Saturday, March 17, 2012

Africa's Elephants and Water: African governments' dilemma in conserving both

In decades past, Africa was the wild continent, the epitome of nature unleashed. But in recent years it has been seen as a source of human sorrow through wars, drought, and disease. Two recent news articles confronted those images and show the dilemma that African governments currently face.

USA Today reported that poachers are taking a heavy toll on African elephants in supposedly protected reserves like Bouba N'Djida National Park in the Republic of Cameroon. Park rangers are poorly trained and ill equipped to combat the heavily armed poachers that have killed at least half of the park's 400 elephants for their ivory tusks. Northern Cameroon's elephant population represents 80 percent of the total population of savanna elephants in all of Central Africa.

Under pressure from the World Wildlife Fund and the European Union, the government sent in 150 soldiers at the start of the month and while there have been unconfirmed reports of confrontations, the poaching continues. Twenty elephants were reported killed in the first week of March alone.

The demand for ivory is a result of Chinese middlemen that have moved in to corner the market on poached ivory to satisfy a market demand for ivory in China.

USA Today reported,
"Growing demand for ivory in China is 'the leading driver behind the illegal trade in ivory today,' said Tom Milliken, an elephant and rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. China has a legal ivory market that is supposed to be highly controlled but tons and tons of illegal ivory has made its way there in recent years, said the Zimbabwe-based Milliken, who spoke in a conference call with several World Wildlife Fund officers."

In the meantime, according to an article in allAfrica, much of Africa is wrestling with the challenge of a lack of a predictable water supply. Africa can experience extremes in rainfall from torrential monsoons to severe droughts. Many African nations do not have the infrastructures to capture some of its rainfall so as to provide the people with a more dependable water supply.

Dams and reservoirs are a starting point but these are major construction projects which require the assistance of other nations to help design and build or, at the very least, fund. Part of the problem has been in finding a balance between environmental concerns over what these systems - which would provide need water storage and hydroelectric power - would do to the surrounding countryside versus the needs of the African people.

According to Mike Muller, professor at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management at the South African University of Witwatersrand,
"You have a situation in Germany or Switzerland where you have strong environmental lobbyists who feel that dams are an infringement on the natural environment ... And you have situations where ministers will say, 'We cannot talk about storing water because that involves construction, which we cannot support'. Yet African governments know that if they don't store water given our variable climate, we are at the mercy of nature and it's a very cruel nature at times."

"The potential in the Congo could power all of Africa's current electricity needs and the same again, spare," says Muller. "If we start looking at the rest of southern Africa we could probably have replaced two of the huge coal-fired power stations that we're building in South Africa with hydropower, but the environmentalists don't want it, it's really anomalous."

Africa does appear to have one potential partner willing to participate: China. With its ongoing growth, China has an interest in Africa's natural resources and it has the skill and capabilities in building the dam and hydroelectric infrastructure that Africa needs.

"There is a coherence between China's capability as the world's pre-eminent builder of large water infrastructure and its interests in Africa's natural resources, many of which require the development of power, transport and water infrastructure for their successful extraction," says Muller.

So, here is the socio-political dilemma: China could be Africa's shining white knight coming to its aid to provide the necessary infrastructure to better ensure a constant water supply. In turn, China also becomes a strong economic partner. With that relationship in place, what are the chances that African governments that are benefiting from trade with China will be willing to seriously curtail the illegal ivory trade since most of the ivory is going to their new economic ally?

Many western nations want to see Africa preserve its wildlife heritage, but we have also seen the terrible price paid in human suffering when African nations are struck by drought and the famine it can produce. Will China be willing to curtail its demand for ivory as a trade-off for gaining other natural resources that Africa has to offer its industrious neighbor to the east? Will western nations step up and offer solutions for Africa that can meet the challenges of both preserving the environment - including iconic animals like the elephant - and providing a desperately needed consistent water supply for its people?

Where some nations wrestle with ecology versus energy demands in the form of coal and oil, Africa is having to consider something more fundamental: the need for water to survive.

Source: USA Today
Source: allAfrica

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