Harvard and African experts tackle the issue of water on Earth Day

April 30, 2021

By Li-Ming Pan, Center for African Studies

Makoko Vendor in Nigeria by Esesua Ikpefan (Doctoral Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design)Makoko Vendor in Nigeria by Esesua Ikpefan (Doctoral Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Design)



Water knows no boundaries – whether across country borders or across the domains that affect our daily living. From the very first panel, Jennifer Sara, Global Director of Water Global Practice at the World Bank, underscored this point which was a recurring theme throughout the conference; that is, water is not just present in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 6 that is focused on clean water and sanitation, it is present in all SDGs and every discussion about the climate. Without reliable access to clean and potable water, you cannot alleviate poverty (SDG1), provide quality education (SDG4), or promote economic growth (SDG8).  Water is a potential source of conflict between countries, but also an opportunity for regional cooperation.

On April 21 – 22, the Harvard Center for African Studies hosted a conference on Africa’s Water Opportunity: Science, Sustainability, and Solutions, coinciding with the international recognition of Earth Day. The conference, convened as part of the Center’s research initiative on Climate Change, Nutrition, and Health, aimed to discuss the latest research, innovative policies, and best practices to uphold as models for addressing water solutions in Africa. Panels featured a diverse mix of faculty, researchers, policy makers and practitioners working on 21st century solutions to water in the contexts of health, climate and agriculture, migration and human rights, and the future of Africa’s water opportunity.

“We identified water as a central theme for this year’s conference because of the role that water has in sustaining human life. It is central to a number of major global challenges that require our collective talents across Harvard and with our partners to help address,” said Professor Wafaie Fawzi, the Interim Oppenheimer Faculty Director of the Harvard Center for African Studies. In addition to participation by faculty moderators from the Harvard T.H. Chan School, Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard Business School, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Studies, and Heidelberg University, the conference was supported by student researchers from Harvard College and the Harvard Undergraduate African Policy and Development Initiative (APAD).

Two experts on water served as keynote speakers, including Dr. Apollos Nwafor of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and Dr. Martin Fregene of the African Development Bank, who delivered our second annual Joseph S. Agyepong Distinguished Lecture on Public Health in Africa. Provost Alan Garber, opened the proceedings by acknowledging the magnitude of challenges when it comes to water. He was encouraged by the collaboration from across the world and emphasized the promise that Africa has in meeting various challenges given its enormous human resources.

Dean Douglas Elmendorf of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government echoed Provost Garber’s collaborative view when opening the second day’s proceedings: “We truly need to come together to address these issues effectively.” Professor Rainer Sauberborn of Heidelberg University in Germany, a partner in this conference, shared in his opening remarks, “Water and climate are essential ingredients and enablers of life [for] humans and all living organisms on earth.” Water issues flow into every part of our lives, and taking a holistic view on how we see water is a more practical way of solving cross-cutting development and climate issues.

Water scarcity not only effects the daily lives of those who need to take the time to collect water, disproportionately affecting women, but also adversely food production and overall health and wellbeing of families and communities. It is important for optimal child health. “Children may never fully recover from frequent bouts of severe diarrhea in the first three years of their lives,” as Fiona Ward, WASH Specialist at UNICEF, reminded us of the damage caused by unsafe water.

Key themes arose from the proceedings included the importance of stakeholder engagement at all levels given the centrality that water has in multiple aspects of Africa’s development agenda. Panelists also identified the need for financing today to avoid the catastrophic future implications of current underinvestment, and underscored the need for additional research that quantifies the extent of the problems and evaluates novel solutions.

Dr. Fregene was one of several speakers to acknowledge the reality that recognition alone, while an important first step, does not guarantee the right to water: “Endorsing the right to water is not a silver bullet, it does not automatically address the universal access to water and sanitation in Africa. But it is a powerful tool that, if properly used, can focus attention and resources on improving access to water for those individuals and communities who constantly endure the hardships imposed by the limited access to safe water. The human rights approach to water has the potential to raise the priority of water and sanitation on the development agenda with respect to resource allocations at the national level.”

“Walk the talk” when it comes to water, recommended Dr. Agyepong, who closed out the proceedings with reflections from the private sector perspective. He highlighted importance of the young population of Africa as a resource, and reminded everyone of Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “The earth, the air, the land, and the water are not an inheritance from our fore fathers but on loan from our children.”

Addressing water challenges across disciplines is central to the climate change research agenda that the Center for African Studies seeks to contribute. In the weeks ahead, the Center for African Studies will work partners including Heidelberg University and the African Ministers’ Council on Water on a position paper and video summary, and together explore a HarvardX course on this theme.

For more information on the conference:  https://africa.harvard.edu/africa%E2%80%99s-water-opportunity-science-su...