Beating the Odds – Approaches for Developing Infrastructure for Water, Energy and Food Security in Africa

An irrigation pivot watering a field of turnips.

If Africa’s water, agriculture and energy security were a card game, the stakes would be high.  The continent will have a quarter of the world’s population by 2015 with a demographic boom that will bring 370 million youth to the job market in the next 15 years. Africa’s growth is expected to flourish in both cities and rural areas driven by agriculture, extractive industries, construction and services boosted by private consumption and infrastructure investment.

It is expected that competition will increase between bulk water and agriculture over the next 5 years, followed by competition between agriculture and energy. Within fifteen years difficulties between water and energy are also expected. However, it is not too late as water availability and the available range of technical options (including infrastructure) are not yet major constraints.  But they may be in the future.

Yet players cannot hold their cards too close to their chests if long term, durable solutions are to be found. Investing existing scarce resources (finance and water) into single use infrastructure may only provide short term usefulness when similar investment in multi-purpose infrastructure could produce also benefits into the long term for water, energy and food. In spite of this, a recent ICA annual report shows that only some 2.5 % of water sector investments addressed this opportunity.

The water-energy-food nexus strategy

It is a good time to mainstream the water-energy-food nexus into infrastructure development while there still are opportunities. Nexus strategies are based on improved understanding of the interdependencies between water-energy-food systems.  The nexus is being promoted as a process for allocating and using resources to ensure water, energy and food security for an ever-growing population. This is at a time of climate change, land use transformation, economic diversification and the need to make development pay while diversifying livelihood opportunities. The interlinkages between players (stakeholders) and how they cooperate to maximize benefits will differ from location to location as do the challenges and opportunities. Scale is also crucial.

Players (stakeholders) need to think out of the ‘water-box’ to find the best solutions; which means not only looking at what is happening within the local catchment but also beyond these boundaries and to other sectors. For example, severe flooding is now a problem in the Volta River Basin while Burkina Faso is intending to transform itself into a major rice producer. Further study is needed to identify a real opportunity here, two approaches suggest themselves.

One is that rice basins can attenuate floods and as such represent a multi-purpose opportunity.  The other is to invest scarce water in crops that make best use of it, and import those that don’t.  Not only would this increase the agricultural productivity of the water involved, the expanded and diversified livelihood opportunities along the market chain would contribute to economic growth and socio-economic transformation – ‘more jobs per drop’.

Political compromise between agricultural self-sufficiency and agricultural sector makeovers could make investment in combined energy and agriculture infrastructure desirable rather than controversial – if correctly crafted and acknowledging a well regulated market. Cost recovery potential is directly proportional to farmer profits, and increased reliability of irrigation and well-regulated markets has the potential to make farmers shift to higher value farming systems. This encourages investments in agricultural value chains where risks of failure can be mitigated by reliable good quality inputs and cheap energy.

To enable such strategies the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa commissioned the study, with IWA and IUCN, “Nexus trade-offs and strategies for addressing the water, agriculture and energy security nexus in Africa”.  It provides an overview of selected regional challenges and opportunities for multipurpose (water infrastructure); and the Rapid Assessment Framework (RAF) tool with which stakeholders (players) can assess how current and upcoming infrastructure projects deal with nexus challenges. The RAF provides a preliminary way to analyse the expected performance, benefits and trade-offs of existing and upcoming infrastructure projects.

Playing the best hand

According to the study, the diverse opportunities to mobilise depend on a combination of the players involved and the context, but if a nexus strategy is to be followed the best approaches for:

Development Partners (development banks and bilateral donors) – should be a focus on policy and institutional measures; these are needed to establish an enabling environment for multi-purpose infrastructure especially for large scale and transboundary basin level investments

Regional Bodies and National Governments should be a focus on capacity building for and investments in multi-purpose infrastructure, including innovative financing models that facilitate equity participation by small producers in value chains.

The Commercial Sectorwould be to, either independently or in partnerships with Governments, be to invest at any scale in both commercial agriculture and electricity supply.  At a small scale this could be in outgrower programmes and value chains.  As scale increases, there will be various opportunities for commercial investments including Public Private Partnerships.

Communities would be to participate financially – through labour or kind (if cash is not available) – in all publicly funded projects from which they benefit. Innovative financing methods could be used to increase access to better equipment, as well as to obtain equity in value chains and diversify their farming systems towards water smart agriculture.

To address many of the challenges facing the management of water, energy and food resources there needs to be active cooperation between these different institutions which may require reformulation of policy approaches and institutional priorities.

The study outlines a roadmap towards nexus solutions in a typical African transboundary river basin including identifying possible regional solutions to local problems and understanding the institutional capacity and the gaps to reach implementation. This provides an overview of where investment can be focused. Investments need to include agreed cost/benefits sharing protocols. This provides an opportunity for hands-on training and joint communications and learning with key stakeholders to propose infrastructure development of (multi scale, natural or built) that has benefits across sectors.  This can lead to the development of an investment portfolio for nexus infrastructure investments and the sharing of benefits across sectors and between stakeholders.

The study and the tool are now available on the IWA, IUCN and ICA websites. For more information on the findings of the study and recommendations, please contact us.citiWith contributions from Carolina Latorre and Katharine Cross, IWA, and James Dalton, IUCN


Documents and reports attached to this page

Phil Riddell

Riddell Associates LTD.