Water and energy vital to halt Africa’s land degradation
Africa’s rapid urbanisation is placing ongoing pressure on available land and demanding far-sighted and coordinated national responses – as the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP) in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in May 2022 will highlight.
By Darryll Kilian
This event will be the 15th COP hosted by the United National Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and will review the progress made between 2010 and 2020 as well as evaluate its strategic framework for 2018 to 2030. It is likely to further explore the important linkages between land, water and energy management in the efforts to halt and reverse land degradation trends.
Desertification, drought and land degradation (DDLD) have long been on the radar of many governments and international organisations, alongside related issues such as tenure security, land governance and transboundary aquifer management. The sustainable management of water and land are clearly inextricably bound, but more recently the focus has also included energy.
Southern Africa, for instance, shares with much of the continent a number of development and migration challenges that are placing significant stress on land availability. At the same time, the region needs higher production from agriculture. Without effective water management, the productive capacity of land is undermined. Similarly, the energy needs of growing cities can also erode land quality; consider the uncontrolled collection of wood for generating energy in emerging satellite settlements around existing cities where basic municipal services are already stretched.
Without effective water management, the productive capacity of land is undermined. Image credit: jeff-ackley-YwDo_HwORXs-unsplash
These challenges are by no means new, but our understanding of their complexity – and hence the way that we respond with appropriate policy and action – should gradually be improving. One of the ways this is being achieved is to better appreciate the ‘nexus’ (or meeting points) of these vital elements of land, water and energy (LWE).
Land degradation in SADC countries is the result of numerous natural and human-induced processes. These include soil erosion, non-sustainable agricultural practices, burning of wood for charcoal, chemical degradation and threats to biodiversity. Livelihoods of the region’s subsistence farmers have been undermined by these processes, with land tenure systems often exacerbating the difficulties of land management.
Almost 85% of Southern Africa comprises of drylands, with 60% of these – mainly in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa – being categorised as semi-arid. The region’s drylands are vulnerable to the urban sprawl referred to already, but also to climate change; these factors will affect ecosystem services and increase land degradation. The most widespread form of land degradation in Southern Africa is soil erosion, an important factor that has degraded some 15% of the region’s land to date.
Research has shown how degradation reduces ecosystem services and leads to lower agricultural productivity. Image credit: annie-spratt-GaLzDCnA5EI-unsplash
Energy poverty, water scarcity
Where rural communities are poor, they tend to rely heavily on traditional energy sources like wood. As urban populations grow, so will charcoal production, with inevitable land use changes and degradation especially of dryland forest and woodland. Research has shown how such degradation reduces ecosystem services and leads to lower agricultural productivity.
The region’s water resources also pose a challenge to keeping land in southern Africa as productive as it could be. Such have been the levels of economic development and population growth in the region, that several SADC member states are expected to be water-stressed by 2025. It is mainly South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe that will be affected, but others are not immune.
SADC states are responding to the challenge of land degradation, embracing commitments to better manage and restore land resources, and to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targets. The region’s action programme to combat desertification has also been aligned to the UNCCD’s ten-year strategy – to promote adaptive management during planning, implementation and monitoring of activities related to Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN).
What is important in ensuring the impact of these efforts is systemic thinking – or nexus thinking – leading to integrated solutions that leverage the strong links between the agriculture, water, energy and environmental sectors. The result would be better resource-use efficiency across the region, ensuring that the LWE nexus is approached both as top-down and bottom-up – to build a knowledge base on best practice, policies, and solutions.
On the energy front, for instance, there is plenty of scope for renewable energy projects in southern Africa. It is predicted that almost 40% of the region’s total generation could be from renewable sources by 2030. Energy-related expansions by the private sector, and decommissioning of coal-powered power stations (and the mines that feed them) will impact on land use. The land use requirement for these renewable energy facilities is considerable and requires substantial planning.
In a similar vein, water is vital to allow land to play its role in sustaining livelihoods. Land management therefore needs attention to be paid to a range of water issues from effective groundwater management to restoring the water quality affected by abandoned mines.
The LWE nexus is directly relevant to the Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) activities that SADC countries are committing to, as part of their planning, implementation and monitoring measures to promote adaptive management. An important area of interest is the local application of the Great Green Wall (GGW) concept, implemented in the Sahel to reverse desertification. This was endorsed by SADC in 2019, and offers a coordination mechanism to combat land degradation in southern Africa.
The key to gaining the most traction from an LWE nexus approach will be through stable land governance frameworks and tenure security for all. It will also need LDN objectives to fully integrate land-use planning with land, water and energy use management. For a large-scale regional impact, close collaboration between SADC countries is vital. As global organisations such as the UN continue to focus on international solutions, there are also multiple sources of innovative finance to support projects with relevance and impact.
 FAO (2019) Trees, forests and land use in drylands: the first global assessment – Full report. FAO Forestry Paper No. 184. Rome
 IRENA, 2021. Energy Transformation in Southern Africa Boosted by New IRENA
Agreement with SACREEE. Press release by International Renewable Energy
Darryll Kilian is partner and principal ESG consultant, SRK Consulting
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