Our wells are running dry – How women scientists can help

Seventeenth century English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller once said: “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry” – a statement which figuratively describes the human capacity to take all good things for granted while they last, but which is also rooted in a fundamental scientific truth: water as the basis for all life on Earth.

Fuller’s famous words were recently recalled by Professor Lindiwe Sibanda, director of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence in Food Security based at the University of Pretoria, to describe the essence of a growing global problem: water insecurity, made much worse by climate change, and the disproportionate burden it places on women.

As a guest speaker at the University of Pretoria’s fourth annual Women in Science Symposium which explored the theme “Gender, Diversity and Inclusion: Water Unites Us” on 19 August 2022, Sibanda was concerned at all times to balance her obvious reservations about the poor management of the continent’s water resources – born of 30 years’ experience working in the area of sustainable food systems – with her confidence in the capacity of science and scientists, particularly the growing cadre of African women scientists, to improve a world in which 2.2 billion people do not have access to safely managed drinking water.

“It breaks my heart when we drive along our rivers during the dry season to see the amount of siltation, which means we are no longer collecting the amount of water we collected in the past … But no one seems to care. No one seems to be working on strategies to remove that silt and make sure we store more water,” she said.

Humans are to blame for the mess

Sibanda lays the blame squarely on human beings for having “disturbed the water cycle”.

“This is why we find ourselves in this mess,” she said candidly, calling for people to “introspect and ask ourselves what can I do to help save water? What can I do for those women who struggle to find water? What can I do for the food that we enjoy, to make sure we use less water for more?”

Referring to the quest for universal access to “safe and affordable” water and sanitation by 2030 – encapsulated in the United Nations Sustainable Development (SDG) Goal 6 – she said it was important to stress affordability (“‘affordable’ with a big underline,” she said).

“We are spending more money buying water because we don’t trust the water that is provided by the public system. We are spending money digging deeper for underground water because the water levels have gone down. We are not even investing in [addressing the lack of] toilet facilities … so will we achieve the SDGs at this rate?”

“We need to do better,” she said. “In developing countries, up to 90% of all municipal wastewater still goes untreated, yet we have money to buy water because we can afford it. The strain not only affects surface water, freshwater like rivers and lakes, but it also degrades groundwater resources.

“In short, we are in a mess. Our money cannot buy us a future world that is happy for children. Water is life … We all know that many have lived without love, but I can assure you not one has lived without water.”

Science is part of the solution

Addressing possible solutions, Sibanda highlighted the potential of science.

“We need to look at new opportunities through regenerative agriculture. We need to look at how best we can use science to reformulate the way we acquire our water, the way we use the water, the way we clean it up so that we can recycle it … Only then can we ensure that there is a place for the next generation.”

A particular responsibility for water conservation is carried by African women, she suggested, in part because in Africa, 80% of food – from the planting of seeds in the field and the preparation of food for the family to factory processing – passes through the hands of women.

“Mothers still remain the fortress for deciding the meals for the children. Therefore, water conservation begins with us. Are we safeguarding the water that we have and are we mindful of how we use it?”

Water insecurity is also about equity

As the symposium theme made clear, while we are united on this planet by the need for water, we are also divided by the same need. As Sibanda argued, issues of water insecurity and climate change are also issues of equity.

“The countries that are contributing the most to global greenhouse gas emissions are almost exclusively high or upper middle-income countries, with China, European Union and the United States contributing almost half of the total global commissions. Collectively, the top 10 emitters account for over two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, whereas we [Africa] sit right at the bottom contributing less than 3%. Isn’t it an unfair world?” Sibanda asked.

Additionally, she noted, the voices of those enduring the brunt of climate change are not always being heard.

“For a long time we have suffered the most,” she said. “ There is also significant inequity around representation in global conversations. What we find is that the conversations on policy debate when it comes to water and climate are dominated by Global North institutions.”

The silent voices at the table

Sibanda said expertise in context-specific knowledge from African and Asian leaders and countries was currently missing at the decision-making tables leading to uninformed and ineffective policies at global level.

“Strengthening the capacity of institutions in the Global South especially in Africa and South Asia to engage more effectively and equitably in both national and international decision-making processes will begin to redress the longstanding power imbalances both within and between countries,” she said.

“Effective adaptation is dependent upon understanding local context and enhancing local knowledge, political will and ownership.”

Sibanda called for the “African voice” to contribute strongly to debates leading to the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP27, to be held in November in Egypt, during which water issues are to feature strongly.

She said Future Africa, the University of Pretoria’s transdisciplinary research centre, had four female postdoctoral fellows who are conducting research on the impact of climate change on food systems; land restoration and biodiversity; people, animal and ecosystem health and well-being; and land, water and energy resource uses.

“We hope from the knowledge we've collected from all over Africa we will take this voice not just to the Egypt COP27 but worldwide to make sure, from the bottom up, we can begin to inform policies,” she said.

A pipeline of women scientists …

She said investment from multinational companies such as Pepsico, Unilever, Nestlé and the North Face into regenerative farming initiatives in Africa will require companies to keep track of their own carbon emissions, which will create an opening for African scientists.

“I think university scientists are the best placed people to verify that data. They are best placed to be the scientists that validate what is being reported globally. If we sit back, we will get the brunt of the worst of climate change.”

Ending her presentation with a call to action, Sibanda said it was time for women to “catch up” when it comes to manifestations of gender inequity such as pay discrepancies. She said women must innovate by developing new products and new systems to help people use fewer resources for more, or at least the same benefits.

“Clearly water unites us; it speaks to gender diversity; it speaks to inclusion and no one should be left behind. For too long the African woman’s story on water is a 20-litre bucket carried on the head transported from a dirty well to the household. What have we scientists done about that? What have we as women done about that?”

Sibanda said it was necessary to build a pipeline of women scientists. “Every professor needs to make sure they have at least five [women] in their pipeline, not just students but friends that they can mobilise to occupy the boardrooms of international boards, to occupy university councils, to occupy professorial positions, to recommend each other…“If we don’t start doing it and we don’t do it for ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”