Water usage has become an increasing concern as the world strives to adapt to a changing climate that is altering global water distribution. Developing regions that rely heavily on agriculture – such as Southern Africa – need efficient water infrastructure that supports the livelihoods of their population and the region’s overall Economic Development Encompassing 15 transboundary river basins, the SADC region has an abundance of renewable water. However, infrastructural hurdles currently prevent these water resources from reaching their maximum potential.

Due to its extensive influence over the region’s people and its economic development, SADC has designated a specific regulatory body, the SADC Water Division, to oversee policies on water resources and sanitation infrastructure in the region and ensure their timely implementation.

The SADC Water Division

With 70% of regional water resources crossing national boundaries, the SADC region requires the SADC Water Division to oversee harmonisation of national water use policies and to moderate transboundary issues. It aims to ensure that water in Southern Africa is used in a sustainable and equitable fashion through facilitating cooperation of SADC Member States in treating water as a regional resource that requires management and protection across national boundaries.

In implementing these policies, SADC receives extensive support from its 22 International Cooperating Partners committed to keeping water resources a priority in the region.

Current Challenges

Although Southern Africa has plentiful water resources, inefficiently deployed infrastructure currently blocks their use and distribution.

Water volumes vary widely throughout the region. Collection is seasonal in most Member States and tropical areas in the centre of Africa receive substantially more rainfall than arid regions in the southwest. As a whole, the region accumulates approximately 2,300 km³ of renewable water resources per year, but only 14% is retained for use, mostly in Lake Kariba and Cahora Bassa along the Zambezi River.

While most of this reserved water is used for irrigation, demands from industrial agriculture often conflict with those of domestic farmers’, resulting in subsistence farmers not receiving appropriate water quotas. These results directly contribute to food insecurity throughout the region, a substantial component of poverty in Southern Africa.

Of the remaining water reserves, 18% goes toward domestic use. However, due to a lack of infrastructure, only 61% of the region’s population has access to safe drinking water and 39% has access to adequate sanitation facilities.

Beyond the impact on human development, the lack of infrastructure also inhibits development of the region’s hydroelectric potential. While the region is capable of generating 150 GW of electricity through hydropower, only 12 GW is currently produced. Similarly, 50 million hectares of irrigable land is available for agricultural development in the region, yet only 3.4 million hectares are currently irrigated.

Regional Water Programmes Supported by Implementing Agencies

  • SADC Water Fund
  • SADC Groundwater Management Institute
  • Climate Resilient Infrastructure Development Facility
  • WaterNet (Capacity Building Network)
  • NEPAD Southern African Network of Water Centres of Excellence (SANWATCE)

River Basin Organisations (RBOs)

  • Cuvelai Watercourse Commission
  • Limpopo Watercourse Commission
  • Permanent Okavango River Basin Water Commission
  • Orange-Senqu River Commission
  • Zambezi Watercourse Commission

Moving Forward

Recognising the importance of the water sector, SADC has developed several tools and strategies for addressing water use and distribution in the region. Visit the following resources for more information on SADC’s previous projects in water resources.

  • SADC Groundwater Grey Literature
  • SADC Groundwater Information Portal
  • SADC Water Hydrogeologic Maps
  • SADC Water Research Agenda

In 2012, SADC released its Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan which outlines plans for infrastructure development over the next 25 years. The Water Sector Plan component identifies 34 infrastructure projects to be implemented over the next 25 years, aimed at raising the level of human and economic development of the region.

The Water Sector Plan identifies three phases. Phase I, running from 2013 to 2021, intends to achieve the following goals:

  • Improving storage of renewable water resources from 14% per year to 25%
  • Increasing the irrigated area from 3.4 million hectares to 10 million hectares – 13% of the potential land available
  • Raising the level of hydropower generation from 12 GW  to 75 GW – 50% of the sector’s potential
  • Increasing access to safe drinking water from 61% of the population to 75% of the population
  • Increasing access to sanitation facilities from 39% of the population to 75% of the population
  • Phase II, beginning in 2018, and Phase III, beginning in 2023, will further these developments, moving toward a water sector operating at 100% of its potential by 2027. 

More Information

See also the Water page under Natural Resources, and the Water Information Services and Portals.