Water in Sub-Saharan Africa is of special interest because of my background but water is a fascinating issue in general, one that I think will play an increasingly large role in the 21st century, as the effects of population growth and climate change bring about significant changes to our water usage and availability. A lack of water in particular has a substantial destabilizing effect.
Water as a social issue combines a lot of different elements. As an issue, water sits at the intersection of social justice, politics, economics and agriculture are all areas weather. This is probably because water is so essential to human life. We drink it, we use in for domestic purposes, agricultural, industrial, transportation. Yet clean water is not always easy to come by. Some feel that access to clean water is a human right. So there is a significant importance attached to water in most parts of the world, and one is actually quite fortunate not to have to think about water.
For people in Sub-Saharan Africa, there are basically two major water issues. The first is desertification, which is affecting a large part of the region as the Sahara gets bigger. This means less land for agriculture, but people do not always have the ability to move from their land to other lands. The result is that there is tremendous social upheaval, as tends to be the case when people cannot get enough food to eat. So that is one of the major issues. The second major issue is with respect to clean water for drinking. As with respect to agriculture, clean drinking water is an essential component of life. The problem is that water in tropical places is not inherently clean, it must usually be processed to ensure cleanliness. Governments are unable or unwilling to make this happen, and the result is that entire communities are susceptible to disease. So again, water is a critical issue in society going forward. As we have rapidly expanding populations, especially in poor countries, the constraints posed by access to water for agriculture, and access to clean water for drinking, are going to start to butt heads with these expanding populations. The results, if this situation is not managed effectively, have the potential to be catastrophic.
Narrowing down a precise topic is something that is going to take a significant amount of research. Even within a specific geographic region, there are many aspects to water and many human aspects as well. A well-focused study should really just look at a single thing, something framed in variables that can be measured. It may be a situation where one can look at identifying opportunities where companies can help with water sustainability. This type of study will require knowledge of water sustainability initiatives that are out there, and knowledge of where the opportunities lie in water sustainability. Finding a match between the two will be beneficial for everybody.
Part II. A causal chain moves from the root cause of a problem to the problem itself, often in many steps. A feedback loop is where the problem itself contributes to its own perpetuation -- it flows back to the root cause, creating a cycle that is harder to break (THwink.org, 2012). I have experienced these before. I once worked in a union shop. It was supposed to be a summer job. The management-labor attitude there was so antagonistic, I only last a few days. But at some point, there was a catalyst, and labor and management couldn't work together and lost trust. It made the whole atmosphere toxic. The feedback loop is self-evident at that point: in a toxic atmosphere, it becomes even harder for people to trust each other.
Another example that I have experience was positive in nature. Kind of the reverse situation really. The company had people enroll in a stock buying program, where the company would do a half-match on shares the employees bought. This program made everybody feel involved. There was ownership of the work throughout the company, and because of that, everybody worked hard and felt good about it. The cause here is that everybody literally has ownership, so they take ownership figuratively as well. The feedback loop is that a company where everybody gives in their best will see its share price increase, which in turn creates positive motivation for everybody to work harder.
Part III. Sustainability is an interesting topic for me because of two things. First, it is something you hear about everywhere, so it's trending right now. Second, I think a lot of people are kind of confused about what it is and what it looks like. I see companies talk about sustainability, as if there is anything about selling plastic bottles of soda, or cars, that is sustainable beyond this century. Cutting through the myths and really getting to the heart of sustainability, for generations to come and not just for our own generation, is a real challenge. Also, I admire the people who are working on the ground, getting their hands dirty so to speak, on the front lines of this. I haven't done that yet, so I really admire people who have achieved genuine success in this field.
For my own career, I feel that sustainability is something that will be beneficial. It intersects with so many things -- business, government, society -- so no matter where you end up you will need to know about sustainability. If your job is what you studied, you will need it; if your job ends up being something other than what you studied, you will need to know about sustainability as well. Further, I think my interest goes well beyond career -- I want to know that when I die, I am leaving this planet in better condition than I found it, so that my children and grandchildren are able to enjoy it just as much as I did.
Part IV. The issue of water in sub-Saharan Africa has been approach from a number of different perspectives. Jaglin (2002) looks at the basic infrastructure issue of water -- the cost of extracting and treating water vs. cost recovery. This issue lies at the heart of water problems, especially in urban areas and those areas characterized by rapid population growth (Dreschel, Gyiele, Kunze & Cofie, 2001). Where government presence is weak, there is seemingly little incentive for government to develop water resources, and this article presents some of the issues that arise as the result of this. Bojo (1996) highlights how critical this issue is for many sub-Saharan African nations. He notes that land degradation is increasing, and it comes with substantial costs. Soil loss is of particular concern, given how critical agriculture is to people's survival. There is actually a large body of literature about soil, but my lack of expertise about the science of soil definitely makes it more challenging for me to get anything about of that literature save for the fact that water is related to soil, and soil is something that many scholars feel is a critical sustainability issue in sub-Saharan Africa, especially with respect to the large numbers of people who rely on subsistence agriculture.
Bayliss and Fine (2007) look at the privatization option for African resources, including utilities. They note that, unsurprisingly, privatization has failed on many accounts to deliver on investment in water resources, since private investors face the same perceived cost-benefit problem that governments have. Platteau (1996) examines the issue from a land use perspective, again juxtaposing the benefits of private land tenure as it relates to the development of water resources. There have been water reform attempts in Africa over different periods of history. The continent actually has an abundance of water resources; it is the economic means to exploit those resources that remains the challenge (Van Koppen, 2003). The privatization option has come under scrutiny, particularly with respect to land reform, because some land acquisitions are being characterized as water grabs, where private individuals and enterprise are seeking to capture access to critical water supplies as an investment, and this is affecting agricultural development in many parts of the region (Woodhouse & Ganho, 2011).
Acerman & Hollis (1996) take a macro-level look at wetlands and hydrological management on a large scale across the continent, seeking to draw lessons about best practices. This conflicts with the reality on the ground that the development of these water resources is essential to the long-run health of the region. Thus, there is a gap between what needs to be done and what can be done. This helps to inform my study with respect to how companies and governments can help with bringing water to a state of equilibrium in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular with respect to agriculture.
A study of weather patterns notes, however, that while the region as a whole has an abundance of water resources, these are not evenly distributed. By surveying rainfall and drainage patterns, Conway et al. (2008) were able to determine…