Water and reconstruction in Africa: an agenda for transformation

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Apr 27th, 2012

Horace Campbell

The unification of the water resources of Africa is one of the primary bases for African unity, with a system of canals linking rivers and lakes in the kind of infrastructure planning that ensures that all will have water.

What is hidden from the Wise and Prudent will be revealed to babes and sucklings.

In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight. Luke 10:21 –

Islam ascribes the most sacred qualities to water as a life-giving, sustaining, and purifying resource. It is the origin of all life on earth, the substance from which God created man (Qur’an 25:54). The Qur’an emphasizes its centrality: “We made from water every living thing”(Qur’an 21:30). Water is the primary element that existed even before the heavens and the earth did: “And it is He who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and his Throne was upon water”. (Qur’an 11:7).


I have quoted from the Bible and the Koran because once one begins to deal with water one is dealing with the fundamentals of life. In all major religions and forms of spiritual reflection, water plays a central role. Whether it is the religion of the African ancestors or the newer religions such as Christianity or Islam, water is presented in real or symbolic forms. Water as a symbol of life as well as a means of cleansing or purification is of particular importance in the traditions of Africans. In nearly every African society, the water spirit is one of the most positive and forceful spirits in the community. It is because of the importance of this spiritual energy that the external exploiters always wanted to control this resource, bot at the spiritual level and at the material level. The lakes and water resources served as a spiritual and ritual space for the peoples in so far as the importance of water was understood in spiritual terms of giving life.

Those who believed in the ‘mami wata’ spirit were accused of witchcraft and oftimes cast out of communities. Those who remember the imperial partitioning of Africa will recall that for the dominant imperial force at that historical moment, the race was to reach the source of the Nile. The conquest of the peoples in the Nile valley was always central to imperial objectives in Africa. After using the water to support colonial mining, agriculture and industrial uses to the detriment of the vast majority of the peoples, colonial overlords left schools of engineering and hydrology that repeated discourses about “Global water crisis.” It was in Southern Africa where this was most obscene. Settler colonialists consumed vast amounts of water for irrigation, sprinkling elegant gardens and for their swimming pools while there was water shortage for the majority. Irrigation schemes had been established by the settlers to provide water for the farms and the political and economic power of settler colonialism had been stamped in the building of the Cabora Bassa and Kariba dams. During the period of apartheid, the minority government in cooperation with the World Bank invested in the Lesotho High Water Dam to dispossess the people of Lesotho for industries and big corporate entities in South Africa. As in South Africa, so all over Africa these schemes benefited the rich while there were books and papers on the “Global Water Crisis in Africa.” International relations experts then produced reams of papers on future water wars.

Today we are now being told the truth about the abundance of water resources in Africa. In reality, the publication last week by the British on the large underground supplies of water is only news to those in the West who had built an industry out of consultancies on water shortages in Africa. The peoples of Africa always knew of the tremendous wealth but we will use the publication of the British Geological Survey and University College London (UCL) to reflect on the tasks of building the kind of infrastructure of canals and water systems for the unification and for the health and well-being of the peoples of Africa.
As reported on the BBC web page, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17775211,

‘Huge water resource exists under Africa … Scientists say the notoriously dry continent of Africa is sitting on a vast reservoir of groundwater. They argue that the total volume of water in aquifers underground is 100 times the amount found on the surface. The team have produced the most detailed map yet of the scale and potential of this hidden resource.’

This report had been drawn from Quantitative maps of groundwater resources in Africa to explain to the world that there is no shortage of water in Africa. The maps and the information also detailed the fact that,
‘Where there’s greatest ground water storage is in northern Africa, in the large sedimentary basins, in Libya, Algeria and Chad. The amount of storage in those basins is equivalent to 75m thickness of water across that area – it’s a huge amount. Due to changes in climate that have turned the Sahara into a desert over centuries many of the aquifers underneath were last filled with water over 5,000 years ago.’

