Beer is 95% water (the rest is alcohol and gas). In Lubango, a city on a high plateau in Southern Angola, the makers of N’Gola beer depend heavily on a water source of exceptional quality. Rainwater seeps into the vertical crevasses of Tundavala, breathtaking rock formations 2,200 meters above sea level. It collects in the rock then rushes downhill to Lubango, producing at times 200 cubic meters of water per hour. The source is so special it is mentioned on the N’Gola beer label and stylized as a golden waterfall with a crown.
But the water is not only precious because of its taste; it’s also increasingly scarce in an area that has been hit by record droughts in the last few years. Just when the country is hoping to boost water access and diversify its economy, erratic weather is forcing a reckoning with water management practices all over Angola. The challenges are particularly salient in southern provinces and coastal areas.
“Africa is a continent of great promise for large beverage companies. But water supply is the bottleneck for us here,” said Marc Meyer, the manager of the N’Gola beer factory which employs about 700 people and is a major source of revenue for the municipality of Lubango. “It could hinder our expansion.”
From the highlands of Lubango, to the plains of the Cunene River, and the coastal desert of Namibe, a road trip in southern Angola in May 2023 highlighted the critical importance of strengthening water management practices to make progress on water and sanitation goals and promote development.
High population growth and a drop in rainfall is forcing difficult trade-offs in Lubango, Angola’s third largest city. “Last year was the hardest in my 30-year career,” said Domingas Tyikusse, the CEO of the Huila Provincial Water and Sanitation Utility that oversees water supplies for Lubango. Two years with very little rain depleted underground water resources.
More than a million people live in Lubango and its periphery, with more people moving in each year, often in unplanned neighborhoods. Only about 23% of the population has a water connection at home. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
Lubango residents, businesses and institutions have had no choice but to adapt to intermittent water supply. When the Tundavala source slowed to 20 to 30 cubic meters an hour in 2022, the N’Gola factory, was forced to operate at about 60% of its capacity and truck in extra water and extra beer to keep its share of the market.
At Elementary School number 98, where about 1,500 students go to school in two shifts, water access dropped to once a week at the height of the water crisis. The school garden died. This year, water reaches the pipe two or three days a week. The school guard fills up containers whenever water is available, and that reserve helps the school meet its basic needs. “We usually manage to keep enough water. But if we go too many days without, we have to close the toilets,” said Filomena da Conceição de Freitas Barros, the school director since 2012. “It would be nice to have enough water to grow back the garden,” she said wistfully. “I have faith things will improve.”
Filomena da Conceição de Freitas Barros is director Lubango's Elementary School Number 98, where water access is becoming more challenging as water scarcity increases. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
Currently, Lubango’s water comes from a combination of vertical boreholes and a couple of natural springs like the Tundavala one. Under the Second Water Sector Institutional Development Project (PDISA2) financed by the World Bank and the French Agency for Development, Lubango’s main field of boreholes has been rehabilitated and modernized. The boreholes are located in a vast and well-protected natural reserve where vegetation promotes water infiltration. But like the natural springs, the boreholes are subject to climate variability and have seen a steady decrease of water levels during the drought as lack of rainfall affects the recharge of the aquifer.
More than a million people live in the sprawling city and its periphery, with more people moving in each year, often in unplanned neighborhoods. Only about 23% of the population has a water connection at home.
At the height of the water crisis, water access at Elementary School 98 dropped to once a week. The school guard fills up containers whenever water is available, and that reserve helps the school meet its basic needs. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
For Tyikusse, the only way to increase supply and meet growing demand would be to invest massively in new water production, tapping distant rivers, pumping water from the Cunene river up to Lubango for example, or building more water storage systems and dams. “We can’t cover everyone with the system we have,” she said. Plans for new water connections are on hold while solutions are being sought out.
To achieve 40% coverage by 2030, Lubango would need to increase water production from about 20,000 cubic meters today, to about 55,000 cubic meters a day, concurred Fernando Castanheira Pinto, a water expert who is part of the technical assistance team financed by the Second Water and Sanitation Institutional Development Project. But this could be done in several ways. Better managing water resources, reducing water losses, diversifying water sources, managing demands and increasing the existing storage capacity may be more affordable and sustainable paths to increase water availability than a single focus on pursuing large-scale infrastructure. “Non-revenue water,” a term that covers both commercial and physical losses, accounts for about half the water produced in Lubango.
“Last year was the hardest in my 30-year career,” says Domingas Tyikusse, the CEO of the Huila Provincial Water and Sanitation Utility that oversees water supplies for Lubango. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/ World Bank
Together with other work, Pintos’ analysis will generate knowledge that will be used to select future investments supported by a new World Bank-financed Climate Resilience and Water Security project (known by its Portuguese acronym RECLIMA) that focuses on water basins in the south of Angola and supports investments in integrated water storage. “There is no silver bullet,” said Aleix Serrat-Capdevila, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist at the World Bank who heads the RECLIMA project. “It is the combined investments and the efficient management of three types of storage - watershed storage, groundwater storage, and surface water storage or reservoirs - that will increase Lubango’s water security and climate resilience.”
Second Stop: The Plains of the Cunene River
The roar of water is audible even before stepping on the road crossing the hydroelectric dam of Matala on the Cunene River. About 175,000 cubic meters of white churning water rush through the gates. Temporarily out of service while its turbines are being replaced, the dam can produce about 46 MW of electricity. Overall, 70-83 % of Angola’s power comes from hydro – an important contribution to sustainable energy goals, in a country perhaps better known for its oil production.
