Water stress: a sign of African vulnerability to Climate Change


Looking at a meteorological map of Africa, it becomes evident that aside from the central Western regions, our diverse continent is quite arid. With Northern and Southern areas ranging from semi-arid to hyper-arid, it is salient to consider how Climate change will impact the future availability and accessibility to a basic need such as water, especially if Africa already has such a high-risk profile regarding water stress, scarcity, and multi-seasonal droughts.


Water stress is not only a lack of availability for human use but includes insufficient amounts to meet environmental needs. What it boils down to is a ratio between water use and the availability of the resource. The lower the ratio of resource availability, the greater the stress.

Water stress impact

In addition to directly affecting the shortage of adequate and potable water, growing water stress has a systematic cost that, in many circumstances, is unfairly distributed to communities that cannot bear such a burden. This is known as the “tragedy of the commons”. On the African continent, food shortages caused by a lack of water are prevalent, jeopardising large-scale food security. When one considers that access to wholesome food and adequate water are commonly acknowledged as proxy indicators for assessing the health and development of communities, this becomes important.

Environmentally there is a further cost as the over-extraction, and use of water from constrained areas create environmental degradation within the resource’s ecology. There is a strong correlation between overuse and pollution of water sources as the ability to sanitise and treat the limited water supply becomes less efficient. The competition between human use and the needs of the indigenous plant and animal life creates a severe unsustainable imbalance that could contribute to further biodiversity loss.

Social impact

Although not new to many African nations, the lack of clean water is a clear and present threat to human health, human lives, business stability, and development viability. Moreover, if Climate change continues its current trajectory, African nations run a high risk of mass migrations to more abundant and accessible water sources. This mass migration would significantly contribute to cross-national humanitarian crises composed of climate refugees. Historically, refugee scenarios are associated with greater poverty levels, crime, victimisation, and xenophobic violence towards vulnerable groups.

Economic impact 

All industries, from primary to quaternary activities within the economy, are partly or entirely reliant on access or use of water. The first level of the impact associated with water stress could be anticipated in the Agricultural sector. Farming operations will be restricted, jobs will be lost, and eventually, the economic contribution to GDP and potential future development will be compromised due to the decrease in crop yield and water availability for irrigation, livestock, and other process use. Most other sectors along the value chain will experience higher production and operating costs, which may ultimately be passed on to the customer. Finally, the increased cost of living will make it more challenging to fund development-related healthcare, education, and social security efforts.  

Mitigating strategies

The scope of mitigation plans should include both grassroots and corporate endeavours. The first step should be to establish a clear, well-enforced policy. These programs should include utilising animals and crops that can withstand drought and creating and implementing irrigation and water use technology to reduce ineffective use or waste. Materials and designs used in built environments should decrease waste, wasteful consumption, and leaks in commercial and residential settings. Creative urban planning and population density distribution can reduce geographical pressure on water sources. Many African nations have also adopted modern techniques, where desalination plants help reduce the strain from water scarcity in arid regions. 


Clearly, systematic and unforeseen consequences place a disproportional burden on developing countries in Africa. It is critical for policy, law and decision-makers to look at developmental frameworks that foster Responsibility, Comprehensive impacts, Innovation and Leadership. This will support the narrative around environmental issues such as water stress and produce dialogues suitable in Africa. 

Francois De Bryun



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