> Emerging Water Management Issues > Foreword
Science in Africa
The Symposium on Science in Africa: Emerging Water Management Issues, held February 17, 1998, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was organized by the Sub-Saharan Africa Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as part of its ongoing SCIENCE IN AFRICA series. The symposium featured compelling presentations by four leading African scientists plus one US scientist with special expertise in the region; it is their papers that comprise this publication. They were joined by an able panel of US discussants, all with research experience in freshwater systems: Les Kaufman, from Boston University, and Colin and Lauren Chapman, from the University of Florida. Tom Crisman, also from University of Florida, served as moderator.
Among the challenges currently facing Africa, perhaps none is more important, nor more often overlooked, than the threat to the continent's supply of clean, fresh water. In most African sub-regions water is relatively scarce; throughout the continent, even where the supply itself is adequate in quantitative terms, the quality of the water is in serious decline. It is common knowledge that water is an essential resource for life on earth. What is unfortunately far less common is the knowledge of how to tend to this resource properly to ensure its availability for future generations.
The threats to Africa's lakes, rivers, and wetlands come in several forms, among them eutrophication, salinization, and pollution from industrial effluents and chemical run-off, and extend to broader ecosystem concerns, including exotic weed infestation, declining fish populations, habitat destruction, and loss of biodiversity. Most if not all of these effects, however, can be traced to a generalized single cause: Human activity. The introduction of alien fish species, devegetation of catchment areas, use of pesticides, and disposal of wastes, to name a few examples, driven by a variety of competing human needs, have severely impacted these finely balanced ecosystems; current usage patterns are simply unsustainable. Research can help us understand the chemistry, biology, and physics of the relevant interactions; at least as challenging are the contextual socioeconomic factors, such as population pressure, poverty, and North-South economic relationships, which lie at the heart of the matter.
In immediate practical terms the water problem in Africa is a problem of management. To date it has been typical for a number of different agencies to be responsible for the numerous freshwater ecosystem resources in a given country. Fisheries issues, agricultural issues, industrial waste issues, and drinking water issues, for example, have been addressed separately and without coordination. Government policies have generally emphasized exploitation for development at the expense of conservation and sustainability. In most countries there is no single agency responsible for wetlands management, as there tends to be for agriculture and forestry. To complicate matters further, the major freshwater ecosystems in Africa are shared by multiple nations; if coordination within a country is difficult, the task is all the more daunting across political boundaries.
Ecosystem integrity is beginning to receive acknowledgement in some quarters as the foundation upon which sound management must be built. This acknowledgement may be counted among the triumphs of scientific research. Still, much research remains to be done, both in order to understand the changes that have already occurred in these ecosystems and to establish baseline data by which future changes can be evaluated. If policy and management decisions are to have any hope of ensuring the sustainable use of freshwater resources, they will have to be informed by sound scientific research.
The symposium was held in order to address these issues, with an historically grounded but forward-looking view of critical economic, social, and political implications. The papers presented here provide a telling overview of the status of freshwater ecosystems across all of sub-Saharan Africa, touching on multiple dimensions of these complex issues and highlighting at least as many common concerns as regional differences.
The year 1998 marked the eighth consecutive AAAS Annual Meeting featuring a symposium in the SCIENCE IN AFRICA series, and the twelfth installment of the series overall. Through these high-visibility meetings and publications, there is now an impressive record of the accomplishments of Africa's most productive researchers and progressive, activist administrators and policymakers. AAAS is grateful to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for the generous support that made the symposium and this publication possible.
I would also like to thank Patricia Rosenfield of the Carnegie Corporation of New York for her invaluable advice and assistance during the planning stages of this endeavor; Alphonse Bigirimana, Project Coordinator with the Sub-Saharan Africa Project, for capably arranging all the logistics of the symposium; Peter Schmidt, former Director of the Sub-Saharan Africa Project, and the aforementioned Tom Crisman, who together built the symposium from the ground up; and not least the speakers and discussants themselves, especially those who travelled great distances, for so cogently presenting their collective wisdom on this complex and vitally important topic.