (squatter camps and land barons) and illegally approved developments on wetlands by private developers and the City of Harare. The City of Harare has allocated land on wetlands.”

A commission of inquiry into the sale of state land in and around Zimbabwe’s urban areas since 2005, chaired by Justice Tendai Uchena, last year exposed vote-buying by ruling Zanu- PF politicians who  illegally grabbed and parcelled out state land, including wetlands, to lure votes. More than 100 people, among them prominent politicians, were implicated in the alleged grab and sale of state land in Harare or corruptly allocating themselves stands. Among those are former first lady Grace Mugabe, former women affairs, gender and development minister Nyasha Chikwinya and former local government minister Ignatius Chombo, as well as several legislators and high-ranking government officials.

The most notable project ion Harare’s wetlands in recent years is the construction of Long Cheng Plaza Mall in Belvedere at a cost of more than $200 million. Construction of the mall by Chinese company Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Corporation – which is also in a diamond mining partnership with Zimbabwe’s military – was allowed to go ahead, despite protests from residents, legislators and the Environmental Management Agency. The mall was officially opened in 2014 and opened to the public in 2015. Former Mabvuku-Tafara legislator James Maridadi fought hard in parliament to have the mall demolished, arguing its existence disturbed the natural ecosystem of the capital city’s water supply.

In 2018, Maridadi proposed a motion in parliament to have wetlands preserved, saying water problems in Harare and other cities were a result of the destruction of natural water reservoirs. Speaking in parliament, he said: “One typical example is the Long Cheng Plaza in Belvedere. Madam Speaker, the Long Cheng Plaza sits in the heart of wetlands in Zimbabwe. What that plaza has done is to compromise all underground water to the south and the east of that plaza. If you want to sink a borehole in Belvedere, you must sink beyond 70 metres because of that plaza.”

Development on Harare’s  wetlands is occurring despite the fact that Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (1971) through which member states committed to maintaining the ecological character of wetlands and to plan for their wise and sustainable use. Zimbabwe also has provisions for  the protection of wetlands under the Environmental Management Act (Cap 20;27), Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 on Environmental Management (Environmental Impact Assessment and Ecosystems Protection) Regulations and Government Gazette 380 of 2013. The Town and Country Planning Act, Urban Councils Act and Traditional Leaders Act, also criminalise the destruction of wetlands.

Deputy Mayor Enock Mupamawonde speaks on the capital’s water woes, September 2019 Photo: AFP

In addition, Section 73 of the Constitution protects environmental rights and states that the environment should be protected for the benefit of future generations. Section 73(b) specifically highlights that everyone must work to prevent ecological degradation and promote conservation. According to the Ramsar Convention, wetlands are areas where water is the primary factor controlling the environment and the associated plant and animal life.They occur where the water table is at or near the surface of the land or where the surface is covered by water.

Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Act 20:27 defines wetlands as “areas of marsh, fen, peat-land or water whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including riparian land adjacent to the wetland”.

Wetlands filter water naturally by breaking down harmful pollutants, including chemicals, separating them from the water and using them as fertiliser for the vegetation growing there. They are natural sewage systems as they filter water and the water running out of them into rivers is clear and purified. In times of heavy rain, wetlands act as holders of water, like sponges, and prevent flooding in their areas. They absorb and purify water that would otherwise be mostly lost as run-off. The water absorbed throughout the rainy season is slowly released into rivers and streams in the dry seasons.

Wetlands also help to recharge the  water  table. In addition, they are the habitat for hundreds of species at a time. Government and CoH officials acknowledge the importance of  wetlands and the fact that the future of Harare is under threat because of their destruction. For instance, speaking at a wetland’s indaba in Harare in February, Gomba admitted that irresponsible behaviour and political pressure to settle people on wetlands has contributed to the pollution of Lake Chivero, the city’s major source of water.

“Lake Chivero is now heavily polluted, largely through human action,” he said. “It should have  been  decommissioned a long time ago, but we are still using it because there is no other source of water. The problems of water in Harare also stem from the destruction of wetlands through illegal settlements and farming activities.” He urged politicians to desist from encouraging people to settle on wetlands, ch which could only result in less water for the city. During commemorations to mark World Wetlands Day in Harare in February, the environment minister, Mangaliso Ndlovu, told journalists that land  barons were responsible for the illegal settlements in the city. Infrastructure development through commercial and housing construction had  turned  Harare’s wetlands “into a concrete jungle”. He  warned that by 2040, the wetlands may have disappeared.

Selestino Chari, the project manager of Harare Wetlands Trust, told Africa in Fact that Harare residents were paying the price for the unsustainable and illegal exploitation of wetlands. “As we speak, Lake Chivero is not gaining water and the water entering the lake is heavily polluted. “He added that the water entering the lake was no longer being purified by the wetlands. The Harare city council now needed 12 chemicals to treat water, when it had only needed one or two in 1992, he told Africa in Fact.

