Tanzania water scarcity

Tanzania, water is abundant but people are thirsty. Voices of young leaders against climate change

“Ikiwa sio wewe, ni nani? Ikiwa sio sasa, lini?”
(If not us, then who? If not now, then when?)

DAR ES SALAAM – Humphrey Mrema encourages young Tanzanians to join the debate on climate change. Tanzania is struggling with land degradation, pollution, and loss of wildlife habitat. But even before these problems, there’s one issue “that’s unprecedented, unconventional and paradoxical for us Tanzanians: water.”

After COP26, most wonder if the Conference of the Parties was a success for Africa, where climate change is wreaking havoc. African countries are increasingly exposed to flooding and severe droughts. Tanzania is one of the countries suffering from droughts, and although the region has abundant water resources, people are thirsty. To understand how climate change is affecting Tanzanians and the policy issues underlying the problem, we interviewed Tanzanian delegates at the UN pre-COP26 Youth4Climate Summit: Humphrey Mrema and Careen Joel Mwakitalu.

Humphrey Mrema Careen Joel Mwakitalu Tanzania Youth4Climate
Humphrey and Careen

Since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1961, Tanganyika, which merged with the People’s Republic of Zanzibar in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania, has struggled to address the challenges of climate change. Among these, water scarcity is one of the most acute, stresses Humphrey, who is also president and co-founder of the Youth Survival Organization, established to encourage young people to work toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Africa is the continent that suffers the most from the effects of climate change, but contributes the least to its increase. The young people of today will feel the consequences of climate change, which were caused primarily by the generations before them. Following this train of thought, UN has decided this year to precede COP26 with the Youth4climate Summit, facilitated by Jayathma Wickramanayake, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy for Youth, designed to gather the ideas of young leaders from 186 countries engaged in the fight against climate change, including Humphrey and Careen representing Tanzania.

Urban expansion and rising temperatures: Dar Es Salaam lacks water

Data from WHO / UNICEF (JMP program) show wide geographic disparities: 80% of urban populations have access to clean water, compared to less than 50% in rural areas, and even fewer for what concerns sanitation.

data water sanitazion urban rural tanzania WASH
For an interactive and detailed visualization: https://washdata.org/data/household#!/dashboard/4242

But data is insufficient to understand the extent of the problem: even in Dar Es Salaam, the country’s largest city with an ever-growing population of nearly 6.5 million, water isn’t supplied continuously. It’s often lacking, sometimes for weeks at a time and without warning or apparent reason, and citizens are forced to perform their daily tasks with salt water. “The city’s main source of water is the Ruvu River, but there’s less and less water in it due to rising temperatures.”

Dar Es Salaam’s growth, satellite view. Earth engine data

Tanzania has water, but the country lacks political will and technologies

As Humphrey points out, the water shortage is a paradox: Although people lack water, Tanzania has many water resources. Although climate change makes geographic conditions less favorable, the country overlooks the Indian Ocean from north to south, from Tanga to Mtwara. In addition, the former Tanganyika is located in the Great Lakes region: on the border between Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda is Lake Victoria, the largest on the continent. There are also more than 12 lakes, including Lake Tanganyika, Lake Nyasa (which is disputed with Malawi), Lake Manyara and Lake Rukwa, which together cover an area of about 70,000 km2. “All these resources should be exploited. If you think about it, you understand that there’s something very wrong. If we develop knowledge and use technologies, we can solve this problem. It’s paradoxical that there’s water in Tanzania but citizens don’t have access to it.”

At its core, the problem is political: According to Humphrey, the lack of commitment at the international level to addressing environmental problems is also reflected at the national level. In short, there’s a lot of talk but not enough action. We need resources and flexible policies to adapt to the changes affecting the planet. Developed countries have pledged $100 billion annually by 2020 for climate action in developing countries, but these funds haven not arrived. At COP26, African nations demanded that wealthier nations deliver on their pledges and increase funding for climate mitigation and adaptation to $1.3 trillion per year by 2030. The stakes are too high for Africa to withstand missteps by the international community, and the commitments appear to be a moral obligation, given that the African continent emits only 3.8% of global CO2 emissions (one of the main causes of climate change), despite shouldering much of the burden on its shoulders.

The other issues that emerged, said Careen, UNOPS communications specialist (UN project supervision) and journalist who has covered developments in environmental issues for years, are those of transparency in terms of funding and technology mobilization. “Even if we had the money, we wouldn’t know how to use them, as we don’t have tools. We need a concerted effort to develop technologies that will allow us to address the problems associated with climate change in a sustainable way.”

Inequalities: Water only for tourism and urban centers. Women and rural communities are the most disadvantaged.

On the African side, it cannot be said that there have been no changes, but the efforts made so far aren’t enough. Although Tanzania has established an entire ministry for water and irrigation, action has been taken almost exclusively for urban areas, ports, and tourist areas. “These are the centers that contribute most to economic development, and the water problem is so extensive that most efforts have been concentrated there, to the detriment of rural areas.”

According to Careen, who has years of experience in the field despite her young age, water also plays a role in reinforcing and perpetuating inequalities. “In rural communities, if the nearest water source is several miles away, the children have to take care of it because they have more energy. This is a cultural fact, but it hinders education: they cut time off from school, and if the school and the water source are in opposite directions, they have to choose the latter. Moreover, the girls are the most disadvantaged, because while the boys can carry more cans at once, they’re forced to walk the path several times, and because of the miserable hygienic conditions, it’s even easier for them to get urinary tract infections.

What are the solutions? According to Careen, the municipalities must be made independent: “The State doesn’t have the means to take care of everyone, so it neglects the rural municipalities. The best and most sustainable solution would be if they could finance their own water. If we could introduce loans at very low interest rates to allow rural communities to emancipate themselves, build their own sanitation facilities while minimizing costs and involving all members of the community in the construction and development, we would have already achieved a lot.” The justifiable lack of trust in institutions leads people to believe that a decentralized approach is more realistic, although it is severely limited by the resources of civil society.

Lucrezia Ducci

Imagine cover: water.org

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