Africa, after a period of remarkable progress, is looking ahead with great optimism. Strong and sustained economic growth is being translated in many parts of the continent into increased prosperity and opportunities. But this bright future will be very different unless decisive steps are taken to address water insecurity.

There is rightly a huge amount of attention on Africa’s inability to grow enough food – despite ample land – to feed its own people. One in seven people on the continent will go hungry today. But, at the heart of that challenge is water scarcity. Agriculture accounts for around 70% of global fresh water use. Without enough water, harvests fail.

It is a problem which climate change and unpredictable rainfall will make much worse. In fact, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, water scarcity is already reducing both yields and the amount of productive land.

And issues of water scarcity and quality have damaging impacts well beyond agriculture. It is crucial to the prosperity of communities, ecosystems and economies.

Just think what could be achieved with the hours released if the long daily trek to the well or river for water was not needed? Or if communities were freed from the need to move in search of water during dry seasons?

This supports the argument that water insecurity is perhaps one of the biggest barrier to Africa’s continuing progress. And why it is so worrying that it is predicted that, with a fast growing population, the gap between water supply and demand in a country such as South Africa will reach 17% by 2030.

Closing this gap against the growing impact of climate change will require a tremendous collective effort from governments, businesses, civil society and communities. It will demand new partnerships and new ways of working from all of us.

So what does this mean for businesses like SABMiller which has deep roots in Africa? It must start, of course, with renewed efforts to be careful with the water we use ourselves.

We set ambitious targets to reduce between 2008 and 2015 the water we use to brew a litre of beer by 25%. It’s a goal we have already met; in fact the water saved in the last year alone is the equivalent of the annual water use of well over 100,000 people on the continent.

But we fully understand that, while reducing our own water use is essential, it is only part of the solution. We – and all businesses – must urgently look beyond our own operations. After all, we depend on the same water as local communities, farmers, and the other businesses that fuel local economies. We must work with these stakeholders to secure our shared water resources – so that communities have uninterrupted access to safe water, farmers can productively grow food and earn their livelihood, and our breweries can continue to brew great beer.

We have learnt that we need to use a range of approaches to tackling shared water risks. What they have in common is that they all involve partnering.

We are working with farmers to help them grow crops in a way that safeguards water resources. In South Africa, for example, we initiated a project to manage the water risk facing the local hops industry in the Southern Cape; a major part of the project is to clear large areas of water intensive non-indigenous invasive plants, restoring biodiversity and releasing water back into local catchment. Sometimes we work with farmers beyond our own value chain, such as in India where agriculture is a major driver of water stress in areas around our breweries, and in Colombia where working with farmers upstream from Bogota is key to resolving water issues for the city.

We have helped catalyse wide-ranging partnerships with governments and other businesses to work together on protecting water resources. And we have formed partnerships with community groups to address localised water risks. Such as in Ndola, Zambia, where we are working with the Zambian government and other stakeholders to rehabilitate and protect a local spring that is key not only to our brewery and local community but also is an important natural heritage site.

The urgent need is to share the lessons learned from these partnerships, scale them, create new partnerships and work hard to make them effective. Tackling water stress is a task all businesses must make a priority – not least because our success depends on the long-term futures of the communities and countries where we make and sell our products and services.

It is not easy. It is not our core business. But to be successful into the future, we must keep challenging ourselves to step up. We must play a leading role in protecting shared water resources. We must make it part of our core business.

Get it wrong and nearly half of the continent’s GDP in 2050 could be at risk from water stress, as the International Food Policy Research Institute has warned. Get it right and Africa’s recent progress will be, as we all hope, a launch pad for a prosperous and stable future right across the continent and for all its citizens.

Author: Anna Swaithes, Head of Water and Food Security Policy, SABMiller

Image: A woman carries water with her daughter from a water hole near Jamam refugee camp in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State March 10, 2012. REUTERS/Hereward Holland