Dewa Mavhinga, the southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch, told Africa in Fact that the lack of appreciation of the value and importance of wetlands by residents, CoH and government officials was jeorpadising Harare’s future. Harare had run out of land for residential purposes, so politicians were using the few remaining open spaces to advance their political fortunes. “When faced with the   question of addressing the housing needs of people or protecting wetlands, there is a tendency for council and government officials to tilt towards what they see as the immediate need, which is housing,” he said.

Harare was now facing “massive water crises” as a direct result of the depletion of wetlands. Underground water has been hugely depleted. “I was speaking to an organisation that is drilling boreholes and they told me that the water table had been between 30 and 40 metres [underground] in many suburbs in Harare, but now it is between 70-90 metres,” he said. From a human rights point of view, the unsustainable use of wetlands has contributed to the violation of people’s right to water, and endangering citizens. Dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, requires water for good hygiene.

As Mavhinga put it: “Without water, the right to health cannot be guaranteed.” Fiona Iliff, a projects lawyer for the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights’ (ZLHR) Access to Justice Unit, has fought numerous court battles with the CoH and private developers to preserve wetlands. She says there is an urgent need for all wetlands in Harare to be mapped and gazetted as protected areas. In a 2018 document titled ‘Legislation and the Protection of Harare’s Wetlands: Procedures and Problems’,  ZLHR said the Environmental Management Act – the main law protecting the environment – is “mostly substantively sound, but procedurally weak” because enforcement mechanisms do not give wetlands sufficient importance and protection.

ZLHR has recommended that an independent Environment Commission be established, that the National Environmental Council be re- established, and that an Environment Tribunal with punitive jurisdiction to investigate environmental law violations also be established. “The tribunal should be  composed of legally trained commissioners with expertise in environmental issues and have punitive jurisdiction,” ZLHR said. “Legislation should provide that the default position is that development must be stopped once legal proceedings challenging construction on prima facie wetland have been initiated and the onus should lie on the developer proving that the development should proceed.”

ZLHR said provisions of the Ramsar Convention should be incorporated into Zimbabwe’s municipal laws, while all wetlands should be mapped with expert input and their territorial footprint legislated. Wetlands should not be treated solely “as land” but also as water resources, the ZLHR said. “Legislative provisions protecting water resources, and proscribing the private ownership of water, should specifically be stated as applying to wetlands. The organisation said legislation must clarify that CoH cannot grant development permits on wetlands, “whether conditionally or otherwise, without compliance with the provisions designed to protect wetlands”. If Harare’s future is to be guaranted, environmentalists say, government and city officials should stop paying lip service to the protection of the city’s wetlands.


Owen Garare is news editor at the business weekly Zimbabwe Independent. He has previously worked for two national daily newspapers, NewsDay and the Chronicle. He is based in Harare.

Danger down by the river

Nigeria: Raped for water

African women and girls in poor communities, forced to walk long distances to fetch water, run the daily risk of rape, beating and even death

Women collect water and do their laundry on the banks of Nigeria’s Uke River Photo: Adie Vanessa Offiong

It was a day like any other last December. Hasiya (not her real name) had to go to fetch water from the Uke River. It is the main source of water for many in the Uke Bus Stop community in Nasarawa State, in Nigeria’s middle belt region. But the 80-minute to-and-fro trip did not quite end like other days.

The 16-year-old said, “I had gone out to fetch water in the evening. It was past five pm already, but I was sure I would make it there and return before it got too dark. There was no water in the house and my mother had already started cooking supper. “I had fetched my bucket of water and was heading back home, when I noticed a group of about five boys sitting by a fence. As soon as they saw me, they began whistling and calling out to me. My heart was pounding as I prayed that… what had happened to other women in the community, would not happen to me.”

Hasiya ignored them and tried to increase her pace, but the weight of the 20-litre bucket of water on her head made it difficult for her to move quickly. She had conflicting thoughts. The first was her fear of being raped. The second was that she might have made a wasted trip. Having walked 40 minutes there and already halfway through her return trip, she dreaded the thought of having to go back to refill her bucket and begin the journey all over again.

But before she knew it, the young men had surrounded her. “They kicked my right leg. I fell down with my bucket of water. I was screaming for help, but I knew I was at their mercy. The road was lonely and it was getting dark too. They pulled my cloth wrap down and started beating me.” Hasiya’s pleas fell on deaf ears – but unexpected help was near. “From nowhere, we heard a motorcycle coming. As it drew closer, they saw the headlight, and they ran away. The motorcycle rider had saved me, and took me home.”