The scientists collated their information from existing hydro-geological maps from national governments as well as 283 aquifer studies. The researchers say their new maps indicate that many countries currently designated as “water scarce” have substantial groundwater reserves.” http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/7/2/024009/pdf/1748-9326_7_2_024009.pdf

The same quantitative map of water resources had revealed that there is an abundance of water in areas such as the region of Chad and Western Sudan as well as in the Southern Africa region. So whether above ground with the massive resources of the numerous lakes and rivers or in the Aquifers below, the challenge for reconstruction is to plan for the needs of the people.

This information is not news for Africans.

These British researchers drew their information from national governments. It is the kind of work that should be undertaken by the Economic Commission for Africa and the commissions of the African Union. New research and political leadership must be unleashed to break the subservience to European research priorities and to link water to peace and the security of African peoples. The fact that Libya has the highest storage of ground water in Africa has been known by the people of Libya and the people of North Africa. It is for this reason that the government of Libya had embarked on the great water transfer scheme to harness the resources of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. The Libyan state had invested $25 billion in the Great Man-made River Project, a complex 4,000-km long water pipeline buried beneath the desert that could transport two million cubic metres of water a day. The objective of this, (up to 2011) the largest engineering project in Africa was to turn Libya – a nation that is 95 per cent desert – into a food self-sufficient arable oasis. The Quantitative Maps of Groundwater Resources in Africa declared to the world that,
‘Groundwater resources are unevenly distributed: the largest groundwater volumes are found in the large sedimentary aquifers in the North African countries Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan.’ Of these African countries, Libya possessed by far the largest volume of ground water, 99,500 (km3). Algeria with 91,900 (km3), Sudan with 63,000 (km3) and Egypt with 55 200 (km3).

Here, then, is the truth revealed to those who did not know that French and western water companies had for decades coveted this huge resource of water in North Africa calculating how to deny the Africans access to these resources. This report can help those who were confused about the real motives for the invasion of Libya. Not only has the work on this project been halted, but close to US $150 billion of the people of Libya is being held hostage by western financial institutions and governments.

Prior to this report on the abundance of groundwater resources, African policy makers and planners who were patriotic knew that in Africa there are abundant freshwater resources in large rivers and lakes such as the Congo, Nile and Zambezi River basins and in Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. However, there are great disparities in water availability and use within and between African countries, because the water resources are so unevenly distributed. This mal-distribution was exacerbated by years of colonial manipulation of water ways and apartheid engineering in the conceptualization of dams and water supply systems. The Congo region is of special importance because of the volume of water in this area.


For decades it is has been the work of capitalist inspired international organizations to reveal a different narrative, that of water scarcity and water shortages in Africa. Whether it has been the World Bank project to sell the idea of ‘water shortage’ to promote the marketing of water in Africa or the United Nations Environmental Programs (UNEP) that produced the Africa Water Atlas, the fiction of water shortage in Africa has been a multi-million dollar business. What was never revealed was the reality that access to water was the major democratic question in Africa and the more democratic a society, the more accessible the resources for water and sanitation. This fabrication of water shortage had been successfully sold to the point where the idea of providing clean water for all in Africa is reproduced as part of ‘aid’ packages. The international ‘donors’ have been aware of the water wealth of Africa but reproducing the story about food shortages as the story of water risks provided a good foundation for the multibillion dollar aid industry which was in place to speed capital flight. Food and ‘water ‘security’ became interwoven with the failed NGO recolonization of Africa. This narrative was so successful that non-western societies from Japan, Korea and other ‘rising’ tigers went into Africa with the idea that there was a water deficit in Africa.

Of the 8 Millennium Development Goals outlined by the United Nations in 2000, goal number 7 is to “Ensure environmental sustainability.” Under this goal of ensuring environmental sustainability is the goal 7C and the target: Half, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation (for more information see the entry on water supply). Under the present international political economy the prospects for the achievement of the MDG goals were never realistic. While one section of the United Nations was promoting these MDG goals, sober researchers from the UNDP published research to show that in Africa under the present international economic order these goals would not be reached until well after 2165. Hence when we read from the MDG bureaucracy that ‘Proportion of population with sustainable access to an improved water source, urban and rural, and Proportion of urban population with access to improved sanitation,” we will know that these words are meant to lull Africans to beg instead of organizing to reclaim their resources for independent planning and transformation.