Jose Vianja relies on water from the Matala dam to irrigate his crops, which include cabbage, potatoes, and garlic. "I wouldn't be able to grow any of this without irrigation," he says. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
The Matala dam is also vital for small and medium farmers who draw water from the dam along a 43-kilometer-long canal. “I wouldn’t be able to grow any of this without irrigation,” said Jose Vianja, a 60-year-old farmer, pointing to rows of cabbage, potatoes and garlic, irrigated by simple furrows. “I can grow more high value crops than if I depended on rain,” said the owner of a five-hectare parcel. The canal, built in the 1960s and renovated in 2002, after the war, benefits about 1,200 farmers grouped in farmers’ associations and has the capacity to irrigate 10,000 hectares of farmland.
About an hour away, recent events have underscored the importance of water storage infrastructure to protect farmers and livestock owners. Cattle was swept away, and other assets destroyed by floodwater, when a large structure known as the Sendi dam collapsed in 2019. Drought hit the same year, leaving cattle to die of thirst and residents to scramble. “Some cattle raisers had to leave the area. We brought water to residents by truck,” said Antonio Luis Cassimbo, deputy administrator for the economic and social division of Quipungo municipality.
Water storage infrastructure is essential, particularly as drought risks escalate. Many small and medium farmers draw water from the Matala dam along a 43-kilometer-long canal. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
A makeshift barrage has helped increase water availability this year, but local authorities are eager to see the RECLIMA project finance the rehabilitation of the much larger Sendi dam to restore the area’s economic potential. “This was a very productive area in the past before the destruction of the dam,” said Cassimbo.
A Daily Burden for Women and Girls
In underserved rural areas, women and girls use a variety of strategies to go about their daily chores. Ana Joaquina Comaco, the 42-year-old mother of six children, was busy doing laundry with her grandchild strapped to her back in a small creek near the village of Mukuyu. “We haven’t had regular rains for almost five years,” she said. She depends on rain to produce beans, maize, millet, and sorghum; uses well-water to drink; and heads to the creek for washing. As she spoke, knee-deep in the creek, other girls were bathing, washing dishes or carrying heavy buckets to carefully water spring onions in an adjacent field. These water-related tasks typically fall on girls’ and women’s shoulders and indirectly contribute to Angola’s high adolescent girl school drop-out rate.
The burden of water collection, washing dishes, and other water-related tasks falls disproportionately on women and girls, indirectly contributing to Angola’s high adolescent girl school drop-out rate. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
Last Stop: The Desert and the Sea
Driving west from Lubango, the green highlands drop dramatically and give way to red desert, grey dust, and the occasional baobab trees. A few oases appear here and there. Then olive trees, corn rows, tomato plants, and - finally - the blue splash of the Atlantic Ocean. In Moçâmedes, the coastal capital of Namibe province, the weather is Mediterranean, and the mood is light. People sit on benches in the shade of palm trees between brightly painted houses, or watch children run from the sand to the sea.
Moçâmedes, the coastal capital of Namibe province. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
“Everything grows here. We have very fertile soil, and the weather is ideal. We can cultivate year-round with irrigation,” said Emma Guimarães, the Vice Governor of Namibe province in her office in Moçâmedes. The province is rich in fisheries, agriculture, and mining; there is good potential for tourism. Yet water concerns weigh on her mind: “We have several rivers nearby, but they are intermittent. This creates water access insecurity.”
In off-grid settlements in Namibe province, trucks deliver water to residents. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
Highly productive commercial farms draw water from hundreds of boreholes. Smallholder farmers occupy dry riverbeds between rainy seasons and pump water that lies just below the sandy soil to water their rows. Water trucks filled by contraptions known as “giraffes” zigzag through the area to supply off-grid settlements. Residents fill containers for their personal use in between water access days. And women continue to carry heavy jerrycans of drinking water to complement less-potable supplies.
At Hotel Chik Chik, a couple of blocks from the beach, owners have invested in their own 100,000-liter reservoir: “It’s essential. Without water, we could not function. Clients need to take showers; we need to wash towels and sheets,” said Eugénio Mateus, the hotel manager. The hotel pays about 180,000 kwanzas (about $150) in water utility fees a month.
The owners of Hotel Chik Chik in Namibe have invested in their own 100,000-liter reservoir: “It’s essential. Without water, we could not function,” says Eugénio Mateus, the hotel manager. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
But like in Lubango, little is known about the size, nature and recharge of the aquifers that supply populations and support economic activity. An initial regional study financed by RECLIMA will map groundwater resources and assess their quality to improve the knowledge base for decision making, complementing other studies that are being carried out around Lubango and Moçamedes under the PDISA2 project, and studies and capacity building supported by grants from the Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership and the Korea Green Growth Trust Fund. This would help determine, for example, whether the province can afford to promote both agriculture and tourism; how to serve more households; and at what point over-pumping may lead to saltwater intrusion into the aquifer.
Sensors are hammered into the soil of a dry riverbed to produce a groundwater map that will improve knowledge of water resources. Photo: Flore de Preneuf/World Bank
Together with reducing water losses and increasing water storage, better monitoring and managing groundwater resources will be essential going forward. “As climate variability and change affect water resources and cities continue to grow, it’s critical that we sharpen our understanding of water availability dynamics and management options,” said Aleix Serrat-Capdevila, Senior Water Resources Management Specialist at the World Bank. “By supporting the Basin Administration Office for the hydrological basins of Cunene, Cubango and Cuvelai and other basin agencies being created, we hope Angola will strengthen its capacity to better manage scarce water resources to cover competing demands, increase water security, and contribute to the inclusive and resilient development of the south.”