From December through February it is dry and hot, and finding water becomes an evermore time-consuming task. The time it takes to find water can endanger the young women in the area, especially during the harmattan, the dry season. “If we want to get clean water, we have to dig the ground and wait for some time for the water to gather before we can scoop it out with bowls to fill our buckets,” says Nana Adamu, a member of the community.

Water levels in the Uke River have dropped, making water collection more difficult for local women Photo: Adie Vanessa Offiong

In  recent  years, conditions for the women have got worse with every harmattan season; the women have to dig deeper and wait longer for the water to gather. Having time on their hands, they find it useful to do laundry and have a bathe in the river while they wait for their buckets to fill, says Adamu. “But when we stay late at the river, these boys attack us,” she told Africa in Fact. According to the International Water Association, women in sub-Saharan Africa bear the main responsibility for fetching water in 62% of households, compared to men (23%), girls (9%) and boys (6%).

The women of the Uke Bus Stop community are among them. Though they are tasked with most houseold chores, collecting water makes them vulnerable to rapists because they often have to walk some distance from their homes to find it, says Water Empowerment, an organisation that focuses on reducing the time women and girls spend collecting water. Adamu has lost several buckets narrowly escaping such attacks, but she says a neighbour in the Uke Bus Stop community was not so fortunate.

“She was raped and has had to move out of the community [because of] the shame and stigma, especially as she was a married woman.” Bitrus Amadi, who is considered to be one of the elders of the community, has watched the negative development with deep concern. Last year (2019), he says, a girl from the neighbourhood was raped on her way to fetch water by a group of boys who “accused her of wearing a red shirt without their permission.. This thing happened in broad daylight.” Amadi says the community has stopped reporting cases of rape to the police.

“Nothing was happening,” he says. Now, as a precautionary measure, the women only go to the Uke River between the hours of 8AM and 1PM, and always in groups. Sexual assaults were not always a part of the water-fetching narrative of women from the Uke community, says Mary Amadi, who has lived there for about 10 years. “The river was not this far from us,” she says. “When I came here as a newly married women, we went to the river three to four times daily. It took us only about 15 minutes to walk there and about the same time to come back.”

Rural women’s water insecurity


These trips were looked forward to back then because they were a social gathering and gossip time for the women. But, she says, the population has grown and buildings have sprung up, with some people channelling their sewage into the river. The river level has also dropped. Now, she says, people do not go out in the evening. “If you want water and there is electricity, you go to the one borehole we have and pay N15 ($0.38) to get 30 litres of water.” Her household uses 210 litres daily. She adds that, “If there is no electricity, you wait until the next morning, to join the queue if you don’t get there before 7AM, before you can get water.

As a woman and a mother, you pray that at such a time there is no emergency that would warrant your needing water because if there is, you are in trouble.” The experience of the women of the Uke community is not new in Africa, and it is not unique. Across the continent, in West Darfur in 2015, health clinics treated 297 rape victims in five months, 99% of whom were women. Some 82% of the women were raped “while pursuing ordinary daily activities, such as searching for firewood or thatch, working in their fields, fetching water from riverbeds or travelling to the market,” according to a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) report of that year.

The stories illustrate how climate change is having an “overwhelming” negative impact on women’s security, says Dr Priscilla Achakpa, an Abuja-based environmental and gender activist originally from Benue State in Nigeria’s middle belt region. “If a woman doesn’t get water to cook, the husband doesn’t understand why she didn’t get water. That can lead to violence.” But it is not only the daily task of fetching water that endangers women, she adds; they also face these risks while farming, which for many women is their source of income.

In many cases, for example, women may also be struggling with farmlands that are no longer fertile. These are issues relating to climate change that also affect them, and it can result in conflict. A major problem, says Achakpa, is that climate change is a new phenomenon to many women in low-to-middle income countries, and they have little or no information about it – including on how to improve their farming practices. “For most poor women, a source of clean and affordable domestic water and safe and private sanitation facilities that can be reliably accessed are key elements of sustainable development,” said Asa Regner, then Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, during her 2018 address at World Water Week, in Stockholm.

For many women in Africa, having access to this basic resource, under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 (access to safe water and sanitation) is key to their achieving improvements in the areas of life covered by many other SDGs, especially SDG 1 (end to poverty), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), and SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities). Meanwhile, the women of the Uke Bus Stop neighbourhood say there’s an obvious way to solve many of their problems: the government just needs to drill more boreholes for their community.


Vanessa Offiong is a journalist in Nigeria, with experience in investigative, science and development journalism. Vanessa is Executive Director of The Black Banana Media & Development Initiative and a Health Systems Global fellow. She has won awards and has been published by the British Medical Journal’s Global Health Blog.
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