Under the mantra of western beneficence, the goals of the MDG as well as the present IMF projects could only be reached by more liberalization and by opening up African resources to international capital. In the specific instance of access to water, the World Bank continues to promote major schemes for Water Resources management. The World Bank sums up its approach to Water Resources Management on the basis that its goals were: (a) helping the poor directly. (b) improving macroeconomic and fiscal balances, (c) promoting good governance and private sector development, and (d) protecting the environment.

The key basis for achieving these goals was the privatization of water resources. For the past fifty years the World Bank has been supporting giant water projects that served to dispossess the working peoples of the urban and rural areas. The World Bank projects for water management have been especially detrimental for the livelihood of oppressed African women. These women expend hours every day securing clean and potable water. The World Bank and its myriad of sub-contractors have been at the forefront of the struggles over the ideas of whether water should remain a public good, shared by humans everywhere, or a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. In all other continents, this struggle over water has intensified and in Latin America, the struggles of the Bolivian people are now legendary. Vandana Shiva has written extensively on these struggles and one book in particular is recommended, Water wars: privatization, pollution and profit. It is within the context of the future of the world where there is deep dispute over water as a source of life and common good, as opposed to water being understood as an economic ‘good’ – a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder.


The idea of water and plant life as saleable commodities is guided by the ethics and values of the European Enlightenment. The period of the Enlightenment ushered in an era of human hierarchies and some of the leading luminaries of this ’enlightenment’ supported the trans-Atlantic slave trade and ideas of white supremacy. These are the ideas that emanated from the view that humans were like atoms and that the material world and the spiritual world were separate. It is one variant of dualism that separates the mind from the body, secular from the sacred and spirit from matter. The Newtonian/Cartesian view of the universe developed in the period of a mechanical understanding of the planet, before physicists interrogated the Brownian motion relating to water molecules. Albert Einstein had studied the physical properties of water and the other unknown qualities as it relates to energy and life giving qualities. In the enrichment of thermodynamics and quantum physics, Albert Einstein was able to develop a new understanding of the world by exploring how a scientist could calculate the molecules in the atom. This scientific research of Einstein breached the old conventions of mechanics and opened a wider understanding of the laws of nature and the universe. Einstein made a break with the hierarchies and divisions and it was not by accident that Albert Einstein support socialist planning and peace among humans everywhere.

The new information on the huge water resources can be seen by African progressives as part of the marshaling of the tools and resources of the vast African awakening that is now underway. One component of this awakening is to embrace audacity and be bold and break from linear concepts of development. African reconstruction is now turning from the cannibalistic and vulture ethics of western predation to the spirits of sharing and cooperation. Elevation of this sharing at the level of national and international planning now awaits the completion of the African awakening when the repressive and coercive forces are swept aside.

This will then ensure the mobilization of the scientific and technological resources to unleash the basis for a quantum change in the path of reconstruction.


In the new period when Africa is making a break with enlightenment ideas of hierarchies and ‘development’, it is becoming clearer that reconstruction and transformation must start with the key resources of Africa. The fundamental resource in this instance is the human resources of Africa armed with a spirit of optimism for the future with the knowledge of the abundance of natural resources. The truth has now been revealed to babes and sucklings that there is an abundance of a fundamental resource: the water resources. Adigun Ade Abiodun has for decades been writing and pushing for African scientists to develop a concept of unity that promotes the use of the most advanced scientific techniques to open up new opportunities. These opportunities are being fashioned in order to breathe new life into agricultural productivity, give adequate and timely information about Africa’s physical environment and its natural resources and lay the foundations to repair Africa from the ravages of global warming.

Ade Abiodun who served as United Nations expert on space applications for more than twenty years has been campaigning all over Africa for the African peoples to invest in space technology and research to be able to protect their resources on the ground and underground. As a scientist, Abioudun understood that the linear conceptions of ‘development’ promoted by western states were designed to stifle the full potential of Africa. Hailing from Nigeria where individualism and selfishness lead to individual electricity generators and individual water storage facilities, for a short period Abiodun worked for the Nigerian state to invest in the infrastructure for scientific transformation. One day his full story will be told of how the vultures who dominated Nigeria thwarted all efforts to develop local skills and resources to move the Nigerian society and economy. The destruction of the wetlands systems of the Niger Delta as well as the plunder of the oil resources are all aspects of the forms of capitalist relations of production and destruction which is evident all over Africa. When African activists from the Niger Delta call for leaving the oil in the ground, such a call stems from the full understanding that the present forms of cannibalistic capitalism must be stopped if there is to be the transformation of the quality of the lives of the peoples.

