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Remarks delivered at Harvard University Center for African Studies Symposium, “Africa’s Water Opportunity: Science, Sustainability, and Solutions”
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
April 22, 2021

Thank you so much for that kind introduction. Hello everyone. It is good to be here with you, even if “here” is a virtual location rather than a physical one.

I am delighted that Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard’s Center for African Studies have worked together on a number of endeavors in the past few years, including a convening of three former African heads of state and government in 2018 and an event in our Forum with President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone and President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana in 2019. These collaborations are important to ensure that African voices and perspectives are heard across Harvard. In addition, the Kennedy School and the Center for African Studies partner on the Harvard South Africa Fellowship Program, which provides an opportunity for one student each year to pursue a mid-career degree at the Kennedy School.

The late Calestous Juma, who was a professor of the practice of international development at Harvard Kennedy School, was on the board of the Center for African Studies and helped bring together early convenings of the Climate Change, Nutrition, and Health initiative. While his presence is sorely missed today, it is fitting that we are gathered together for this conference, which is inspired in part by his work and legacy.

I am so pleased that, for today’s important symposium, the Center for African Studies has pulled together so many experts from across Harvard, including from the Kennedy School, to join authorities from around the globe. The issues that you will be discussing transcend geographic boundaries and disciplinary boundaries, involving countries across Africa and elsewhere, and drawing on science, policy, health, politics, law, business, and other fields of knowledge. Therefore, we truly need to come together to address these issues effectively. And what day could be more appropriate than Earth Day for such a convening?

As we all know, water is vital for drinking and for growing food. So, the future of water in Africa is crucial for the ability of the people of Africa and the world to survive and thrive in the decades ahead. I am not an expert on water-related issues or on Africa, but I have learned something about what is at stake from a colleague at the Kennedy School, Afreen Siddiqi, who studies the links between water, energy, and food systems in various parts of the world. So, let me make a few brief observations building on this symposium’s subtitle, “science, sustainability, and solutions.”

Science helps us to diagnose the problems we face and to predict what will happen. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that future climate change will cause some regions in Africa to experience less precipitation, increasing the risk of droughts, while others will experience more precipitation, increasing the risk of flooding. Projected global warming may have devastating effects on crop production and food security, which would be a significant blow for a continent whose economy relies so heavily on agriculture. In addition, changes in precipitation and climate patterns may affect human health through the spread of vector-borne diseases.

By learning the science, we realize that we must focus on sustainability—to achieve water security both for the present and for future generations. Africa’s population is growing by 2½ percent per year—twice the rate in Latin America and Asia—and by 2025, one in every four young people worldwide will be from sub-Saharan Africa. This growing population will put more pressure on water resources and on the distribution of those resources. It will be all the more important to ensure that Africa’s “water opportunity” is not seized by a select few but is distributed equitably. In addition, we need to combine our safeguarding of water resources with broader environmental protections that conserve wildlife and vegetation and keep ecosystems healthy. Achieving a fair and sustainable allocation of water poses a significant test for institutions that work within countries and between them.

Using science as a guide, and with sustainability front of mind, we must develop appropriate solutions. Appropriate solutions to Africa’s water challenges have both political and technical dimensions. A key element of the political dimension is cooperation across national boundaries. Almost all sub-Saharan African countries and Egypt share at least one international water basin, so transboundary collaboration is crucial for using water in fair and sustainable ways. On the technical dimension, a key element is innovations in infrastructure and water use. These might include improved storage systems for water, new crop varieties that require less water, technologies that improve water quality, and so on. In addition, new financing models may help farmers, small hydropower operators, and others whose livelihoods depend on a reliable water supply. Developing political and technical solutions is a huge challenge—but a challenge that we can and must meet.

Climate change, population growth, and other pressures on water in Africa are not going away. Every bit of your knowledge and commitment will be needed to address those pressures and to seize water opportunities in Africa. I am so pleased that you are here with us today to help advance this cause, and I hope that you find today’s conversations to be informative and inspiring. Thank you.