Johannesburg: North Africa’s current political conflagration, fuelled in part by rising food prices, should focus the attention of southern Africa’s governments on challenges to our food security, including the ever present threat of drought and the longer- term effects of climate change. A practical, regional approach to food and water security in southern Africa could also re-energise the stalled regional integration agenda and help to cement SA’s case for joining the Brics, the dominant developing market economies. SA’s inclusion as a "half-brick", among the big Brics, has once again raised the question of what a southern African future might look like and what we need to do to get there.
Our qualifications for Bric membership, alongside the likes of China, India, Brazil and Russia, are weak. Our population of 50-million is less than a third that of Russia’s, the next smallest Bric and dwarfed by that of China, which is 27 times greater. Our economy is tiny, less than a quarter the size of Russia’s and India’s and less than 6% of China’s. Since we are growing more slowly than our Brics partners, the economic gap will continue to widen.
Bring the rest of southern Africa into the picture and things change. The region’s population is 270-million and growing faster than the Brics. The combined land area of Southern African Development Community (Sadc) member states (including the Democratic Republic of Congo) is second only to Russia. While still small, the Sadc’s collective economy begins to get into the same league: 34% the size of India, 38% that of Russia. And, if we believe that poorer countries grow faster than more affluent ones, that differential should shrink over the next few decades.
So the "s" in Brics should be southern, not South, Africa.
However, the regional integration train is a victim of the region’s faltering institutional and physical infrastructure. The integration agenda has been shunted into a policy siding, the terrain of trade economists and infrastructure policy specialists. It has not captured the popular imagination, which remains more concerned about the effect of immigration and political shenanigans in Sadc states (including, at times, our own).
What is needed is some evidence that regional integration will actually bring some benefits. Here, hydrology may be able to help, by showing that one plus one can sometimes equal three.
Water is an area in which the benefits of regional co-operation are already evident. Millions of people in Gauteng depend on Orange River water for their domestic supplies. To pump that water from Aliwal North, where it enters SA, would be fearfully expensive. Instead, SA pays Lesotho generously to use its territory to transport the water through dams and tunnels to the headwaters of the Vaal. There is no pumping, indeed, Lesotho generates hydroelectricity from the water as it passes by.
So, through co-operation between neighbours, everyone is better off, even the few hundred displaced Basotho residents who were handsomely compensated for the disruption to their lives. Similar co-operation between Mozambique, Swaziland and SA, albeit on a smaller scale, is helping thousands of Swazi peasant farmers to make a better living on the lower Usutu river.
Less visible but as exciting is the further benefit from connecting different river basins. Hydrologists, who analyse how much water can reliably be taken from our hugely variable rivers, show that building connections between two river systems produces surprising results. The rivers provide more water than they would if left separate. Environmentalists fret over the implications of merging two different ecosystems but the social and economic benefits are huge.
It’s not just in water that benefit can flow from greater co-operation across national boundaries. Most southern African countries give high priority to maintaining adequate food supplies in the face of volatile world markets. One challenge is that, like river flows, food production depends on the weather. However, because the Sadc is so large, a drought in SA is unlikely to be reflected in Angola, Zambia or Tanzania. So if food security were addressed at a regional level, with plans to move food from one part of the region to the other in lean times, it would be easier to achieve food security and price stability than working within national boundaries. Of course, that will need rail links to work, storage facilities to be available and, just as important, that trade barriers be removed and border control improved.
However, the cost of not integrating more closely has been demonstrated in the energy sector where, because we did not work together, we missed the chance to develop the clean, renewable hydropower resources that are available in the region. While we have a regional power pool through which electricity can be shared among countries, we could not agree to develop the best and cleanest regional energy sources first. As a result, we need coal and nuclear projects to keep the lights on, leaving southern Africa as a whole dirtier and less competitive.
At the same time, we missed the opportunity for multipurpose water resource development that could have supported irrigation, reducing the threat of droughts and floods. This could in turn be linked to opportunities to produce fuels crops in a manner that complements and supports food production (rather than the reverse), since this is only likely to be viable if there is a regional market for biofuels.
The design of such regional development approaches is difficult since it must ensure mutual benefit, not just between countries but within them. Concerns about land grabs in Africa (including Sadc countries) as well as the involvement of South African farmers in Sadc and further afield, highlight the risks. Food security is not just about producing food; it is as important to ensure that people, particularly poor people, can access it. So if food is produced but livelihoods destroyed — by the introduction of large scale mechanis ed farming, for instance — food security will suffer even as more food is produced. If water projects divert resources from existing users, they will have the same effect.
The challenge is to develop models of regional co-operation that contribute to food and water security, not just food production, which means considering the social and environmental concerns, the economics and trade policy issues as well as the technical nuts and bolts of agricultural and water development. But the Sadc has ample land and water — although not always in the most useful places — as well as millions of people looking to improve their livelihoods. So the incentive to find solutions is strong.
Later this month, the National Planning Commission, in partnership with the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the global water and agriculture organisations Global Water Partnership and International Water Management Institute and the East African and Southern African regional communities will bring together experts, practitioners and policy makers to imagine a regional future that is food and water secure and to discuss how to achieve it. By focusing on issues of immediate practical concern, such as food and water, the hope is they can help to get the regional co-operation train back on track. If we achieve that, southern Africans will able to show the world that we truly deserve our place in the new Brics wall.
• Mike Muller is a commissioner with the National Planning Commission and visiting adjunct professor at the Wits University Graduate School of Public and Development Management.