Like Samir Amin, Abioudun called on Africans to be bold and audacious to build real mechanisms for unity. The unification of the water resources of Africa is one of the primary bases for African unity with a system of canals linking rivers and lakes in the kind of infrastructure planning that ensures that all will have water. It is socialist planning at the Pan African level which can make water for all a reality.

One of the core goals of the African Union is to build the African Economic Community (AEC) by 2025. This vision is also buttressed by the Africa Water Vision of 2025. A key element of this water vision and the AEC is the building of Regional Economic Communities. From the period of Kwame Nkrumah and Cheikh Anta Diop there was the understanding that the Regional Economic Committee will be a building block or a stumbling block for the full unification of Africa, depending the level of democratization. The Nile Basin water shed area is but one example of a region where there is urgent need for economic and political unity so that the peoples of Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC can formalize plans for a 21st century use of the water resources in this region. Outdated colonial treaties such as the Nile Water treaty lay the foundation for wars and battles if the peoples of Africa do not unite to create a new economy beyond the inherited neo-colonial pipelines for looting.

As in the Nile Basin, so in the Congo River basin, the Mano River basin, the Niger River societies and the societies of the Zambezi and Orange rivers there is need for planning so that there is a new concept of integration and unity. These rivers, lakes and underground water resources are equally owned by all of the peoples and there are no justifiable reasons to maintain the artificial borders that were established in 1884.


In the 21st century, the reconstruction and transformation of Africa will mobilize the energy, skills and talents of all Africans so that the peoples can believe in the ideas of African Unity. As Amilcar Cabral noted, we are not fighting for slogans but for real change in the quality of the lives of the people. To be able to move the continent of Africa in a direction of real unity requires the kind of boldness that was manifest in the commitment to struggle against colonialism and apartheid. Cheik Anta Diop in his vision of a federated Africa linked this dream to the reforestation and repopulation of Africa. Diop drew attention to plans that had been drawn up as far back as the fifties for the reforestation of the Sahel. He wrote,

‘The Sahel Zone, the more desert the farther north one goes, is ideal for reforestation. As early as 1950, we suggested a plan for replanting here. Although approved at the time by the Sudanese people and taken under consideration by the administration, this plan has since lain dormant.’

This plan of reforestation has always been linked to the larger project of providing water to those areas where there were water deficits. Wangari Maathai had taken this vision seriously and there are millions of African environmentalists who take seriously the vision of the reforestation of Africa. This vision of reforestation and healing the African environment can mobilize millions of workers, youths and engineers for a new sense of priorities for Africa. It is here where Pan African youths must take full ownership of the Great Green Wall Project. The African Union has supported this plan that had been pushed by visionaries such as Thomas Sankara. Reforestation in Africa is now conceived of as a massive project which calls for planting a 15km wide and 7000km long swath of land from Djibouti in the east and stretching to Senegal in the West (passing through Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Mauritania. This “Great Green Wall” is envisaged by the African Union as the Seven Thousand Kilometers of Trees integrated into new agricultural zones. Such a project places the concept of Unity on the level where it touches concretely the lives of the people. Advances in solar energy technology, harnessing the underground water resources, the electrification of Africa and an infrastructure of canal systems await Africa 2025 when Africa breaks from western intellectual and political hegemony.

Experience from China more than 2500 years ago pointed to the reality that the unity of China was reinforced by the Grand Canal system that linked different regions to build an integrated society. Whether one is a nationalist or socialist in China it is known that the harnessing of water is central for the transformation of the lives of the people. Hence, it was the Chinese nationalist Sun Yat Sen who envisaged the great water transfer schemes that will transfer water from the Southern regions of China to the water deficit areas of the North around Beijing. It is central planning (not liberalized markets for water) which has provided the conditions for the accumulation of the resources to continue this dream of Sun Yat Sen. China will spend billions of dollars on these water transfer schemes in the next decade.

