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Botswana Is Running Out of Water, And It Could Undo Its Economic Success

Southern Africa highlights how climate change is threatening even the most successful economies in the developing world.
Photo by Jon Hrusa/EPA

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The Gaborone Dam sits in a short stack of hills on the outskirts of Botswana's capital. Today it is parched silt, the punishing heat having burned off the little water left behind after a storm last week snapped a dry spell that has felt endless to many residents.

A sleepy, low-rise city of 230,000 people, Gaborone is the heart of the global diamond industry, which is fed by the giant Jwaneng and Orapa mines to the east and north. It is a prosperous place by regional standards, but a deep drought across most of Southern Africa has meant that the city has been experiencing rolling water outages for the first time in living memory for most Batswana.


It is an unprecedented and frightening situation in a country that has a reputation as one of Africa's best-run economies — a rare place that has successfully translated its diamond wealth into genuine development — and one which illustrates how climate change is undermining progress and creating new challenges for societies in the developing world. As extreme weather events become more severe and more frequent, experts warn that decades of work and billions of dollars spent in bringing populations out of poverty in Southern Africa could be undone.

"The cost of the solutions that are going to have to be put in, they are going to eclipse the development priorities of the country," said Muyeye Chambwera, a technical specialist at the United Nations Development Program who advises the government of Botswana on sustainable development. "The advent of climate change is worsening this situation as we speak. This is a situation that this country has never experienced before."

Scrubland around Jwaneng township is dry after weeks without rain. 

The Jwaneng diamond mine is among the world's richest, and mining companies are under pressure to limit their water use as the drought bites. 

The impact on the economy has been immediate, and exacerbated by a parallel shortage of energy.

Martin Kadwe, who runs a pottery business on the outskirts of town, supplying hotels and the tourist trade, has to bring water in from a borehole, paying 300 pula ($30) for a 2,500 liter tank that he brings in on a flatbed truck. Without water, his business would close, but he is losing money and time fixing the problem.

"It's been three weeks out of the last four," he said. "This has never happened before."


"It affects everyone from top to bottom. Shops have to shut down because there's no water in the bathroom," said Imraan Arbi, an entrepreneur who runs a logistics business in Gaborone.

Big companies have tanks and reserves, which have allowed them to mitigate some of the worst effects, but everyone is suffering. Hotels are rationing water to their guests, and the small manufacturing sector is struggling without water for cooling and cleaning.

"It has had a socialising effect," Arbi said. "People call their friends and say: 'Have you got water, have you got power?' and everyone goes over there."

Entrepreneur Martin Kadwe has had to resort to buying water from a local borehole, paying $30 to fill his tank. 

Botswana is not alone in its current crisis. South Africa, the continent's second largest and arguably most sophisticated economy, is also suffering from the drought. The water utilities have had to impose rolling outages in its cities. The agriculture industry there — which is mostly water-intensive, irrigated farming — has turned to the government for bailouts after their yields collapsed, leaving many unable to service their debts. Hundreds of thousands of cattle may have to be slaughtered early, as there is not enough feed or water to sustain them.

In Zimbabwe, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has warned that cereal yields could fall by half, pushing thousands of people back into dependence on aid.

Water stress has been a concern in the region for years, but worsening climatic conditions mean the depth of droughts have outpaced government capacity to build infrastructure and fix perennial problems, such as leaky urban water systems and over use of scarce water resources by industry and consumers.


In 1990, Botswana acknowledged that it needed to upgrade its water infrastructure and began a 30-year plan, according to Minister of Minerals, Energy, and Water Resources Onkokame Kitso Mokaila.

"If we had done everything it said, we wouldn't be where we are now," he said.

The country has water in dams in the north, but cannot move it down to Gaborone in the south.

"So the real problem is caused by a lack of infrastructure, rather than a lack of water," Mokaila said.

Related: A G7 Report Says Climate Change Can Fuel Political Upheaval Like Civil Wars

The government of Botswana is turning to huge and costly projects to try to insure the country against future crises. It will join a South African scheme to pipe water from Lesotho, a heavily forested mountain country that is a rare water tower for the region. Another pipeline will snake down from the Zambezi to the north. Both will require massive capital investments, and will give upstream countries considerable bargaining power over their neighbors.

The notion that water is an economic resource as well as a public good may have to become more widely accepted as the supply tightens.

"We're in a difficult situation, we don't have many rivers, which is why there is a lot of groundwater use," said Keith Jefferis, one of Botswana's leading economists and the former deputy governor of its central bank. "Essentially, that water is being mined, and we're taking it out faster than it's being replenished. The sustainability of water resources is not really sufficiently taken into account."


The country needs to figure out how to better value its environmental services, according to Jefferis — a politically sensitive calculation that could disadvantage several influential constituencies.

"Water [in Botswana] is too cheap for a water-scarce country," he said. "Farmers don't pay for water. Mining companies don't pay for water. They take water from boreholes. There's no user fee. Once they've put in the infrastructure, the water's free… If you mine diamonds, you pay a royalty to government. If you mine water, you don't."

Gaborone, Botswana's sleepy capital, is the centre of the diamond business, but the economy is struggling due to water and power crises. 

Bruce Cleaver, head of strategy at De Beers, which runs the country's largest mining operations in a joint venture with the government, said that the company has invested heavily in water efficiency and recycling at its mines.

As decisions over infrastructure financing go on at the upper echelons of government, ordinary Batswana — and the citizens of neighboring countries — will need to come to terms with the new normal of routine water scarcity — and adapt.

"People used to build houses with five bathrooms. Each kid had a bathroom. Those things must stop," Mokaila said. "We have to talk about efficiency. We have to re-engineer our economy and our industries."

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Photos by Peter Guest