Close to 200 years ago, the United States built the Erie Canal to open up the region to the west to be able to ship goods from the interior. While we have the examples of the Grand Canal in China and the Erie Canal, the youths should draw from African history to learn of the great hydrological works of ancient Egypt.


Whether it is China, Vietnam or other societies in Asia that are conceptualizing autonomous and planned transformation of their societies, the management of water and water resources continue to be at the top of the list of six or eight areas of reconstruction. Health, Electrification and energy, Democratization of water resources, Infrastructure (roads, bridges, rail, canals, and airports), Education, Agriculture and aquaculture, Housing, and construction along with Information and computer technology (ICT) have been identified as areas of concentration to break from the old forms of ‘development’ and industrialization that destroyed the planet earth. It is now possible to plan for the mobilization of the spiritual energies of the people with these abundant resources to create a new world. This world will be built out of struggle the building of new political consciousness. Not only are there the negative lessons from the old forms of capitalist industrialization, but we have the new lessons of the obscene waste of where by Sheiks in the Emirates who are building mega projects based on the salinization of water. These rich and opulent leaders are imbued with the ideas of western capitalism and although they claim to follow Islam, they are indeed children of western capitalistic domination. It is not by accident that these rulers host the private military contractors from the capitalist states and were the ground troops to stop the great man made river in Libya.

The politics of transformation of Africa requires a new politics and democratic relations among the peoples. Now that the truth has been revealed to the wise and prudent, the remobilized peoples of Africa can focus their energies for the repatriation of the billions of dollars that has been siphoned out of Africa. The United Nations Stolen Assets Initiative is not one of the organs of the UN that is promoted by the current leaders in Africa. If it is estimated that currently $10 billion is siphoned out of Africa, then the vision for reconstruction must be linked to a concrete plan to halt the outflow of capital.

Last week we reflected on the planning for the BRICS Development Bank. Our challenge, then, was for this Bank to work to end the domination of the Bretton Woods Intuitions while at the same time breaking with the theft from Africa. We also drew attention to the fact that the old linear conception of the development of the ‘productive forces.’ The levels of pollution of water are so intense that ‘nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.’ It is not an overstatement to say that China is choking on its success and its people need fresh water and clean air. These cannot be bought with money, but must be built based on a new vision of the goals of society.

The African continent has abundant supplies of water and energy. In his projection of the Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State in Africa, Cheik Anta Diop expounded on the varying energy resources in Africa. Among the energy resources covered were hydraulic energy, solar energy, atomic energy, thermonuclear energy, wind energy, thermal energy of the sea _ tidal energy and volcanic thermal energy. Diop concluded that: ‘These are the energy resources of Black Africa. The utilization by Africans themselves –not to create industries to supplement those of Europe, but to process the raw materials that the continent contains – could turn Black Africa into a paradise on earth.’

Colonialism turned Africa into a nightmare for Africans and a paradise for settlers. The removal of colonialism and settler domination required a new form of politics. We now know that many of the leaders of the anti-colonial movement internalised the ideas of European superiority. Politically the youths of Egypt are creating new forms of struggles with new ideas about organizing. Philosophically, these youths are seeking to harness the spiritual energies to move beyond greed and individualism and to move beyond differences between Christians and Muslims. Philosophically, Ubuntu is being seen as the tool for the new politics.

The philosophy of Ubuntu seeks to break the divisions between the rational and irrational human, between space and time, objectivity and subjectivity and those ideas of ‘science’ that devalues the spiritual dimension of life. Within the present leadership of the African Union are to be found many leaders and intellectuals who are in full agreement with the World Bank and the view that water should be a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. The present constitution of international politics challenges organic scholars of the oppressed to conceptualise a prolonged popular struggle and not to be lured by the social capital of those who oppress the vast majority. The revelations of the water wealth are only one other component of the information to oppose western imperial domination.

Those who are struggling against the commodification of water are struggling against the commodification of life in the Biotech Century.

Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University.

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